Bulgaria country brief

Located in south-eastern Europe, Bulgaria has 354 km of sea border with the Black Sea between Romania and Turkey, and 1,808 km of land borders with Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Turkey. Bulgaria is home to over 7.4 million people (July 2011 est.). The largest ethnic minorities are Turks (8 per cent) and Roma (4.4 per cent). The capital of Bulgaria is Sofia.

Bilateral relations

Australia established diplomatic relations with Bulgaria in 1972 and accreditation is through an Australian Ambassador resident in Athens and an Honorary Consul based in Sofia. Bulgaria is represented in Australia by an Embassy in Canberra.

The main focus of Australian government business in Bulgaria is the provision of consular services to Australian nationals. Other areas of shared interest with Australia include cooperation on countering terrorism, the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), illegal people movements, international trafficking in drugs and other forms of transnational crime.

2,915 Australian residents were born in Bulgaria and 5,432 people of Bulgarian ancestry are settled in Australia (2011 census), mainly as a result of inter-war migration. The Australian community in Bulgaria is small, comprising mainly dual nationals and expatriate business people.

Economic and trade relationship

In 2012, two-way merchandise trade was worth A$151 million, in Australia’s favour. Australia’s major exports to Bulgaria included copper ores and concentrates, heating and cooling equipment and parts, cotton and civil engineering equipment and parts. Australia’s major imports included clothing, cheese and curd, , and specialised machinery and parts. Australia’s trade in services with Bulgaria is negligible, but Australia invested $21 million in Bulgaria in 2012, while receiving $1 million in Bulgarian investment.

Support for Australian businesses seeking to develop market opportunities is provided by the Austrade office based in Warsaw, Poland. Business opportunities exist for Australian businesses in the infrastructure and energy sectors.

High level visits (positions held at time of visits)

  • July 2012: Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Richard Marles visited Bulgaria and met with Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Naydenov and Members of Parliament.
  • 2009: President Georgi Parvanov made the first visit to Australia by a Bulgarian Head of State. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Marin Raykov and Deputy Minister of Economy, Energy and Tourism Evgeni Angelov accompanied him.
  • 2007: Deputy Foreign Minister Feim Chausheve visited Australia for high-level talks..

Political overview

Bulgaria’s national day on 3 March commemorates the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in 1878, which gave northern Bulgaria autonomy. All of Bulgaria became independent in 1908, ending approximately 500 years of Ottoman rule. In 1990, Bulgaria held its first multiparty election, ending the communist era that had prevailed from the end of World War II. Since then Bulgaria, like many of its neighbours, has gone through the arduous task of establishing a political democracy and market economy. Despite joining the EU in 2007, Bulgaria is not a member of the euro zone.

Under its July 1991 constitution, Bulgaria is a parliamentary republic with a parliamentary executive. It has a single chamber, 240-member parliament called the National Assembly, which is elected every five years by universal suffrage. Members are elected through a system of proportional representation, with a four per cent threshold for party representation. The prime minister and cabinet are drawn from the group able to command a majority in the Assembly.

The president, who is also Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, is popularly elected once every five years for a maximum of two terms. The president enjoys largely ceremonial powers but does hold certain emergency powers and may return legislation to the National Assembly for further consideration, which can in turn be overruled.

The most recent Bulgarian presidential election took place on 30 October 2011, when the ruling centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria Party (GERB) candidate, Rosen Plevneliev, won the presidential run-off against Ivaylo Kalfin of the Socialist Party. Plevneliev took over the presidency from Georgi Parvanov on 22 January 2012.

Widespread protests in February 2013 led the then Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov, to dissolve parliament and schedule elections for 12 May.  In those elections, Borissov’s  centre-right GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria)  party  won approximately 31 per cent of the vote while  the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party won approximately 27 per cent.  Turkish minority party DPS won 11 per cent while the nationalist Ataka party won around 7 per cent.  When GERB was subsequently unable to form majority coalition, President Plevneliev invited the BSP, combining with the DPS to form a government.  They did so and, on 29 May 2013, Bulgaria’s parliament elected Plamen Oresharski, a non-partisan former finance minister, as Prime Minister. 

Foreign policy

As a member of NATO and the EU, Bulgaria's foreign policy focus is on further integration with the EU and other European political and security structures. Bulgaria actively pursues EU expansion in the Balkans and its own accession to the Schengen area. It is concerned, however, that apparent ‘expansion fatigue’ among member states is slowing the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU.

Bulgaria has shown its commitment to NATO by participating in joint exercises since 1995 and providing bases during the Kosovo crisis in 1999. It joined NATO in 2004. In 2006 it committed one frigate and a medical unit for deployment with the EU force contingent to Lebanon in 2006. It also committed one frigate to enforce the UN arms embargo against Libya in early 2012. Bulgaria currently contributes 407 troops (as at April 2013) to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, where it is responsible for providing security at Kabul airport and contributes troops to an Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT).

Bulgaria takes an active role in multilateral institutions and was a non-permanent member on the United Nations Security Council in 2002-03.

Bulgaria is a member of the Australia Group and several other like-minded groupings such as the Wassenaar Agreement, the Zangger Committee, the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime. It is a member of the Council of Europe and, in the second half of 1994, became the first former communist state to hold the Presidency. Bulgaria joined the World Trade Organization in 1996.

Economic overview

Bulgaria’s population of 7.3 million has steadily declined and aged over recent years. The country remains one of the poorest in the EU, with an average monthly salary of A$540 and 11.7 per cent unemployment. It has an estimated GDP of US$51 billion and GDP per capita of US$7,033. Following a slump during the global financial crisis (-5.5 per cent in 2009), GDP growth has been slow, at 1.8 per cent in 2011 and 0.8 per cent in 2012. Bulgaria’s economy is heavily reliant on trade and investment from its EU partners and on absorption of EU funding. To maintain competitiveness, the Government maintains a flat 10 per cent tax rate.

Following the establishment of the IMF’s currency board in July 1997 to oversee the use of loans and implementation of structural reforms, Bulgaria’s economic situation improved steadily until the GFC. The currency board is likely to remain present until Bulgaria adopts the euro. Together with the European Commission, it closely monitors Bulgaria’s judicial reform and efforts to combat corruption and crime. Bulgaria has responded positively by creating a new role in the Cabinet for overseeing the management of EU assistance, and establishing a new unit in the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate fraud related to EU funds. The previous government pursued an ambitious policy of fiscal consolidation, which envisaged many privatisations, including selling off Sofia airport, shares in energy companies and property holdings. It remains to be seen how the new government will address Bulgaria’s fiscal issues.

Foreign Trade

Principal export destinations are Germany, Turkey and Italy, while the main import sources are the Russian Federation, Germany and Italy.

Bulgaria’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry states that Bulgaria’s investment advantages are macroeconomic stability, EU membership, the lowest taxes in the EU, incentives for industrial zones and hi-tech parks, and reduction of the administrative burden.

Economic relations between China and Bulgaria have flourished with the signing of an Economic Cooperation Memorandum and total investments by China in 2011 reaching US$70 million. Chinese investment grew by 320 per cent year-on-year with investments in telecommunications, car manufacturing, energy and agriculture. Chinese companies are set to begin producing solar panels and wind generators in Bulgaria and have begun a joint venture for Bulgaria to produce Chinese cars for the European market. Bulgaria will be the first EU country to do this.

Last Updated: 13 June 2013