135 years of Bulgarian diplomacy: Marko Balabanov, first Foreign Minister of Bulgaria

On 19 July, 1879, Bulgarian Prince Alexander I issued a decree appointing Bulgaria’s first diplomatic representatives abroad. One year earlier, Bulgaria had been liberated from Ottoman domination as a result of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878; a Grand National Assembly was called, a Constitution drafted, the first prince chosen and the first government of the Third Bulgarian Kingdom – formed. A mere 12 days after he was named Prince of Bulgaria, Alexander I sent the country’s first diplomatic representatives abroad as a testimonial to the country’s role of a free state.

СнимкаSince 1999, July 19 has been marked in this country as the Day of the Bulgarian Diplomatic Service.

Marko Balabanov – a prominent man of law, politician, diplomat and public figure, Bulgaria’s first foreign minister was born in 1837 in the town of Klissoura. With the financial support of some affluent Bulgarian merchants, he graduated law at the Sorbonne in 1863. After Paris, he continued at Heidelberg where he studied German and philosophy. Upon his return in 1871, Marko Balabanov was elected representative and secretary to the Bulgarian Church Council convened in Constantinople which drafted the statutes of the Bulgarian Exarchate.

In the spring of 1876, the April uprising broke out in Bulgaria. Its aim – if not to liberate the country, at least to bring the world’s attention to the suffering of the Bulgarian nation. After the uprising was brutally crushed, eminent Bulgarians in Constantinople and the inland areas of the enslaved territory, organized secret meetings. At these meetings it was decided to dispatch two people to Europe tor acquaint the foreign governments and the royal courts with the suffering of the Bulgarian people, the aim – to raise the “Bulgarian question” and demand autonomous governance. Bulgarian Exarch Antim I chose Marko Balabanov and Dragan Tsankov and in August 1876 their patriotic mission began. Having been given letters of recommendation, the two delegates took part in a series of meetings and conferences and met with some of the most influential figures of their time. They had talks with William Gladstone who went on to become British Prime Minister, with Foreign Secretary Lord Derby and in Paris – with Foreign Minister Louis, duc de Decazes and former Prime Minister Louis Trier, in Berlin – with Otto von Bismarck, dubbed the Iron Chancellor. They accomplished their mission to perfection in Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany and then arrived in Russia. December 11, 1876 was a memorable day for them – they met with Alexander II at the Winter palace in St. Petersburg. In his speech Marko Balabanov expressed the gratitude of the Bulgarian people for the support given, laying emphasis on the age-old bond between Bulgarians and Russians. These words brought tears to the eyes of Tsar Alexander II – a fact to be described in an article published by Bulgaria newspaper on February 20, 1898 entitled Royal Tears. The monarch stated his firm decision to launch military action, if the peaceful efforts fell through. “I love peace and I want to see everything settled peacefully,” said the Russian Emperor. “I do not know what the others intend to do in the event of Turkey’s rejecting what it is being offered, but this time I shall not be satisfied with empty words and empty promises. Unless things are settled peacefully, as is my wish from the bottom of my heart, and if everyone else feels satisfied with mere words, we shall summon God’s help and shall go ahead and accomplish our office. Convey my words to those that have sent you.”

It was during Dragan Tsankov and Marko Balabanov’s diplomatic mission in Europe that the sittings of the Constantinople conference were held (23 December 1876 - 20 January, 1877), triggered by the efforts of the two Bulgarian envoys. Although they were not allowed to take part in it, they did exert a powerful influence on European diplomats. Thus, the ambassadors of the Great Powers were able to step up pressure on the Sublime Porte for a resolution of the Bulgarian question. The two Bulgarians had a hand in Russia’s decision to go to war with Turkey.

“Even now, a century and a half later, one question is still being asked: was the Russo-Turkish war a manifestation of Russia’s imperial interests, or was it an act of a humane and freedom-loving spirit,” writes in the foreword to Marko Balabanov’s book A page from Bulgaria’s political revival writer Georgi Danailov, one of the people on whose initiative the book was published in February this year, 120 years after its first edition. “To my mind the answer is that both are true. In any act of altruism, there may be self-interest; only death in the battlefield is unequivocal – thousands of Russians laid down their lives for Bulgaria,” Georgi Danailov writes.

The mission of the two Bulgarian envoys played a key role in raising and subsequently resolving the “Bulgarian question”. After accumulating experience internationally, Marko Balabanov went on to become the first foreign minister of Bulgaria twice – in 1879 and then from 1883 till 1884. Dragan Tsankov was to become the third and the eighth Prime Minister of the country.

English version: Milena Daynova

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