Bulgaria Table of Contents

Since ancient times, Bulgaria has been a crossroads for population movement. Early settlement occurred mainly in the most fertile agricultural lands. After World War II, however, Bulgarian cities grew rapidly at the expense of rural population in concert with state industrialization policy.

Administrative Subdivisions

In 1991 Bulgaria was divided into nine provinces (oblasti--sing. oblast). These administrative units included the city of Sofia (Grad Sofiya) and eight provincial districts: Burgas, Khaskovo, Lovech, Mikhaylovgrad, Plovdiv, Razgrad, Sofiya (the region outside the city), and Varna. Each province was named for the city that was its administrative center. Excluding the city of Sofia, the provinces encompassed territories ranging from 9.5 percent of the country to 17.2 percent, and their population ranged from 7.5 percent to 14 percent of the national total. The eight provinces were divided into a total of 273 communities (obshtini--sing. obshtina); the city of Sofia was divided into districts (raioni--sing. raion). Because this system was established in 1987, references to another type of district, the okrug (pl. okruzi), remained common in the early 1990s. The new government that took office in 1991 announced that yet another change was needed in Bulgaria's political subdivisions because the 1987 system reflected the discredited policies of the Zhivkov regime.

Settlement Patterns

The first settlements sprang up in Bulgaria very early in the area's history. The biggest and most numerous villages appeared on fertile lands such as the Danubian Plateau, the Dobruja region, and the Maritsa and Tundzha river valleys. Settlements also took hold at very high altitudes (up to 1,500 meters in the Rhodope Mountains and up to 1,200 meters in the Balkans), but only in areas where it was warm enough to grow grain or other crops. During the rule of the Ottoman Empire, many Bulgarians were forced to move into villages at higher altitudes. After Bulgaria became independent in 1878, many people returned to the lower altitudes, but most of the upland villages remained. The process of urbanization began at that point, but it progressed slowly because of wars, lack of employment in population centers, and the emigration of the ethnic Turks who had supported the economies of some cities during the Ottoman era. The massive industrialization of the communist era again stimulated temporary settlement at high altitudes for mining or forestry. Generally, only the highest areas in the Rila, Pirin, and Rhodope mountains remained comparatively unsettled. These regions became known for their national parks and seasonal resort areas.


Bulgaria's cities grew much more rapidly after 1944. In 1946 only Sofia and Plovdiv had populations numbering over 100,000. By 1990, there were ten cities having populations exceeding 250,000: Burgas, Dobrich (formerly Tolbukhin), Pleven, Plodiv, Ruse, Shumen, Sliven, Sofia, Stara Zagora, and Varna. In 1990 nearly one-third of Bulgaria's population lived in the ten largest cities; two-thirds of the population was urban. Although the urban birth rate declined after the mid-1970s, largescale migration from rural areas to cities continued through 1990. At the same time, migration from cities to rural areas more than doubled from the 1960s to the 1980s, mainly because more mechanical and service jobs became available in agriculture during that period. In cities such as Sofia and Plovdiv, where industrialization started earliest, the population stabilized and the repercussions of rapid population growth slowed down in the 1980s.

The population of the average Bulgarian city grew by three to four times between 1950 and 1990. The rapidity of this growth caused some negative trends. The cities often lacked the resources to serve the needs of their growing populations: in particular, housing and social services could not grow fast enough. The cities' great need for social resources in turn diverted resources from smaller, more scattered population centers. The overall rural-to- urban migration pattern caused shortages of agricultural labor, especially in the villages surrounding large cities. The government discouraged new industries from locating in outlying areas because of the lack of workers.

Sofia was founded by the Thracians and has remained an important population center for 2,000 years. Its location in a basin sheltered by the Vitosha Mountains was strategically and esthetically desirable. Long-established communication routes pass though Sofia, most notably the route from Belgrade to Istanbul. Sofia's climate and location caused the Roman Emperor Constantine to consider the city when he selected an eastern capital for his empire in the early fourth century. Hot springs, which still exist today, were an added attraction. After it became the Bulgarian capital in 1879, Sofia became the administrative, educational, and cultural center of the country. Because of Sofia's rapid postwar growth (it grew by 36 percent between 1965 and 1986), in 1986 its city government closed the city to all internal immigrants except scholars and technical experts.

Plovdiv, the country's second most important city, was founded in the fourth century B.C. by Philip of Macedonia. Its exposed location on the route from Belgrade to Istanbul gave the city a violent history that included several instances of capture and devastation--both by non-Christian invaders and by Christian armies during the Crusades. At the end of the twentieth century, Plovdiv remained an important commercial city. More rail lines radiated from Plovdiv than from Sofia, and the city had a university, important museums and art treasures, and an old town center with a unique mid-nineteenth century architectural style. Part of old Plovdiv was declared a national monument.

The three main port cities were Varna and Burgas on the Black Sea and Ruse on the Danube River. A relatively young city, Burgas gained most of its size in the late 1800s. Until the 1950s, it was the most active Bulgarian port. Varna, which was founded by Greeks in the sixth century B.C., eclipsed Burgas by attracting the naval academy and the chief naval base and acquiring most of Bulgaria's shipbuilding industry. Ruse, founded by the Romans in the first century B.C., grew into a major industrial center and transportation hub after World War II. The first bridge across the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania was built just north of Ruse.

Internal Migration

The urbanization of Bulgaria began with independence from the Ottoman Turks, but the process did not become widespread until the massive industrialization of the communist era. In 1900 city dwellers composed barely 20 percent of Bulgaria's population, and in 1945 they made up only 24 percent. By the end of 1990, however, more than 6 million people lived in the cities while fewer than 3 million lived in the villages. Bulgarian demographers predicted that 75 percent of the population would live in cities by the year 2000.

During the 1950s and 1960s, when the industrialization process was most intense, most Bulgarians who moved were of working age, had a basic education or less, and wished to obtain new jobs in industry. Fully 85 percent of internal migrants in the early 1960s went to work in an industry. The trend of moving to locations with industrial jobs continued at a reduced rate in the next decades, and migrants in the 1980s tended to be younger and better educated than those of earlier years. The migrant population generally included more women than men. This reflected women who moved to join the work force as well as women who married and moved to join their husbands.

About two-thirds of migrant Bulgarians relocated within the same province, so no region showed a marked population decline. The decline in village population, however, concerned demographers, who feared that villages would be completely vacated and the country's population distribution severely skewed. By 1990 this had occurred most noticeably in the southeastern and southern regions, but a similar trend was evident in the northwest.

As workers continued to leave, village populations aged demographically. The share of villages with an average population age above fifty increased from 23 percent in 1956 to 41 percent in 1985. Natural growth in villages, negative after 1975, fell to negative 6 percent in 1985. Some villages recorded no births for an entire year. As the younger population decreased, schools and health facilities closed. This in turn drove more people to leave their villages.

Meanwhile, demographers and sociologists encouraged younger Bulgarians to return to the villages. Generally, those who followed this advice because of housing shortages, transportation problems, or pollution in the cities found hard, uncongenial work, a lower standard of living, and scant public services and recreation. Many village workers were forced to raise animals to supplement their regular income. The beginning of democratization in 1990 sparked much debate about whether the rural standard of living would rise if the government's agricultural privatization program could stimulate agricultural activity.

Foreign Citizens in Bulgaria

During the Zhivkov era, Bulgaria signed several friendship treaties with other Comecon nations to ease the exchange of workers. In the 1980s, for example, a large number of Bulgarians worked in the construction and timber industries of the Komi Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Komi ASSR) under an exchange agreement with the Soviet Union. Workers were expected to return to their own countries when their contracts ended, but they did not always do so. For example, some Vietnamese construction workers sent to Bulgaria under Comecon agreement in the 1980s remained, and in 1991 the Vietnamese population of Bulgaria was 11,000. Because they arrived completely unprepared for life in Bulgaria and began working after only one month of training and language courses, the Vietnamese who remained in Bulgaria generally received the hardest and lowest-paying jobs and often became involved in criminal activity. In 1991 several violent incidents involving Vietnamese provoked calls for their repatriation. In response, the government made plans to expel all resident Vietnamese from Bulgaria in 1992.

Population Trends

The 1985 census recorded Bulgaria's population at 8,948,649, an increase of 220,878 over the 1975 census figure. At the end of 1990, the Central Statistical Bureau had estimated an updated figure of 8,989,172, including about 100,000 more women than men. However, the estimates for 1989 and 1990 did not account for major emigrations in those years: first the massive emigration of Turks in 1989, then the emigration of ethnic Bulgarians in 1990. Adjusting for emigration figures, the population figure actually decreased between 1985 and 1990. Bulgaria's 1989 population density figure of eighty-one people per square kilometer made it one of the least densely populated countries in Europe.

Bulgaria's rate of population growth began a steady decrease in the mid-1920s, and the trend accelerated thereafter. Before World War II, a man's status in his community was determined by how many children (especially sons) he had. Women who did not marry, or who married but had no children, were seen as failures. As the country became more urbanized, however, such traditional views gradually disappeared. Large families were no longer the economic necessity they had been in agricultural society, and extra children became a burden rather than a boon. As women became more educated and less accepting of the traditional patriarchal family norms, their attitude toward childbearing changed. In 1990 the majority of Bulgarian women believed two children ideal for a family, but because of economic and social conditions, their personal preference was to raise only one. By the 1980s, this change in attitude had begun to prevail even in villages and with less-educated women. In 1985, 75 percent of Bulgarian women indicated that they would not like to have any more children. Families with three or more children became a rarity, and women who opted for more than two children had a lower standard of living and were generally less respected in society.

Although few social planners advocated a return to the large families of the past, Bulgarian policy makers were dismayed that the population did not increase. During the Zhivkov era, the mass media and scholarly journals expressed concern that the nine millionth Bulgarian had not yet been born, and that families were unwilling to have two children instead of one. By 1985 population experts were urging that 30 to 40 percent of families have three children to make up for those which had none or only one. Meanwhile, although the 1973 Politburo had affirmed a family's right to decide how many children to have and when they should be born, in the 1970s and 1980s contraceptives were not available in sufficient quantity for family planning. Strict restrictions on abortions established by the Zhivkov regime were repealed in 1990. Partly because contraceptives were in short supply, abortions had surpassed births by 1985 despite the restrictions. Until 1990 bachelors and unmarried women had to pay a 5 to 15 percent "bachelors' tax" depending on their age. In a more positive step, laws provided family allowances for children under sixteen. The age limit for the family allowance was raised to eighteen in 1990 for children still in school.

In 1990 Bulgarian demographers recorded a negative growth rate (negative 35 births per 1,000 population) for the first time. At that point, the number of live births per woman was 1.81. Demographers reported that the figure must increase to 2.1 to maintain the country's natural rate of population replacement. Mortality figures in Bulgaria were also much higher than those of the developed European countries.

The most alarming demographic trend of the late 1980s, however, was substantially greater emigration totals. The 1989 Turkish exodus caused by the Zhivkov assimilation campaigns had a severe impact on the Bulgarian labor force. Then, in 1990, economic reform brought harsh living conditions that stimulated a wave of emigration by ethnic Bulgarians. As of March 1991, some 460,000 Bulgarians had emigrated, bringing the total number of Bulgarians living abroad to about 3 million. The majority of the émigré population remained in nearby countries (1.2 million in Yugoslavia, 800,000 in other Balkan countries, and 500,000 in the Soviet Union). Smaller numbers went as far as the United States (100,000 to 120,000), Canada (100,000), Argentina (18,000), and Australia (15,000).

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Bulgaria.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress