Proactive Ally, Passive Partner Or Spoiler? Bulgarian Defence Policy From The Warsaw Pact To NATO – Analysis


This essay deals with the changing nature of Bulgarian defence policy during the long decades of the Cold War until its accession to NATO in 2007.  Referring to both secondary interpretation and original policy documents it tries to assess how Bulgarian military has dealt with its much-more-mighty ‘allies’ over the last seventy years. Accusations of free riding are not uncommon for junior partners involved in large coalitions. However, the events preceding the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968) to prove the autonomy enjoyed by Bulgarian military policy even in front of a much mightier and authoritarian ally. This essay will, hence, conclude that the tradition developed by the military apparatuses from 1878 and, at an accelerated pace, between the two World Wars made Bulgaria more than a spoiler for the USSR, as well as for the US and the EU nowadays.


The Warsaw Pact was a child of its Era, it served to guarantee the security of the member states, playing the part of an instrument for the maintaining of the “military and strategic balance”. The years in which the Warsaw Pact existed were years of peace in Europe — (Gennady Yanayev quoted in Baev 2017, 143)

On November 9, 2019 Europeans celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, the collapse of real socialism in Eastern Europe and, more relevantly to this essay, the break-up of the Warsaw Pact (1) could be said to stem from that symbolic event. The revolution in Romania, the toppling of Zhivkov in Bulgaria and the “Balkan wars of the ‘90s” (Naimark and Case 2003) are just a few of the dramatic developments that shocked South-Eastern Europe (SEE) in the following years.

The period 1991–2001 has been, indeed, a turbulent decade for the world and the region. SEE was precipitated into the most unstable historical phase since the end of the Second World War (WWII). If this did not suffice, regional in fights and NATO bombings barely had to stop completely before the world, and the region with it, was caught by a more – or at least seemingly – consequential event.

Less than a month after the signing of the Ohrid Framework Agreement policy makers and lay people were struck by 9/11 and its consequences. The ‘War on Terror’ brought about a completely new arrangement of the world order and new priorities in the delicate balance between freedom and security. It marks a Kuhnian “paradigm shift” (Kuhn 1962) from a so-called “unipolar moment” of international peace (Krauthammer 1990) to a completely new context where even the very notion of security needs to be endlessly reassessed. (see Smith 2005; and Hoogensen Gjørv 2012)

In such an ever-shifting environment institutionalised forms of international cooperation – both military and civilian – are likely to play a decisive role in determining the measures necessary for safeguarding security in SEE. This opinion is shared by both scholars (e.g., Pierre 1999) and statesmen (most recently Thaci 2016). Nonetheless, the European Union and the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alike are unable to fit the entire SEE into their existing structures. (Belloni 2009; Grillot, Cruise, and D’Erman 2010)

One has not to forget that the 45th President of the United States (US) Donald J. Trump tried to walk back the decision of admitting Montenegro in the Atlantic alliance labelling it as a “a tiny country” with “very aggressive people.” (Calamur 2018) Again, it is only a couple of months since the heads of State and government of the EU refused to recognise the steps toward accession made by Albania and, especially, (Northern) Macedonia. (Herszenhorn 2019)

Moreover, the role and position of Turkey, which command the second largest army in NATO, has changed after the attempted (or alleged) coup on 15 July 2016. (Aras 2019) The renewed international activism of Ankara, its attempt to cultivate close military ties with Russia together with the direct intervention in Syria risk making SEE even more vulnerable and permeable to both imported and endogenous threat.

Evaluating the effectiveness of future and ongoing efforts towards the enhancement of cooperation and stability in the region can be challenging. Any attempt in this direction cannot prescind from a comprehensive understanding of how a Bulgarian defence policy accommodated, contrasted, and eventually succumbed to overreaching outside pressures since the end of WWII and the creation of the Warsaw Pact (WP). This essay aims at the individuation of the key elements of continuity and novelty in the Bulgarian defence apparatuses from the early ‘50s to the accession to NATO.

This kind of research is greatly favoured by the large-scale declassification process of the formerly-top-secret State archives. The archives of Bulgarian socialist civil and military secret services were first opened in 1997, when it was discovered that about 60% of the documental material had been destroyed in 1990. In 2002, after the adoption of a NATO-required law, the files were sealed again. In 2006, then Bulgarian Interior Ministry Rumen Petkov ordered the opening of 253’000 documents from socialist-era archives. Records from the military and military intelligence archives up to the 1990s were also made available between 2010 and 2013. (Wilson Center 2006)

Nowadays this information is easily accessible through the website of the Zurich-based Parallel History Pact on Cooperative Security as well as thanks to the “Cold War International History Project” of the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. In this attempt three different stages have been identified: (1) from the end of WWII and the constitution of the Warsaw Pact until its collapse through the events of 1968; (2) attempts of a re-alignment looking for closer ties with NATO; (3) the homeland-security focused defence policy and an overview of the role Bulgarian armed forces and military structures play in preserving security in the SEE. The events that preceded the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 will serve as a case study to prove the autonomy enjoyed by Bulgarian military policy even in front of a much mightier and authoritarian ally.

1. The Warsaw Pact

The establishment of what will be defined ‘real socialism’ in Eastern Europe has followed a ‘two-phases’ dynamic similar to the one that led to the Warsaw Pact. The first can be defined a ‘surreptitious building-up’. For its duration, as historian R. J. Crampton reports, Soviet-supported Communist Parties (CPs) knew that “it has got to look democratic, but we must have everything in our control.” (Crampton 1997, 211) Therefore, transition towards socialism was portrayed as a “modification of bourgeois democracy.” (Wettig 2008, 37)

The second phase started more or less abruptly in the summer of 1947, after the US Department of State had launched the European Recovery Program (ERP) (2). Polish elites were considering whether to accept while Jan Masaryak (3) was on the verge of joining the ERP. Eventually, the Polish CP received praise and lavish economic support for his refusal, (Time Editors 1948) while Masaryak was recalled to Moscow and his delegation failed to attend the EPR Conference in Paris. It was only after these events that the CP of the Soviet Union (CPSU) took a few decisive actions. Bulgaria and the other countries in the Soviet orbit had to undergo radical change without any further delay. Despite the fact that non-CP list had received in excess of 40% of the vote in elections celebrated on 27 October 1946 (4), the Grand National Assembly bowed at the desiderata of the Bulgaria CP (BCP). At the end of summer 1947 the elimination of political pluralism was to begin. 

The repression was accelerated by the founding congress of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform). On 22 September Andrey Alexandrovich Zhdanov (1947) (5) delivered a famous speech that lined out the so-called Zhdanov doctrine about the inevitable confrontation between the Soviet-led “democratic camp” and the “imperialist” camp. In particular, in his analysis American foreign policy of was multidimensional or, in Zhdanov’s words, “provides for simultaneous activity in all directions: (1) Strategic military measures; (2) Economic expansion; (3) ideological struggle.” (Ibid, 10) The first policy area will be discussed later, what is relevant now are the words Zhdanov spent about the third dimension:

This platform of ideological struggle – defence of bourgeois pseudo-democracy and attribution to communism of totalitarian traits – unites all the enemies of the working class without exception, from the capitalist magnates to the right-wing socialist leaders […]. The pivot of this crafty propaganda lies in the assertion that the existence of several parties and an organized opposition minority would be a sign of true democracy. On this basis, the English ‘Labour’, [… i]gnorant in politics, cannot come to understand that, for a long time now, there is no more in U.R.S.S. of capitalists and landowners, that there are no more antagonistic classes, and hence that there can not be more than one party. They would have liked to have in U.R.S.S. parties dear to their hearts, bourgeois parties, including pseudo-socialist parties, as an imperialist agency. But, to their misfortune, history has condemned these exploitive bourgeois parties to disappear.

(Zhdanov 1947, 10)

In other words, the CPSU was asking its sister parties for rapid transformation of the socialist camp along Soviet lines. Bulgaria complied with the Zhdanov doctrine swiftly. Nikola Petkov, the main leader of the opposition, had been charged with plotting to overthrow the government and arrested in June, but he was executed only on 23 September — one day after Zhdanov’s speech. Later (August 1948) the Bulgarian Socialist Party was formally absorbed by the BCP and all dissident socialists were crushed by police repression. By 1949 Petkov’s Agrarian Party, Zveno and the remaining smaller parties self-liquidated themselves and dissolved into the BCP.

As anticipated, the way the USSR exported his political model in Eastern Europe constitutes a pattern in light of which one can analyse the creation of the Warsaw Pact. implicitly indicated that the creation of the Warsaw Pact in May 1955 actually marked not the beginning, but the end of an initial stage of political and military integration in the Soviet bloc.

In fact, the formulation of the Zhdanov doctrine casted the world of real socialism as a unified camp, something that Eastern Europe, SEE and the USSR were not in 1947. In order to move towards this direction Moscow established a system of bilateral agreements which was completed by the end of the decade. Namely, it was on 18 March 1948 that Bulgarian Prime Minister Georgi Dimitrov and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov signed the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance Between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. (Molotov and Dimitrov 1948) However, the casus foederis (i.e., the event that would trigger the duty of mutual military assistance) was ostensibly obscure in its formulation. At that regard, in fact, article two of the aforementioned treaty read:

В случай че една от Високите договарящи се страни бъде въвлечена в военни действия с Германия, която би се опитала да възобнови своята агресивна подтикна, или с коя да е друга държава, която непосредствено или в каквато и да е друга форма би се обединила с Германия в политиката на агресия, то другата Висока договаряща се страна ще окаже незабавно на въвлечената в военни действия договаряща се страна военна и всяка друга помощ с всички средства, с които тя разполага. 

(Molotov and Dimitrov 1948, art. 2)

As in other similar bilateral treaty signed by the USSR, it was indeed difficult to predict the exact circumstances under which the armies of the signatory countries would begin military operations. The need to enhance capabilities for military integration arose at the beginning of 1951. All of the allies of the USSR agreed on the creation of a “Coordination Committee for the build-up of the Armed forces in the countries of people’s democracy.” (CC of the BCP 1951) Overall, experts estimate, it took about two years for the intensive rearmament of the smaller socialist armies and their reorganisation according to Soviet canons.

1.1 Bulgaria in the WP — Too small to matter?

Formally called Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance, the Warsaw Pact complemented the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) – the regional economic organisation led by the USSR – as NATO with the ERP. According to the letter of the Treaty, the supreme leading body of the Warsaw Pact was the Political Consultative Committee (PCC). Besides it stood comparatively more military-oriented and led body, the Combined Command of Pact Armed Forces (CCPAF).

All things considered; some point out that the constitution of the Warsaw Pact was mainly symbolic in nature. Given that the USSR already had bilateral treaties with all of its eastern allies, if the WP had not allowed for any positive contribution from the latter it would logically be “superfluous.” (Mastny 2003) Being created on 14 May 1955, immediately after the accession of West Germany to the Alliance, many historians maintain the treaty was “ostensibly a reaction” to the accession of West Germany (BRD) to NATO and the rearmament of its army, the Bundeswehr. (Yost 1998, 31) This explanation accounts for the rushed creation of the Warsaw Pact, which led NATO officials to label it as a “cardboard castle.” (Mastny and Byrne 2005)

Bulgarian apparatchiks tried to make of SEE a key battleground for the alliance since before its actual birth. Already on 12 May 1955 Bulgarian Prime Minister Vulko Chervenkov discussed the risk posed by US military bases in Turkey and Greece to the southern flank of the block with the other leaders.

However, it can be argued that SEE had lost most of its strategic relevance after the Korean War (broke out in 1954) in both US and Soviet doctrines. It emerges, from a comparative analysis of the Warsaw Pact war plans, that the core interests of the alliance lied in Central Eastern Europe (CEE), where the global confrontation between the two camps appeared to be more decisive. On the contrary, the south-eastern vector which would have seen Bulgaria as a first stepping stone toward Greece and the Mediterranean occupied a secondary place in Soviet-dictated war plans. (PHP 2016)

Actually, this would explain why, the Albanian-Soviet split and the Romanian dissidence caused little to no counteraction by Moscow, while the opposite happened in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In other words, one would say that Bulgaria was simply too small to matter in the bigger frame of the Soviet grand strategy.

However, limiting the analysis to later-declassified war plans is too restrictive. As a matter of fact, the USSR took significant steps toward the rearmament of the Bulgarian army since before the establishment of the WP and continued to work in this direction afterwards. For instance, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (6) found it important to play on the Bulgarian membership in the Warsaw Pact during the talks he had on 3 August 1958 with Mao Zedong in Beijing. Mao mentioned Turkey, where the US had established a number of bases, as a case of worrying nuclear proliferation. The Soviet leader dismissed his counterpart’s preoccupations suggesting that US forces in Turkey “are all in our sights.”

But that was not all. If the American build up had expanded to Greece it would have made things even easier for the Soviet-led alliance for, in Khrushchev’s words, it suffices to “[t]hrow a rock down from the Bulgarian mountains and they’ll be gone.” (Khrushchev quoted in Wolff 2011, 57)

1.1.1 Plans of nuclearization — From Khrushchev to Brezhnev

Soviet military doctrine shifted, under Défense Commissar Marshall Rodion Malinovski’s supervision, towards possibilism in regards to nuclear proliferation within the socialist camp. It has to be remembered that is was during Malinovski’s that General Issa Pliyev, the commander of Soviet forces on the island of Cuba, could “discretionally” launch a nuclear attack even without any explicit order to do so “if communications between Cuba and Moscow were lost.” (Pifer 2015, 88)

If, as some argue, East European forces represented a modest increment to Soviet military, (e.g., Johnson 1981) given that no one of them offered a geographical advantage comparable to that of Cuba there would have been no sense in talks about the deployment of nuclear vectors in loco. Well-informed analysts arrived to conclude that the only forces that the Soviet military establishment could rely on during offensive military operations against the West would be the East-German ones. (Herspring and Volgyes 1980)

Indeed, a certain mistrust for allies in SEE and Easter Europe emerges from all Western analysis produced in the ‘60s. Most probably because Western analysts –both civilian and military as well as inside the intelligence services – continued to doubt the political reliability of Eastern European military forces.

Studies produced by scholars from Easter Europe reveal a rather different situation. (what follows is based mainly on Todorov 2007; and Baev 2011) It is a fact that PCC had approved already in March 1961 a secret decision to arm all the armies of the Warsaw Pact with modern missile weapons, nuclear and non. According to the resolution № 546-229 adopted by the Soviet government on 8 June 1961, R-11 Zemlya (NATO name code SS-1b) – not armed with nuclear warheads – were to be delivered to allied armies in following weeks.

In effect, in half a decade Bulgaria received the promised surface-to-surface R-11 as well as some unguided artillery rockets name coded Luna-1 (FROG-4). Following, three active rocket brigades were formed and located in Karlovo, Yambol, Samokov, plus a reserve brigade settled near Pleven. The limited involvement of Bulgaria, a country bordering two NATO members as well as non-aligned and potentially hostile Yugoslavia, is telling.

During the ’50s the infrastructure of the WP was barely laid down, yet alone fully set up. It was Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev (7) the one who directed the first serious “expansion of nuclear and conventional forces within the WP.” (Crump 2015, 156) This aim was achieved through secret agreements between the USSR and its allies. Their terms were supposedly agreed multilaterally “within the framework of the Warsaw Pact,” (M. Kramer 2011, 280) but no PCC meetings ever had place to discuss this topic. Some of the treaties – i.e. the ones signed with the DDR, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary – allowed for the actual installation of Soviet nuclear warheads. (Wells 1992)

Those signed with Bulgaria and Romania, meanwhile, only provided for the delivery of nuclear arms in case of all-out war. Namely, the Soviet-Bulgarian agreement provided that “nuclear warheads with fixed KT [N.B.: kilotons of TNT-equivalent, measuring units for explosives] should be kept on Soviet territory,” until the moment of need. (Todorov 2007, 306) Archival evidence confirms that Brezhnev’s nuclearization of the WP did not involve SEE. If the choice was motivated by a pre-emptive avoidance of an “almost certain Romanian refusal.” (Crump 2015, 156) or by the reduced strategic menace to the region is still unclear.

1.1.2. The role of Bulgaria

The role Bulgaria was assigned at the moment of the constitution of the Warsaw Pact Contradicts whose who are persuaded junior members in the alliance were irrelevant additions to the Soviet military might. As a matter of fact, the Bulgarian People’s Army was tasked with observing and assessing the readiness and military power of neighbouring NATO members.

Together with Romanian armed forces, the Bulgarian military had to evaluated NATO actions across a SEE, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. The basic tasks of Bulgarian intelligence agencies consisted in gathering intelligence about NATO operations, as well as military potential, readiness, nuclear rearming, and defines industry of Turkey and Greece.

Politically oriented tasks concerned Bulgarian military intelligence with intestine fractures among Turkish and Greek elites and the incompatibilities between these countries interests and NATO aims. It was by far and large a secondary scenario for the WP in the ’50s; but, nonetheless, had its relevance in international balances. 

Bulgarian military policy in these years distinguishes itself from that of other WP members for its reinterpretation of Soviet recommendations and lexicon. Unlike Albania and, to a lesser extent, Romania the BCP did not challenge the Soviet leadership’s directives. However, it reinterpreted the geopolitics of the two camps in various ways. In fact, in the second half of the ‘50s Bulgaria started enhancing its relation with former-dependent States in the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) beyond mere diplomacy.

The Soviet stance of the Suez Canal crisis obviously mattered in Bulgarian realignment. However, much was due also to Bulgarian aspirations to find foreigner partners to develop its military-industrial complex. In this sense, the MENA were “identified as prospective markets” and possible allies. (Bulgarian Central State Archive fund 1, directory 64, item 258 quoted in Stankova 2013) Through its relations with the Front de Libération Nationale in Algeria, and the Al-Assad family in Syria and others, (cf. Baev 2016) Bulgaria was the diamond tip of socialist penetration in the MENA. Not merely following Soviet footsteps, Bulgarian defence policy adjuvated and, potentially, outrun it.

1.2. Military doctrine(s) in the Warsaw Pact

Scholar coming from countries that never belonged to the Warsaw Pact tend to believe that concepts and theory of national security prevailing in the WP – with, sometimes, the exception of Romania – were almost identical.  It is commonly maintained that they were “a direct reflection, or at best an adaptation, of Soviet concepts and theory of the national security of the Soviet Union.” (Rubin 1982, 648)

The idea that these countries – Bulgaria included – shared much of their defence policy is, indeed, not far from reality. That being said, similarity in defence policies articulated by WP member States are limited by different nation-building paths, military traditions and geography. These variables, as it will be shown, have resulted in different choices and priorities.

Before continuing it is necessary to draw the boundaries of the notion of ‘defence policy’. In the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms edited by experts of the US Department of Defense (2019a) the term “national policy” is defined as a “broad course of action or statements of guidance adopted by the government at the national level in pursuit of national objectives.” (U.S. Department of Defense 2019b, 152) The Dictionary does not contain an entry for ‘defence policy’. Despite that, introductive paragraphs broadly defines ‘military policy’ as a tool that “directs and assigns tasks, prescribes desired capabilities, and provides guidance for ensuring the Armed Forces of the United States are prepared to perform their assigned roles.” (U.S. Department of Defense 2019a, 1–2)

On the other hand, NATO did not have an agreed definition of ‘policy’ until 2005 (NSO 2018a, V). Currently it is defines by the Atlantic alliance as “[a]greed principles, approach and general objectives, set out in a document, to guide the achievement of specific outcomes.” (NSO 2018b, 97) It has to be kept in mind that, for the above-stated reasons, documents and definitions produced beyond the Iron Curtain retain little applicability to socialist military enviroinments. Nonetheless, they provide a useful set of lenses through which interprate the Soviet-shaped socialist notion of defence policy. It is contained in the Soviet Encyclopaedia of Military Terms (Ogarkov et al. 1978b), which defines ‘military policy’ as

relations and activities [carried out] by classes, States, parties and other social and political institutions [which are] directly related to the building up of the organization of the military, the preparation and use of means of violence to achieve political aims purposes. M. P. at its essence and content acts as an integral, organic part of the general policy of the class state. […]

By its social nature, content and purpose, M.P. is of a class character. Its essence is fundamentally different in the context of socialism and capitalism. The imperialist military policy expresses the self-interest of the monopolist capital directed against the socialist countries, it prepares for invasive, predatory wars for the purpose of redistribution of the world in spheres of influence, the seizure of new sources of raw materials and markets, the suppression of the national liberation, and revolutionary movements. It also acts […] as a tool of colonialism and neo-colonialism […]. The main goal of imperialist M.P. is to perpetuate capitalism, to weaken as much as possible the growing power of socialism and ultimately to eliminate socialism as a social order and a world system.

The socialist M.P. is fundamentally different. It expresses the fundamental interests and goals of the most advanced, revolutionary class of our era — the working class, the broadest mass of the working people, and is aimed at protecting the revolutionary conquests achieved by socialist nations from imperialist aggression. By its very nature, it is alien to any aggressive goals. It is based on the Marxist-Leninist doctrine, meets the requirements of the progressive development of human society, contributes to the progress, approval and development of a new way of production, creating favourable conditions for the construction of socialism.

The defining role in the development of the M.P. belongs, in socialist countries, to Marxist-Leninist parties — the governing and guiding force of their political system. The Communist has a particularly extensive experience in this regard […] The CPSU’s military policy is based on the Leninist doctrine of the defence of the socialist Fatherland and determines the basic content of the activity of state, society, defence organizations of the Soviet Union, and – together with the communist and the workers’ parties of the fraternal countries – the whole all socialist commonwealth.

(Ogarkov et al. 1978a, 413, 414) (8)

This short survey of the notion of ‘military policy’ allows to draw some preliminary conclusions. First of all, analogies between WP member States in this sphere are mostly due to a common theoretical framework, represented by the Marxist principle of praxis. It was famously defined as the inseparable “dialectical unity of theory and practice.” (Bukharin 1931, 14)

Within the field of military policy praxis translate as the rooting of the practice of national security in its referring theory. Such a guideline informed the application of military theory in concrete directives through a systematic defence policy in all WP member States; thus, explaining a significant part of their convergence. To be truthful, the fundamental geopolitical categories around which defence policies in the WP were built was elaborated by a Russian ideologue — the aforementioned Andrey Alexandrovich Zhdanov (cf. above, Zhdanov doctrine on page 4) Hence, it is reasonable to suppose that this doctrine best suited Soviet needs.

However, the events which unfolded in the others WP member States show that their military and political apparatuses were weighted by a constant perception of buckling stability. It was not a coincidence that Western commentaries labelled the Warsaw Pact as an “alleged partnership for alleged protection against alleged risks of aggression from the West” (Luchsinger 1968, 7) — paranoia was, indeed, a common feature to all socialist national security perceptions.

The constant possibility that the current socialist government could be overthrown led to the development of a widely held concept with significant consequences on defence policy. It is the idea that external security (i.e., safeguarding the State against any external threat) and internal security (i.e. maintenance of security within the entire country) are not only inseparable but strictly interrelated. To better say, overt exogenous menaces and covert endogenous threat are almost undistinguishable (9). The former stem from the superior nuclear capabilities and war readiness of NATO — in which the most advanced capitalist economies in the world joined under to support the imperialist policy of the US. It corresponds unequivocally with an internal threat represented by the resurgence of class animosity. The remaining bourgeois elements are considered to be hidden within the ranks of national CPs, eager to disrupt social stability through subversive, counterrevolutionary actions. Issues such as political disaffection and minority groups’ discontent are not merely internal as they are intensified in their development by acts of provocation instigated by external enemies.

Thus, the defence policy of all WP member States is a gear in a much complex theoretical understanding of the interplay among social, political, military and economic circumstances caused by their direct and indirect interrelatedness. 

The forms in which the perceived instability of the socialist order manifested in each WP member State, however, greatly differ. This leads to the next point of discussion: how much ‘national’ was Bulgarian defence policy during the socialist era.

1.2.1 Bulgarian defence policy in the WP

Within the limits given by the adoption of praxis as a guideline for theory, policy and practice, Bulgaria developed its own defence policy. As it will be shown, Bulgarian defence policy differed from that of its allies on a number of significant issues by which it was shaped both in form and – to a certain extent – substance.

Elites in most WP member States were bounded by a general perception that “political stability” was synonymous with “regime legitimacy.” Therefore, risks deriving from the diminishing of the former superseded in magnitude menaces to the very existence of the State. Socialist Europe was characterised by “the permanence” of a “legitimation crisis” which was 

due not solely to the fact that the social fantasy of the population preserves the image of an alternative and at the same time exemplary system of authority but also because of the incapability of the ruling strata to elaborate a meaningful and binding formula of self-legitimation and because of the lack of a party internalising and representing it publicly.

(Heller 1982, 62)

In the case of Bulgaria, however, there were some unique factors that blended with the common Marxist framework to produce a unique brand of socialist defence policy. First of all, the BCP had, in fact, to take in to account the location of the country and its neighbours in the broader geopolitical scenery. First of all, the only WP member States with which Bulgaria bordered was Romania. The fact that Romanian foreign policy tended to diverge with sanctions from that of its allies contributed to destabilise the perception of safety at the common border between the two countries.

A) NATO members Greece and Turkey

Bulgaria shared a border with two NATO member (i.e., Greece and Turkey) with both of which it had not only present animosity but also a turbulent past. Last in order of time, the Bulgarian army had to fight border skirmishes with Greece during the civil war in that country. The situation appeared so serious that the new-born organisation for general peace, the United Nations (UN), were compelled to act — the Security Council created a “Commission of Investigation concerning Greek Frontier Incidents”while the General Assembly provided for a “Special Committee on the Balkans.”  (Nachmani 1990b, 500; see also 1990a)

Thus, for little known they may be there is no doubt that there actually were frontier incidents between Bulgaria and Greece in the ‘40s. At the time Greek authorities reclaimed border rectifications with Bulgaria, which attributed the skirmishes to attempts by the Greek army to seize portions of the border. (Luard 1982, 1 [“The Years of Western Domination, 1945-1955”]:119–21).

Bulgarian defence policy is an exception to the tendency of regional powers towards the “pursuit of narrow national interests even at the expense of one’s neighbors” (Simon 1998; quoted in Nenov 2002, 4). It is well known that during the ‘50s Greek-Turkish relations deteriorated significantly. Such a development was the result of multiple interrelated events — mainly the 1955 “September events” with the expulsion of Greeks from Istanbul (cf. Kuyucu 2005) and the Cyprus crisis of 1963–1964.

This latter dispute, in particular, paved to way for a golpe against George Papandreou (10), which put the military in lead of the country. The Regime of the Colonels triggered periodic crises with Turkey, which in turn harboured suspects of a staged Greek-Cypriot unification. The subsequent Turkish invasion of the northern part of the island in 1974 contributed to weaken Greek-Turkish bounds within NATO. That amounted to evident difficulties between a country Bulgaria had fought with after the end of WWII and one which it defined – in spite of WP lexicon – as “main adversary” (Baev 2017, 132). It has to be forgot that the Soviet Union played a not little role in fomenting the civil war in Greece even though “No evidence exists of mercenaries, or foreign ‘volunteers’, although the guerrillas certainly enjoyed various types of assistance from their Balkan communist neighbours.” (Nachmani 1990b, 492) Moreover, it applied pressure over Turkey to gain territorial concessions and freedom to navigate through the Straits. (cf. Hasanli 2011)

Despite all that, Zhivkov repeatedly insisted that Bulgaria “will never use the difficulties arising in relations between its various neighbours for egoistic purposes.” (Zhivkov quoted in Valinakis 1984, 131) 

B) Non-aligned Yugoslavia

Not less important, Bulgaria also bordered a non-aligned country (i.e., Yugoslavia) with which it has a potentially destabilizing dispute over Macedonia. As a consequence of the Soviet-Yugoslav spit relations between the two country became more and more tense over the years. Yugoslav authorities started demanding the BCP to recognise the existence of a Macedonian minority on its soil.

Bulgarian elites bluntly rejected this proposition questioning its historical roots. The leading thesis, which allowed for ever-heightening tension, was that Yugoslav Macedonians stopped being Bulgarians not sooner than in 1919, and did not completely brunt bridges with the motherland until after 1945. As such, the Pirin region (i.e., Bulgarian Macedonia) stood not as an exclave of Macedonian territory within Bulgarian borders. Rather, it was part and parcel of the Bulgarian nation since after the two Balkan Wars. Therefore, there was no Macedonian minority to be recognised by Bulgarian authorities; if anything, it was the latter to have an historical claim against Yugoslavia.

In a sense Bulgarian-Yugoslav relation have closely mirrored the development of the Soviet-Yugoslav split. However, it is not clear whether that happened on initiative of the BCP, because of pressures from the CPSU or – it is not unrealistic – as a retaliation from the Yugoslav CP. (For more details on this matter see Sfetas 2012)

C) Regional aim: SEE as a nuclear-free zone

Bulgarian defence policy was, overall, aimed at maintaining peaceful coexistence SEE even if a climate of active cooperation seemed, and probably was, impossible to achieve. In this sphere the BCP found an unreliable partner in the Romanian regime. In fact, as it is known also in the West. that the Romanian CP staged mass anti-nuclear rallies for decades well before any other “anti-nuclear movement of magnitude comparable to those found in Western Europe” rose “in the region.” (J. M. Kramer 1986, 41)

At one of those Ceauşescu addressed a 300’000-strong crowd arguing that the US and the USSR should “stop those who are preparing atomic war.” (The Washington Post 1981) However, Romanian commitment to a nuclear-free SEE was only aesthetic. In reality “Romania started building a peaceful nuclear program in the mid-1950s, when the Soviet Union, responding to the United States’ Atoms for Peace program, loosened its restrictions on nuclear cooperation.” (Gheorghe 2019) As soon as the ‘60s Romanian authorities started a secret research program codenamed Programul Dunărea [en. Danube Program] to develop military-grade fissile material. ( 2002)

Indeed, Romanian nuclearization was not unknown to both allies and adversaries, as declarations made by Gyula Horn, then Hungarian Foreign Minister, who declare at a press conference that “Rumanian officials had announced that their country was now capable of producing nuclear weapons and would soon make medium-range missiles.” (Horn quoted in Kamm 1989, A3)

Nonetheless, Zhivkov approached Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou immediately after his election, in October 1981 (11), looking to concretise Bulgarian aspirations for a nuclear-free SEE. The drive for a nuclear-free zone probably corresponded to Soviet desiderata. However, it cannot be ignored that surrounded by enemies (Greece and Turkey) on the one side and unreliable allies (Romania) on the other, the BCP had all interests in pursuing such an objective. The genuinely self-interested nature of this stance is confirmed by the fact that Bulgarian authorities hinted clearly that any deployment of NATO intermediate-range missiles forces (INF) in Europe would affect the nature of their support for a nuclear-free zone in the Balkans (12).

In effect, during the so-called Euromissiles crisis Bulgaria had some of the most advanced weapons and technologies of the time. Moreover, after the signing of the INF-reduction treaty Bulgaria consciously received a transfer of tens of SS-23s armed with conventional warheads which fell within the prohibited weapons. (Ivanova 2002, 20)

D) The Mediterranean and the MENA

Bulgarian defence policy towards what could be termed its ‘oversea’ has evolved constantly since the ‘50s. In order to preserve a steady flux of goods and information between the country and its Middle Eastern and North African partners Bulgaria needed not to overlook its navy.

While not particularly big, the Bulgarian navy had such an equipment to be consider “modern” until the last years of the Cold War.  (Sanders 2015, 71) The unprecedented development of the Bulgarian Navy (Voennomorski sili na Bulgaria, VSB) also came was mainly due to Soviet efforts, assistance and protection. The Paris Peace Treaty signed in 1947, in fact, limited the VSB to 3’500 men and 7’250 tons besides prohibiting the production and possession of contact mines, torpedoes, torpedo boats, submarines and assault ships. With the onset of the Cold War these restrictions never found application as the VSB became the second leg of Soviet power protection in the Black Sea.

By the end of the Cold War the VSB expended to comprehend four components. The Black Sea Fleet, which was organised into submarine, escort ship, missile and torpedo boat, amphibious craft, and minesweeping squadrons and brigades. The Danube Flotilla, which operated patrol craft along the riverine border with Romania. The Coastal Defense included amphibious landing and mine countermeasures forces. And, last but not least, the shore establishment, which controlled naval bases, training facilities, and naval aviation, coastal artillery, and naval infantry units (13).

However, on its own the VSB could do little against the combined forces of Greece and Turkey, even without considering the presence of US forces in the region. For that reason, in order to keep the two Black Sea harbours of Varna and Burgas working, the BCP advocated for the complete withdrawal of the navies which did not belong to the region from the Mediterranean. These, in a sense, could be seen to contrast Soviet plans to keep a direct presence in the Mediterranean even if the establishment of “shore-based naval facilities in Syria that would be under Soviet control” (CIA 1976, 4) never materialised.

1.3. Case study: Bulgarian military policy and the Prague Spring

Until 1968 Bulgarian representatives “kept a low profile in the WP, and therefore had no enemies.” (Békés, Locher, and Nuenlist 1968) The BCP had developed its own approach to Nicolae Ceaușescu’s (leader of the Socialist Republic of Romania from 1965 to 1989) defiance of the Soviet leadership while preserving and its traditional rank-and-file stance towards Russia.

However, the post-WWII arrangement within the Eastern Bloc and beyond it came to a reckoning moment in 1968. Immanuel Wallerstein argued in his seven thesis on the events of that year: “The primary protest of 1968 was against U.S. hegemony […] and Soviet acquiescence in that hegemony.” (Wallerstein 1989, 431) Putting it more simply, the Prague Spring was the instance of a wider anti-status quo movement that rose around the world.

The so-called Prague Spring began with a change at the top of the Czechoslovak Party (KSČ). The historical leader of the Victorious February, Klement Gottwald (President of Czechoslovakia since 1948), died on14 February 1954 — five days after Stalin’s funeral. He was succeeded as leader of the KSČ by Antonín Novotný. The new First Secretary of the KSČ was soon criticised by the students for his autocratic way of leading both the party and the country, considered anachronistic. Alexander Dubcek (14) became bannerman to the students’ cahiers de doléances. Dubcek advanced prospects of equal rights for Czechs and Slovaks, a more democratic leadership.

Not at all concerned by the developments between Prague and Bratislava Brezhnev answered to Novotny’s request for assistance with a lapidary “this is your affair.” (Navratil, Bencik, and Kural 2006, 7) The Central Committee (CC) of the KSČ elected Dubcek as First Secretary in January 1968. Days after, during the Plenum of the Party, he announced an Action Programme which started the liberalisation of Czechoslovakia and its Communist Party.

1.3.1 Against the idea of a “Soviet decision”

Views of the Prague Spring differed greatly among WP members. It is well-known that Ceausescu did not spare efforts is showing support for Dubcek’s of reforms. This was, most likely, for the sake of breaking Romanian isolation. By means of a cleavage between Czechoslovakia and the rest of alliance, there was a change the dissolution of the WP would be more than a phantasy of Romanian elites. (see Betea et al. 2009) Besides that, scholars usually fail to recognise any meaningful role of the remaining five member of the WP in the decision-making process that led to the events of August 1968.

The most common account of the events argues for a “Soviet invasion” (Windsor and Roberts 1969) or a “Soviet decision” (Williams 1997) to act forcefully. However, newer studies have consistently suggested the opposite: junior partner did, in reality, throw their weight behind intervention before the final decision was in place. (see M. Kramer 1992; 1993; Wilke 2009; Békés 2010)

One has to conclude that Bulgaria, the DDR, Poland and the USSR decided all together to fight back against the counter-revolution through a military intervention to the endangered Czechoslovak real socialism. The multilateral invasion of Czechoslovakia by the forces of five WP member States marked a dramatic shift in the military doctrine of the alliance. It is because of formulation of the so-called Brezhnev doctrine, but not in force of its best-known proposition.

As a matter of fact, it was not unknown that attempts to “take an ‘extra-bloc’ position,” were considered hostile acts by the most WP member States, on whose “vital interest” it infringes. (Kovalev 1968, 4) From the perspective of a WP member State, as the 1954 events in Hungary show, this “merely expressed verbally what [the USSR] had practised before.” (Mastny and Byrne 2005, 176) Rather, 1968 is pivotal in the development of the WP because is showed the “internationalist duty to the fraternal peoples” (Kovalev 1968, 4) of other socialist countries did not rise from direct challenges to the leading role of the CPSU. No one ever thought of putting Bulgarian and German boots on Romanian soil fort. Rather, it stemmed from the will of the intervening countries to “defend their own socialist gains.” (Ibid.)

1.3.2. Bulgarian decision-making process

Studies on the Polish and Easter-German attitudes towards the Prague Spring unveil a vehement opposition that was manifested since the very beginning. In fact, Wladyslaw Gomulka (15) was the first to label the Prague Spring as the work of “imperialist reaction and enemies of socialism”. (Gomulka 1968)

The BCP, however, had been much more muted in confronting the developments in Czechoslovakia. Some link the unusual coldness with which Todor Zhivkov (16) welcomed Dubcek’s election his own concern of a similar change of power in Bulgaria rather than to political hostility. (this is the conclusion reached by M. Kramer 1993) As a matter of fact, there no sign that prior to mid-July 1968 the BCP held analogue views. (Gospodinov 2018) This is not, however, to support what Zhivkov himself declared in an interview with The New York Times:

I was not exactly ordered to participate, but I could not refuse. It had nothing to do with personal courage. The fate of our country was at stake. The Soviet Union could have cut us off economically, and we would not have survived for more than a month.

(Zhivkov interviewed by Sudetic 1990)

Nonetheless, over the months Bulgaria military policy towards Czechoslovakia experienced a shift which can be clearly perceived. Some argued that the BCP did not launch a direct attack against Czechoslovak reforms simply by virtue of that discretion which characterised Bulgarian intra-WP policies. However, this is hard to believe when Bulgarian leaders were at the same time reckless in criticising both Romania – a WP member State – and Yugoslavia. (Curtis, Keefe, and Library of Congress 1993) Bulgarian military policy vis-a-vis Czechoslovakia was still fairly independent from those in the spring of 1968.

Zhivkov never opposed openly the Czechoslovak reforms even when Gomulka depicted the Prague Spring as outright counter-revolution. The BCP kept a tone which can be defined “moderate compared to the harsh statements made by their East German, Polish, and even Soviet colleagues” at least until late May 1968. Even when the BCP started adopting a somewhat harsher position they did so in a way that was “not as hysterical as some of the statements that Ulbricht and Gomulka had been making.”

Even during the ill-fated Warsaw conference, when Zhivkov willingly took sides in favour of the intervention – despite what he later declared –, “the Bulgarian leader was not as vitriolic or obsessive in his condemnations of the Prague Spring” as Gomulka and the others were.  (M. Kramer 1993, 5)

In conclusion, maintaining that Bulgarian military apparatuses were directed from the outside by the CPSU since the beginning is not coherent with the facts. However, Zhivkov’s allegation of forceful constriction from Moscow to induce a shift in Bulgarian military policy in favour of the invasion are equally untruthful.

Actually, it was the USSR that allowed for a Bulgarian delegation to take part in the conferences about Czechoslovakia. And it did so in spite of Hungarian efforts to limit the meetings to the WP member States bordering the country — thus keeping Bulgaria from participating. (Kadar 1990, 98; Vadim Trukhachev 2018) Rather, Bulgarian elites acted as a self-interested junior party in a coalition facing “declining cohesion” and the consequent risk “of a disintegration or [radical] transformation.” (Tucker 1975, 1) It is to say they used every possible space of manoeuvre available to steer the alliance away from a less-preferred outcome. This encompassed indirect downplaying of Soviet concerns about the Prague Spring. (Cf. above) But once the “ranks of the supporters of military intervention had increased” within the Politburo of the CPSU (Kadar 1990, 101) the BCP had to fall in line.

It would have been contrary to the self-interest of the Bulgarian State not to change its own military policy in this sense. 

1.3.3. Effects on the military policy of the WP members States

The invasion of Czechoslovakia was not, therefore, an aggressive act ordered by the ruthless cadres of the CPSU, gripped by the anxiety of losing control over a satellite. It was an act Poland and the DDR had brilliantly paved the way to over several months, no one can say otherwise. However, at the core of the invasion lied a widely shared dismay. As a message Zhivkov transmitted to the Politburo of the CPSU reads, the conditions for it materialised because:

the entire history and development of events give no reason to believe that the current leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party will be able to change things for the better. [… To] save the Communist party […] we must use all possible and necessary means, including the Warsaw Pact’s armed forces. […] If we do not manage to turn events around, it will be a catastrophe […].

(Zhivkov quoted in M. Kramer 1993, 6)

This allows for an even deeper understanding of the role played by junior partners in the WP. First of all, conclusions such as Emil Bodnăraș’s, who commanded noteworthy influence in socialist Romania, (Comisiei Prezidențiale pentru Analiza Dictaturii Comuniste din România 2006, 646) have to be partly rejected. The Brezhnev doctrine stand to prove that what worried the five WP member States was not the possibility that “the emancipation of the Czechoslovak people […] will encourage a process of general emancipation from the control of the CPSU.” (Bodnaras during a meeting with Chinese diplomat Ma Siu-sen in 1968; quoted in Crump 2015, 280)

The concern was much more widespread because it did not revolve around the issue of Soviet leadership per se. The Romanian elite had “emancipated” itself from the CPSU far more than the Dubcek’s KSČ ever tried. The issue had to do with the chance that a CP which reins all the leverages of power could lose them all almost overnight. This explains why Bulgaria, the DDR and the USSR felt the urgency to act about Czechoslovakia after turning a blind eye to Romanian position.(17)

1.4. Dissolution

The WP needed a long time to come to life in the ‘50s, closely resembling an abortion that got away. Its existence was marked by overpowering, denial of self-affirmation, trampled hopes, decisions fraught with difficulties and contrasts. Such an activity exhausted every drop of vitality the WP ever had, so that its barely-born structures did not even try to battle for survival once the time of its dissolution came.

As a matter of fact, the pact was “kept alive, at least on paper, and its political structure may remain intact after the withdrawal of Soviet soldiers from Eastern Europe” after the fall of the Berlin Wall because of “Moscow’s concern about future security arrangements.” (CSM 1991) On February, 25, 1991 the six members States of the WP agreed in Budapest to sign a Protocol for the termination of the defence agreements concluded within the Warsaw Pact and liquidation of its military bodies and structures. Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev (18) argued early on (already on 2nd February 1991 as shown by reports such as United Press International 1991) that the WP was already a corpse.  At the last PCC session, he declared:

The non-democratic model of unequal mutual relations on which the Alliance was founded, its predominant military orientation, and accumulating for decades burdens as a result of unlawful and regretful actions, brought about the present and logical natural end. […] Let us leave the History to make its impartial evaluation.

(Zhelev quoted in Baev 2017, 143)

The end of the Warsaw Pact unleashed the five national armies of the alliance from the surveillance exerted by the Red Army of the USSR. In a period when these countries committed to adopting democratic institutions, this meant that the army had to be subdued to elected civilian controllers, instead of more or less unknown party officials. This led to a perceived risk that the oversized armies which were a distinctive characteristic of the Socialist states would seize power and set up dictatorships. Leaders in CEE sterilised this possibility through comprehensive security-sector reforms and the adoption of new NATO-informed defence policies focused on good governance and efficiency of democratic mechanisms. The same, however, did not happen in SEE.

2. A difficult transition

Notwithstanding the degree of autonomy that Bulgaria had through the Cold War, national defence policy was based on the assumption that the Warsaw Pact – and the USSR in particular – would provide unconditional assistance in the event of military conflict. This means that for all the enthusiasms that Zhelev and a few others put in liquidating the WP such a development translated in the loss of a consolidated security framework which guaranteed Bulgaria’s security. 

Unlike countries such as Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria had to face the transition to a new, overhauled defence policy while lacking regional stability. The fundamental political, social and economic transformation put in motion with the oust of Zhivkov coincided with acute regional security challenges. The disintegration of Yugoslavia, the following wars, the continued rearmament of Greece and Turkey presented put Bulgaria in a situation to which there were no readily available responses.

2.1. The role of the army in democratisation

Mass protest forced the ruling CP in the DDR and Czechoslovakia out of power. Impressive violence shook Romania in late December 1989, leading to the murder of Ceauşescu. In stark contrast Bulgaria witnessed a progressive easing of levers of power from the hands the BCP in favour of political pluralism. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), heir of the BCP, won the relative majority of votes in the elections of June 1990, but no longer controlled the parliament and the country as closely as it did before. (Tsekov 2001) The Bulgarian People’s Army (BPA) not only contributed but in fact affected the social and political change within the country. In a sense, the leaders of the BPA cut for themselves a decisive political role without endangering the ongoing process of democratisation.

Indicative of the importance of the BPA to the first post-socialist governments was the role of General Dobri Dzhurov (19). His visibility in the winter and spring of 1989-’90 translated in numerous members of the ruling elites showing convey to the military officer that he was appreciated, honoured, and needed. (Engelbrekt 1990, 6) Immediately after the golpe against Zhivkov General Dzhurov was more popular than that of prominent politicians such as Andrey Karlov Lukanov (20), Petar Toshev Mladenov (21), Aleksandar Vasilev Lilov (22), Zhelyu Zhelev (23) — but the old General was not going intention to capitalise on his popularity at the price of subverting democracy.

In less than half a year the landscape turned in that more usual for a democracy in which all main politicians received higher approval rating than Dzhurov’s; whose 15% was still significantly higher than similar figures anywhere in Western Europe. (FBIS 1974, 6, № 90-106)

Dzhurov’s popularity made defensive sufficiency – that is, the minimum force and preparedness levels required to fulfil basic tasks assigned to the armed forces – a top priority of post-socialist governments. On this issue the official stance of the army was unequivocal. In particular, the SDS was criticised for having advocated a ‘small but strong army’ with a one-year army training period.

The official newspaper of the army, still named Narodna Armiya, published a piece which characterises the defence platform advanced by the SDS as a policy that would “jeopardise our national security” while remembering that authorise “should by no means allow our troops’ training to be inferior to that of the Turkish army.”   (Colonel General Vasil Zikulov quoted in Nelson 1990, 202) The hostility towards Turkey remained, because of the military officers’ conservative thought, pivotal to Bulgarian defence policy for years to come.

2.2. An amphiphilic re-alignment

The development of the Bulgarian Army, its doctrines and equipment in the decade after 1989 is marked by absence of defence reform, political instability, and declining budgets. 

During the Cold War Bulgaria was supposed to confront militarily with Greece and Turkey, two countries with which it had an uneasy past. For the past decades the BCP and the army remained more or less muted in front of the military imbalances in SEE because of the external security guarantees offered by the USSR. However, the old WP doctrine of fraternal assistance was no more in place, leaving the Bulgarian Army alone to face all possible menaces.

At the same time, the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe mandated that all excess weaponry to be removed from the Continent. In implementing the treaty the United States decided to “transfer 2’800 pieces of US equipment” to “allies with older equipment” — including Greece and Turkey. (Fitzwater 1992) The various governments that succeeded one another in the ‘90s formulated different policies to minimise the perceived threat.

The first non-communist government of Filip Dimitrov signed a Treaty of Friendship, Goodneighborliness, Cooperation and Security with Turkey which was followed by other confidence-building measures such as the Sofia Document on Mutually Supplementing Measures to Strengthen Confidence and Security and Military Contacts Between Bulgaria and Turkey the Edirne Document on Some Additional Measures for the Strengthening of Security and Confidence and Military Contacts — all signed in 1992.

At the same time, Bulgarian authorities established security ties with Greece signing a Bulgarian-Greek Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborhood, Cooperation and Security and a treaty regarding the self-limitation of the number of troops, tanks and artillery pieces involved in military exercises. 

However, as a result of the transfers from their NATO allies, the Greek and Turkish armed forces were modernising rapidly while the Bulgarian army was declining visibly. This meant that improved security ties with the West, globally, and former adversary Greece and Turkey, regionally, were insufficient to ensure national security. For that reason, early post-socialist Bulgarian defence policy appears ‘amphiphilic’. The drastic improvement of its ties with the West did not suffice to fill the lack of external security guarantees. Thus, Bulgarian authorities fell back on a century-old: Russia. In 1992 the two countries signed a Treaty on Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Relations. It proved that:

Договарящите се страни няма да допуснат тяхната територия да бъде използвана за въоръжено нападение или други насилствени действия против другата договаряща се страна.

В случай, че една от договарящите се страни стане обект на въоръжено нападение, другата договаряща се страна няма да оказва на агресора никаква военна или друга помощ или каквато и да е друга подкрепа и ще съдейства за урегулиране на конфликта в съответствие с принципите на Устава на ООН и документите на Съвещанието за сигурност и сътрудничество в Европа.

Настоящите задължения не засягат правата и задълженията на договарящите се страни, произтичащи от Устава на ООН.

(Republic of Bulgaria and Russian Federation 1993 art. 5)

Unlike Poland, Ukraine and many other Central Easter European States, Bulgaria had no reason to see Russia as a security threat. Coherently, the treaty provided for much more than any other similar treaty between the Russian Federation and its western neighbours.

Successive governments led by the BSP rejected the idea of seeking NATO membership as a guarantee for national security — which was proposed by the SDS in its 1993 platform. (Tsurakov 2008) However, the Socialists concluded that while NATO was not the answer to national security concerns it was needed to keep close formal relations with the alliance.

Overall, the early ’90s was the period in which Bulgarian authorities exercised the widest discretion in their defence policy since the ‘40s. Until the complete realignment with NATO, the BSP dictated a defence policy which tended to fall back on historically-tested partnerships while refusing any unilateral intervention.

For instance, in early 1993, NATO demanded that the Bulgarian government meet its obligations under international law and enforce the embargo on neighbouring Yugoslavia. Then Prime Minister Lyuben Berov – supported by a coalition comprising the SDS – requested security guarantees and assistance from the EU and the US if such a thing as halting convoys directed to Yugoslavia along Danube was to be done. When such requests were declined Bulgaria defied all NATO requests and refused such a unilateral use of military force.

In short, Bulgaria tried to solve its insecurity by reinforcing closer relations and cooperation with allies whose trustworthiness was proved by the time. In doing that it forged an independent and significantly diverse defence policy that stood in stark contrast to immediate acceptance of Western dogmas in other East European countries.

3. Conclusive thoughts on NATO membership

A pivotal moment in Bulgarian re-orientation towards NATO was September 11, 2001. The War on Terror made defence policies based on larger armies to be deployed in inter-State conflicts not a priority anymore.

Availability, deployability, and usability of a capable military force rose to prominence. As a result of these tragic events Bulgaria begun to act as the rear-guard of the Atlantic Alliance long before it was invited to become a NATO member. The participation in UN and NATO-led peacekeeping forces accelerated the decision to reform the Bulgarian military profoundly. In fact, the armed forces had no experience whatsoever of such a practice in the past, given that Bulgarian military did not even participate in joint exercises under the WP sponsorship.

The first Bulgarian military personnel to take part in UN-led observation missions were sent to Tajikistan, Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1991. Despite an objective lack of previous experience and training “their performance was considered fair and effective.” (Nikolov 2004, 73) A radical change in national defence policy occurred when Bulgarian troops were authorised to take part in the NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo (Kosovo Forces, KFOR) and Bosnia (Stabilisation Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, SFOR now known as EUFOR Althea). Right after, the country joined the US-led coalition against terrorism contributing with the opening of its airspace, the provision of an airfield for coalition forces, the sending of a mechanised platoon to Afghanistan and an infantry battalion in Iraq.

In such an ever-shifting environment institutionalised forms of international cooperation – both military and civilian – are likely to play a decisive role in determining the measures necessary for safeguarding security in SEE.

This opinion is shared by both scholars (e.g., Pierre 1999) and statesmen (most recently Thaci 2016). Nonetheless, the European Union and the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alike are unable to fit the entire SEE into their existing structures. (Belloni 2009; Grillot, Cruise, and D’Erman 2010)

One has not to forget that the 45th President of the United States (US) Donald J. Trump tried to walk back the decision of admitting Montenegro in the Atlantic alliance labelling it as a “a tiny country” with “very aggressive people.” (Calamur 2018) Again, it is only a couple of months since the heads of State and government of the EU refused to recognise the steps toward accession made by Albania and, especially, (Northern) Macedonia. (Herszenhorn 2019)

Moreover, the role and position of Turkey, which command the second largest army in NATO, has changed after the attempted (or alleged) coup on 15 July 2016. (Aras 2019) The renewed international activism of Ankara, its attempt to cultivate close military ties with Russia together with the direct intervention in Syria risk making SEE even more vulnerable and permeable to both imported and endogenous threat.

In this context Bulgaria stands not as a passive spectator of world and regional politics. Instead, through its defence policy more than its foreign policy, Sofia has been trying to promote cooperation among the other States of the area. Among the initiatives that go in to that direction figure dozens of projects. Among them particularly relevant appears to be the Southeast European Cooperation Process (SEECP), launched at Bulgaria’s proposal at a meeting of foreign ministers of South Eastern Europe held in Sofia in 1996. (Serbian MFA 2013)

Of some importance is also the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), the successor to the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe (SP SEE) whose activities began with an inaugural meeting held in Sofia in February 2008. (RCC 2017) Besides that, Bulgaria plays an active role in the South-eastern Europe Défense Ministry(SEDM) and the implementation of the Agreement on Multinational Peace Force South-Eastern Europe (MPFSEE). (cf. Tsachevski 2011, chaps 8 and 9)

Obviously, it would be hard to argue that the Bulgarian Ministry of Defence, the armed forces and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs all strive out of pure devotion to a common good. Notwithstanding, having in mind the variables that exert an influence of the issues discussed above, these Bulgarian institutions consider the normalisation of European patterns of behaviour – which, by the way, is a precondition for the incorporation in European institutions – the only viable strategy to avoid conflicts in SEE.

The multi-ethnic empires that ruled over the region from the outside, be it Istanbul or Vienna, fostered a mosaic of peoples, cultures, and languages that cannot be found in any other part of Europe. SEE straddles the border between Western Europe and the mostly Russian-aligned Former Soviet Union (FSU). It is where the great trading routes from the Middle East and Africa enter the richest market in the world: the European Union Customs Union. For this reason, security in the SEE is – or should be – a major concern for the wider European community.

A recent interview by French President Emmanuel Macron published in The Economist in November read “What we are currently experiencing [… is] the brain-death of NATO.” Given the unreliability of the US he called for a Europe able to “defend” its own “interests—over security, privacy, artificial intelligence, data, the environment, industry, trade and so forth — in a strategic way.” (Macron 2019)

It is unfortunately the case to remind that there can be no assurance that peace will last in Europe as a whole as long as SEE is not stabilised. Europe, and not only the European Union, cannot acquire the confidence needed to free itself from external military interference and hegemony as long as SEE stands as a black hole in the midst of the continent.  Since the ‘90s, a lot of attention has been paid to outside intervention and economic reconstruction. (e.g., Steil and Woodward 1999) In the last years, however, much less contempt has been showed in favour of endeavours from the US and NATO to “take decisive actions and commit themselves in order to help change the Balkans positively.” (Nenov 2002, 15) The tendency has growingly been shifting towards how the States in the region perceive their own security needs and whether defence policies that are increasingly made at a global level really reflect regional and State-level concerns. Domestic instabilities, territorial disputes, separatism and territorial competition (both within and between States), refugee inflows, terrorism, arms and drug smuggling, weapons proliferation and international organised crime presented costly challenges for South-Eastern-European States.

In the specific case of Bulgaria, there are both country-specific risks and threats common to whole of Europe including terrorism, organized crime, weapons of mass destruction, and mass migration. Geography puts Bulgaria in the periphery of the Euro-Atlantic space, face to face with specific menacing rising from within SEE, the Caucasus, the former Soviet Union and even the Middle East.

As emerges from the latest updates to the national Military Strategy, (Ministerstvo na otbranata 2018) on the short-term decision-makers keeps formulating policies for traditional threats and risks; thus, ignoring the overall trends beyond their immediate security environment. The integration in NATO and the EU did not and will not diminish threats to national security — rather it allows for a greater capacity to face them. In a way, however, much more has changed from the Warsaw Pact to NATO.

Passing through a period of almost absolute freedom to shape its own defence policy, now Bulgaria has to come to terms with a new reality. Probably more than before, Integration in a multi-national alliance de-nationalises State defence policy and turns national security in a part of a wider ‘community’ security. Nonetheless, it is necessary than Bulgaria preserves its attitude to autonomously shape its own defence policy. This statement does not descend from an anachronistic attachment to a State-centered understanding of secutiry matters. Rather, it is supported by the short recognition of the historical fact surrounding the Bulgarian military henceforth conducted.

In case the de-nationalisation of national defence policy becomes complete there will probably be no way to salvage the peculiarity of Bulgarian security needs and their geo-historical specifity. The authorities will keep a low-profile in the Alliance and, thus, frequently refuse to take a firm stand on issues which do not entangle the narrowly-defined understanding of national interest to which they devote themselves. This deprives NATO, the EU and SEE of a proactive actor that, despite though conditions, constantly contributed to the improvement of regional security over the last 80 years.

*About the author: Fabio A. Telarico is university student currently attending a BA in Political Science and International Relations


  1.  In this essay ‘Warsaw Pact’ refers only to the two-fold structure built in implementing the 1955 Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance (Warsaw Treaty): the Political Consultative Committee (PCC), responsible for political matters; and the Combined Command of Pact Armed Forces (CCPAF), in charge of the multi-national forces assigned to it by the participating countries.
  2.  Formal denomination for the Marshall Plan, henceforth simply ERP.
  3.  After being the Czechoslovak ambassador to the United Kingdom before WWI, Masaryak became Foreign Minister of the country in 1940. He held to post until 1948, when he died mysteriously. (Horáková 2002)
  4.  “On a total of 4’607’307 voters, 92,6% voted and chose 465 representatives. The 53,14% gave their votes to the BRP (Communist), electing 277 representatives. In total 366 representatives were elected among the list of the OF [Otečestven Front, “Fatherland Front”], while from the opposition parties — 99.” (Angelova et al. 1987, 47)
  5.  Zhdanov was Second Secretary of the CPSU from 1939 to 1948, when he died of heart failure probably as a result of an intentional misdiagnosis. He is considered to have been “propagandist-in-chief” of the USSR and the Stalin’s successor-in-waiting. (cf. Zubok and Pleshakov 1999 especially p. 116 and subsequent pages)
  6.  First Secretary of the CPSU from 1953 to 1964
  7.  First Secretary of the CPSU from 1964 to 1982
  8.  [Author’s own translation.]
  9.  This very notion may have played a role in the assimilation policy carried out by the Bulgarian government in the ‘80s; thus, casting doubts on the usefulness of a rigid separation between policy areas in socialist countries. See also further beneath
  10.  Georgios Papandreou served numerous times as a cabinet minister (starting in 1923), was Deputy Prime Minister from 1950–1952 and thrice Prime Minister of Greece. His political career, that spanned more than five decades, was put to an end in 1965 when King Constantine II openly opposed his government and paved the way to the establishment of a military junta known as the Regime of the Colonels.
  11.  Son of Georgios Papandreou and founder of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), Andreas Papandreou led the first elected Greek government to have a predominantly socialist political program (October-July 1981). He was elected Prime Minister again from 1993 to 1996.
  12.  INF stationed in Europe could not reach the territory of the USSR.
  13.  The main forces of the VSB consisted of “four Pobeda-class submarines, two Druzki-class frigates, five Poti-class corvettes, six Osa-class missile patrol boats, six Shershen-class torpedo boats, and three SO-1-class and seven Zhuk-class patrol craft. […] The navy operated more than thirty mine-warfare counter- measures ships, including four modern Soviet-built Sonya-class oceangoing minesweepers acquired in the early 1980s. The other minesweepers, including the Vanya-class, Yevgenya-class, and several miscellaneous ships, were restricted to coastal or inshore operations. The inventory also included two Polish-built Polnocny-class medium landing ships. These amphibious ships each could transport and land six tanks and 150 troops. The navy had nineteen additional Vydra-class medium landing craft, each of which could carry 100 troops and 250 tons of equipment on their open tank decks.” (Curtis and Keefe 1993, 247–48)
  14.  Previously a member of the Slovak CP and then the foreman of the Slovak branch of the KSČ.
  15.  De facto leader of post-war Poland until 1948, then First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party from 1955 until resigning in 1970. After a period of reforms in the ‘50s, he became more authoritarian.
  16.  First Secretary of the BCP from 1954 to 1981, post then renamed to General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party and that he held until his removal from office in November 1989.
  17.  The reasons for Hungarian participation and Polish hawkishness would need a separate analysis.
  18.  The first non-Communist President of Bulgaria from 1989 to 1997, he was the most prominent figure of the 1989 Bulgarian Revolution, which ended the 35-year rule of President Todor Zhivkov. He was elected as President by the 7th Grand National Assembly, and was then elected directly by the people in 1992 Bulgarian presidential election as the first democratically elected President of Bulgaria.
  19.  Dzhurov was Defence Minister for 28 years. He participated in the resistance movement during the Second World War as the commander of a guerrilla brigade and became the Minister of People’s Defence of Bulgaria in 1962. Dzhurov was responsible for Bulgaria’s participation in the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968, but grown increasingly disgusted with Zhivkov’s behaviour. In the frame of the plot to oust Zhivkov, he advised Zhivkov to resign warning him that there were enough votes in the Politburo to remove him. This eventually led to Zhivkov realising he was at the end of his tether, and resigning.
  20.  Lukanov was the last Prime Minister of socialist Bulgaria and the first Head of Government of the post-1989 era. Lukanov’s continued government was marked by huge consumer goods deficit and civil unrest which led to large demonstrations and a general strike. Eventually Lukanov resigned in December 1990, allowing a technocratic government to be formed by Dimitar Popov.
  21.  Last leader of the Bulgarian People’s Republic, and briefly the first President of the Bulgarian Republic, Mladenov was considered one of the closest associates to long-time leader Todor Zhivkov. He fell out with the old leader because of the expulsion of the ethnic Turks upset, which violated an international human right accord he had signed shortly before. On December, 11, 1990 in quality of president of the Republic Mladenov announced in a nationally televised speech that the BCP had to give up its guaranteed right to rule. Such a position, he said, “cannot be declared administratively. It must come from the trust of the people. We need to adopt the principle of a multiparty system.” (Mladenov quoted in Haberman 1989, A1)
  22.  At his career’s height during the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, he was described as the second most powerful man of the regime. He led the Socialists through the first democratic elections in 1990, elected to adopt a new constitution.
  23.  Then President of the Union of Democratic Forces (Sayuz na Demokratichnite Sili, SDS).


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