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One of the most confusing facts about Bulgarian history is that we have a Liberation Day (our biggest national holiday, celebrated on the 3rd of March) and Independence Day (celebrated on the 22nd of September)… and these are two completely different things! In this blog post we will try to make it clear what the difference is. Also, why is the 22nd of September a significant date in our history.
The contemporary Bulgarian state appeared on the map in 1878. It was a result of a war between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The Russians won that war. The preliminary ceasefire was signed on the 3rd of March at San Stefano (nowadays a suburb of Istanbul under the name of Yeshilkoy). According to its provisions, a fully independent Bulgarian state was to be formed. The Bulgarian territory was supposed to include almost 170 000 sq. It included many regions, which are nowadays in Greece, Northern Macedonia, Romania, and Serbia.
These provisions, however, never became a reality. The reason was that both the Great Powers of the era and the other Balkan countries were afraid that the creation of such a huge and powerful state would disrupt the fragile balance of powers in Europe.
This is why later the same year the Treaty of Berlin was signed. Among its many other provisions, which settled relations between the Great Powers, it arranged the creation of a much smaller Bulgarian state. According to it, Bulgaria would also remain vassal to the Ottoman Empire in some areas. More precisely, the newly-created Bulgarian state was able to conduct its internal policies independently. In international relations, however, it had a limited legal capacity.
More importantly, Bulgaria still had to comply with all the international treaties, which applied to the Ottoman Empire. Specifically with the so-called Capitulation Treaties. Unequal trade agreements, which gave a number of commercial and tax privileges to traders from the biggest European states on Bulgarian territory. Also, certain pieces of infrastructure, such as some roads and railways, didn’t become property of the Bulgarian state, even though they were within its borders.
This is why it’s considered that in 1878 Bulgaria was liberated, but didn’t become fully independent from the Ottoman Empire. And this is why we have both Liberation Day and Independence Day nowadays.
On a side note, considering the turn of events, one could say that it’s probably not very correct to celebrate Liberation Day on the 3rd of March. The ceasefire, which was signed on this day, was only preliminary and never came into power. Nevertheless, it started the chain of events, which ultimately led to Bulgaria’s Liberation. And the tradition to view this date as the day of Liberation is quite strong. So things are likely to always remain the same.
In the late summer of 1908, 30 years after the Liberation, there were multiple complications in the international relations between Europe’s Great Powers. Germany and France were in a diplomatic conflict about their respective influence in the Moroccan colonies. Austria-Hungary was preparing to openly violate the provisions of the Berlin Treaty by annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Ottoman Empire was also in deep political and military crisis because of the Young Turkish revolution.
The Bulgarian government saw all of this as the perfect political circumstances to declare the country’s independence. It was time to remove all the political and – more importantly – economic setbacks, with which we had to comply as vassals to the Ottoman Empire.
The event took place on the 22nd of September in Veliko Turnovo – Bulgaria’s old medieval capital. A manifesto was issued by Prince Ferdinand and ratified by the Council of Ministers. From this point on the Bulgarian state gained full legal capacity in international relations. It also stopped paying a vassal tax to the Ottomans and Prince Ferdinand officially began to style himself as Tsar. This is why we celebrate our Independence Day on this date.
It should be noted that such an act was obviously also a violation of the Berlin Treaty. The government, however, correctly predicted that it will be overlooked, considering the much more blatant violation, committed by Austria-Hungary. Also, the internal problems of the Great Powers, which would prevent them from going to war with one another over such a relatively minor issue as the Bulgarian independence. This is why the European states, despite their initial outrage, quickly agreed to a diplomatic solution.
Throughout the next few months, most of them voluntarily recognized our independence. In the summer of 1909, the Ottoman Empire was the last state to do so. That was after the Russian Empire absolved the remainder of the reparations due because of the war from 1878. The amount absolved was circa 80 million francs. The Ottoman government viewed that as an exchange for the vassal tax, which Bulgaria would no longer have to pay. To compensate Russians, the Bulgarian government was obliged to pay them the sum throughout the next 75 years. Thus the dispute that arose as a result of the Bulgarian Declaration of Independence was resolved peacefully.
So, today we celebrate both the Liberation Day on the 3rd of March and Independence Day on the 22nd of September. Together with the Unification Day (6th of September), they form the three biggest national holidays in Bulgaria. And what’s the Unification day, you ask? Well, this is a story for another time. But you can always join the Free Plovdiv Tour and learn all about it.