text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria has long history of assassinations, hijackings and sheer terror

st nedelya terrorist attack.jpg

Bulgarians of the 21st Century like to think of themselves as a generally quiet people, who are more preoccupied with earning their daily living than engaging in any form of public agitation. However, a quick look at their history since Bulgaria gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 reveals that these lands have inspired violent nationalism, and often witnessed activities that from a modern perspective would be seen as nothing less than sheer terrorism, in terms of aims, organisation and execution.

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, or so the adage goes; and this country is an almost textbook example of how correct it is.

Bulgaria is usually thought of as an ancient nation, which has evolved into a modern state relatively recently. Like many others in a similar position – notably most of the Balkans, the Middle East and some states in Western Europe, such as Ireland – those who fought for Bulgaria's independence often did so using what in modern terms would be billed as classic terror tactics: kidnappings, hijackings, creating networks of dormant revolutionary cells unfamiliar with each other but capable of being activated from a distance; and later urban warfare, bombing of civilian targets, and so on and so forth.

Unlike most other developed states with such a history, however, these past events in Bulgaria have, with few exceptions, been interpreted by those who happen to be in power, rather than from the analytical and detached viewpoint of history. Thus for many years, acts of sheer terror perpetrated by Communists were being taught in schools as examples of noble, selfless sacrifice worthy of praise, while terror against the Communist state has usually been used as an excuse to vilify the victims while glorifying the victimisers.

Unfortunately, because it lacks the proper expertise and a developed civil society, Bulgaria in the 2010s may find it difficult, especially after the 18 July terrorist attack in Burgas, to strike the balance of being able to counter terrorism in an efficient manner without infringing civil liberties too much. It is important not to brand groups of people on the basis on their beliefs or ethnicity alone, and not to create a climate of fear and thus succumb to one of the chief aim's of modern terrorism. How to do this is a debate that has been carried on in the developed world for many years, and with particular urgency since 9/11. It is, however, only about to start in Bulgaria.

What follows is a brief description of some of the major terrorist activities on Bulgarian (or neighbouring) territory since the beginning of the 20th Century. The chief criteria applied to the selection is the existence or non-existence of any political demands by the perpetrators as well as the existence or non-existence of what we now term terrorist tactics. Excluded are most of the numerous violent acts such as contract killings, bombings and so on that have become part and parcel of life in Bulgaria since the 1990s and 2000s.


On 28-30 April in Salonika, now the modern Greek city of Thessaloniki, a group of Bulgarians masterminded and carried out a series of bombings designed to affect Western interests in the Ottoman Empire and lead to the independence of Macedonia. The targets included the Ottoman Bank in Salonika, as well as the French ship Guadalquivir.

The conspirators hatched an elaborate international plan to blow up the bank. It involved digging a tunnel under the building and then planting imported explosives. 10 people were killed and 16 injured. Six of the Bulgarians were killed, and the rest were identified, arrested and sentenced to death. Their sentences were later commuted into life imprisonment. The Salonika attacks prompted a spate of anti-Bulgarian pogroms in which many people died.

The "Shippers," as the conspirators became known, are now revered as freedom fighters in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. In 2010 a monument to them was unveiled in the centre of Skopje.

On 2 September a bomb exploded on the ship Vaskapu, which was sailing from Varna to Burgas, killing 28. The attack was viewed as part of a plan to conduct terror activities in European Turkey, drawn up by the Internal Macedonia-Odrin Revolutionary Organisation, or VMORO, at the beginning of 1903. The aim was to destabilise the Ottoman Empire and gain independence, under Bulgarian sovereignty, for the lands now in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, northeastern Greece and northern Turkey.

The two leaders in question, Gotse Delchev and Mihail Gerdzhikov, are revered as national heroes, the former giving his name to the Bulgarian town of Gotse Delchev, formerly Nevrokop.


A bomb exploded inside the City Casino in Sofia, now the City Art Gallery, on 31 January. The bomb was planted by members of the Young Turk Movement in Turkey to put pressure on the Bulgarian government to withdraw from the Triple Alliance in the First World War.


On 24 May a unidentified person tossed a bomb among students rallying to mark the Bulgarian Alphabet Day. The bomb exploded among the children of Russian immigrants who had settled in Bulgaria after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. 20 were injured. The perpetrator was never identified.


The most violent terrorist attack in Bulgaria happened in Sofia on 16 April. Masterminded by the Bulgarian Communist Party, the attack was designed to kill the whole Bulgarian Government, the king and the senior army leadership. A bomb was planted in the dome of the Sveta Nedelya Church in front of what is now the Sheraton Hotel in Central Sofia. The king himself did not attend, but over 150 died and 500 were injured. The attack led to severe repercussions against civilians and leftwingers.


Three Bulgarians, including the country's Communist party chief Georgi Dimitrov, were arrested and tried in Germany for allegedly assisting a Dutch anarchist, Van Der Luebe, to set fire to the Reichstag in Berlin. The chief prosecutor in what would go down in history as the last pre-Nazi German court, the Reichsgericht, was none other than Hermann Goerring. Dimitrov was sentenced to nine months in prison for residing illegally in Germany but was acquitted of the arson charges. He was deported to the USSR, as being sent back to Bulgaria would have resulted in his prosecution for illegal pro-Communist activities.

Dimitrovgrad, in southern Bulgaria, still bears the name of Bulgaria's first Stalinist leader.


Regarded at the time as Europe's most wanted man, the Bulgarian VMRO assassin Vlado Chernozemski was born in what is now Velingrad. He was a professional terrorist who had engaged in training activities with various groups abroad, such as Croatia's Ustasha. In Marseilles, on 9 October, Chernozemski shot and killed the Serbian King Alexander Karageorgevic. He was wounded by the police and died the same evening. Several streets in Bulgaria now bear his name, as does the youth wing of the modern Bulgarian VMRO.

1950s, 1960s

Whether the large-scale reprisals by the Communist authorities against everyone who refused to comply with their policies are billed "state terrorism" is still a controversial issue in Bulgaria. Midnight arrests, killings, rape, confiscations and being sent to a labour camp for telling political jokes became routine in that period. The fact is that proportionately the Communists killed more people in Bulgaria than they did in the Soviet Gulag.


Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident writer, was assassinated on Waterloo Bridge in London on 7 September. A critic of the Communist regime, Markov had defected to Britain and was working for the BBC World Service. The assassination, dubbed the "Umbrella Murder" by the Western media but largely unreported in Bulgaria, was carried out by a still unknown perpetrator who shot a poisonous pellet into the writer's thigh. Markov died on 11 September.

It was later revealed that the Umbrella Murder was part of a larger plot to eliminate Bulgarian dissidents abroad. A failed attempt to kill Vladimir Kostov, a journalist, in an identical manner had been made in Paris, a few weeks prior to the attack on Markov.

Under Communism the Bulgarian Government vehemently denied any involvement. After 1989 the Bulgarians did collaborate in a limited fashion with the Counterterrorism Squad of Scotland Yard, but the case was never resolved and the actual assassin presumably remains at large.


Bulgaria was involved in an intricate, supposedly KGB-organised plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II, a Pole with outspoken anti-Communist inclinations. The would-be assassin, a Turk called Ahmed Ali Agca, had spent some time prior to the 13 May attack in Bulgaria, seemingly known to and protected by the Bulgarian secret services. A Bulgarian, Sergey Antonov, was arrested in Rome and charged with complicity to murder. The Bulgarian Government used all its propaganda channels to refute any connection between itself and the failed assassination in Rome. Agca was arrested on the spot and given a 20-year prison sentence. Antonov was released in 1986 for lack of evidence. Bulgaria continues to vehemently deny any involvement in the Pope John Paul II plot.

Sergey Antonov never recovered from his prison ordeal in Italy. He died in 2007.

Having spent most of his life in Italian and Turkish jails, Agca was released from prison in 2010. He is now in Turkey.

1970s, 1980s

Little evidence has been released, but it is thought that in the 1970s and 1980s the Todor Zhivkov government in Sofia was actively involved in various activities directly or indirectly supporting terrorism. Notorious groupings such as the IRA in the UK and Ireland, the Red Army Faction in Germany and so on were not viewed as direct "friends," as was the case with "fraternal" organisations in the developing world such as the PLO, but as accessories in the general Cold War fight against capitalism. It is thought that the Bulgarian state was engaged in arms trading with such organisations and used the proceeds from illegal drugs shipments through Bulgaria to subsidise murky activities outside the country.


Immediately prior to and during the so-called Revival Process, a Communist government campaign to forcibly Bulgarianise Bulgaria's one million-strong Turkish minority resulted in several terrorist acts carried out by ethnic Turks. Why Todor Zhivkov decided to act against Bulgaria's Turks will probably remain enshrouded in mystery, though the most likely explanation is that he wanted to deflect the attention of the general public from the worsening economic situation in the 1980s. The Revival Process included changing Turkish proper names into Bulgarian ones, banning the Turkish language and Turkish traditional dress, closing or destroying many mosques, and rewriting Bulgaria's history to "prove" that Bulgaria's Turks were, in fact, Bulgarians who had been Islamised in the 15-19th centuries.

Memorial to the victims of the Bunovo terror attempt

A sculpture to mark the deaths of civilians, including two children, in the 9 March 1985 attack at Bunovo Railway Station. The monument was sponsored by SKAT TV in 2007

While ordinary Turks adopted a stance of peaceful opposition to the Bulgarisation campaign, there were a number of violent incidents in which Bulgarian police shot at and killed protesters, sparking off acts of retaliation.

On 30 August 1984, sensing that the changing of the names was imminent, and wanting to make their opposition known to both the West and to Turkey, a group of Bulgarian Turks set off a bomb inside the waiting room of Plovdiv Railway Station. One person was killed and 44 were injured. A few hours later a bomb exploded outside Varna Airport, injuring 13.

Perhaps the deadliest of the "Turkish terror" attacks was on 9 March 1985, just after the changing-of-the-names process had been completed. A bomb planted in the second "mothers-and-children" carriage of the Burgas-Sofia train exploded at Bunovo Station, about 60 kilometres east of Sofia. Seven died, including two children, and eight were injured. It was thought that the explosive device had been set to detonate while the train was passing through a nearby tunnel, thus increasing the carnage.

Later on the same day a bomb exploded at a café in Central Sliven and 14 were injured.

A water fountain was dedicated by Ahmed Dogan, the leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, near the village of Tranak, at the beginning of the 1990s

A water fountain was dedicated by Ahmed Dogan, the leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, near the village of Tranak, at the beginning of the 1990s

The perpetrators, all of them ethnic Turks, were arrested after a failed attempt to plant a bomb at a car park in Druzhba, now St Konstantin and Elena resort near Varna. They were sentenced to death and executed.

On 7 July 1987 three Bulgarian Turks from northeastern Bulgaria took two teenagers from Tolbuhin, now Dobrich, hostage and demanded safe passage to Turkey. The Communist militsiya agreed. The Turks detonated three grenades in front of a Golden Sands hotel near Varna, injuring three. Just after Michurin, now Tsarevo, on the Black Sea Coast their car ran into an armoured vehicle blocking the road. The explosives in their car went off, killing two of the Turks. The third was arrested, sentenced to death and executed. The teenage hostages survived and still live in Bulgaria.

1990s and 2000s

The downfall of Communism in Bulgaria spelled a general collapse of all institutions and social structures in the country. Unlike other former East Bloc states such as Poland and Hungary, Bulgaria never really de-Communised itself. Instead, it allowed the proliferation, with or without state support, of various criminal syndicates, resulting in the general breakdown of law and order throughout much of the 1990s. Some of the individuals in top positions in Bulgaria today belong to this period and are thought to have accumulated their wealth as a result of their illegal activities then.

In the 1900s and 2000s Bulgaria witnessed dozens of contract assassinations, bomb explosions, kidnappings and other acts of violence, including the murder of Andrey Lukanov, a former prime minister, in 1996. Few of these crimes have been properly investigated and even fewer perpetrators have been brought to justice, leading to the current climate of perceived impunity for those with the right connections.

Notwithstanding the contract killings and bombs obviously related to organised crime, several violent incidents stand out as acts of terrorism rather than mobster wars.

On 9 February 1991 the Bulgarian security services were tipped off about an impending terrorist attack at the Sheraton Hotel in Sofia, the American Embassy and several other residential and business properties. 10 people from five countries, including a member of the Japanese Red Army, were arrested at a hotel just before they were about to carry out their deadly plans.

On 17 July 1996 a huge explosion occurred in the underpass at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia. No one was hurt, but there was significant damage to properties. The police said it had been the work of "foreigners." No one claimed responsibility, and hypotheses about its origins still proliferate.

On 6 December 1996 a bomb exploded at the Old Mosque in Kazanlak.

One of the latest in the long series of unsolved and unpunished acts of terror in Bulgaria happened on 10 February 2011. In the early hours of the morning a bomb went off in front of the editorial offices of Galeriya, a newspaper critical of the current GERB government. No one was hurt as the only person inside at the time was a security guard. Galeriya said that the explosion indicated an attempt to muzzle free speech in the country. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov explained that the editors had probably planted the bomb themselves "to attract attention."

No proper investigation was conducted and no one has been arrested in connection with the blast.


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