Bulgaria, officially Republic of Bulgaria, Bulgarian Republika Bŭlgariya, country occupying the eastern portion of the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe. Founded in the 7th century, Bulgaria is one of the oldest states on the European continent. It is intersected by historically important routes from northern and eastern Europe to the Mediterranean basin and from western and central Europe to the Middle East. Before the creation of the Bulgarian state, the empires of ancient Rome, Greece, and Byzantium were strong presences, and people and goods traveled the land with frequency.
Emerging from centuries of Ottoman rule, Bulgaria gained its independence in the late 19th century, joined the losing side of several conflagrations in the first half of the 20th century, and, despite gravitating toward the Axis powers in World War II, found itself within close orbit of the Soviet Union by mid-century. This alliance had profound effects on the Bulgarian state and psyche, altering everything from land use and labour practices to religion and the arts. As communist governments fell in eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bulgaria was suddenly released from the magnetic field of the Soviet giant and drifted into the uneasy terrain of postcommunism. Today its gaze is firmly fixed on the West; Bulgaria became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004 and of the European Union (EU) in 2007.
The country is remarkable for its variety of scenery; its rugged mountains and relaxing Black Sea resorts attract many visitors. Like other nations of the Balkan Peninsula, Bulgaria claims a mix of Eastern and Western cultures, and the mingling is evident in its cuisine, its architecture, and its religious heritage. Though located in western Bulgaria, the capital, Sofia, is neatly positioned near the geographic centre of the Balkan region, and in nearly every other respect it occupies the central position within Bulgaria. With more than one million inhabitants, Sofia has three times as many people as the next largest cities, Plovdiv and Varna.
Nearly rectangular in outline, Bulgaria is bounded by Romania to the north, with most of the border marked by the lower Danube River. The Black Sea lies to the east, Turkey and Greece to the south, North Macedonia to the southwest, and Serbia to the west. The capital city, Sofia, lies in a mountainous basin in the west.
Ethnically, the population is fairly homogeneous, with Bulgarians making up more than four-fifths of the total. Slavic tribes who settled in the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula in the 6th century BCE assimilated to a large extent the local Thracian culture, which had roots in the 4th century BCE, and formed a basic ethnic group. The Bulgars, who established the first Bulgarian state in 681, formed another component. With the gradual obliteration of fragmented Slavic tribes, Bulgars and Slavs coalesced into a unified people who became known as Bulgarians.
The Bulgarian language belongs to the South Slavic group, along with Serbo-Croatian and Slovene; closely related to Bulgarian is Macedonian. A number of dialects remain in common speech. Bulgarian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet.
With the reforms of the 1990s, following the communist period of state-sponsored atheism, full freedom of religion was established. There is no official religion, and the majority of religious Bulgarians are adherents of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Minority religious groups include Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Gregorian Armenians. Within the Protestant minority are Great Commission Christians, Pentecostals, and Evangelicals. The Catholic minority are followers of the Bulgarian Catholic Church, which, in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church, uses a Byzantine rite in liturgy.
The rapid industrialization of Bulgaria since World War II and the economic transition it underwent with the demise of the communist regime had a profound effect on Bulgarian society. Liberalization of price controls in the early 1990s led to a marked rise in prices. As a result, inflation rose and strikes became more frequent. The growing pains of the private sector and the strict financial discipline required to ease the heavy foreign debt also resulted in periods of high unemployment and decreased social services. Against this backdrop the Bulgarian government pursued economic stability with the assistance of international financial institutions, and with the introduction of the currency board in 1997 and other reforms, inflation was dramatically reduced by the end of the decade. By the beginning of the 21st century, with the government aggressively privatizing state-run industries, the restructured Bulgarian economy had markedly improved (aided in 2007 by the country’s ascent to full membership in the EU). GDP increased at an average annual rate of more than 4 percent during the first decade of the new century.