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The Tarnovo Constitution (in Bulgarian Търновска конституция) was the first constitution of Bulgaria. It was adopted on 16 April 1879 (O.S.) by the Constituent National Assembly held in Veliko Tarnovo as part of the establishment of the Principality of Bulgaria. It remained the fundamental law of Bulgaria after the country was elevated to a kingdom in 1908.
The constitution was bourgeois-liberal in character, and was considered advanced for its time. It defined the function and competence of the central organs of state authority according to the principle of separation of powers among an executive, a legislative, and a judiciary branch. It provided for ministerial responsibility, immunity of the deputies, and inviolability of private property. The constitution included a clause that formally established the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as the official religion of the nation, although people of other religions were considered equal to those who followed the official faith.
With amendments in 1893 and 1911 that strengthened royal power, the Tarnovo Constitution remained in use until 4 December 1947, when it was replaced by the Dimitrov Constitution.
Form of government and head of state
According to the constitution of 1879, Bulgaria was declared to be a constitutional, hereditary monarchy with a parliament whose members were elected by the people. Initially, the title borne by the monarch was "principal" and not tzar, as it was during the First and the Second Bulgarian Empire, since the treaty of Berlin from 1878 restricted Bulgaria’s independence to a certain degree and made it a de facto vassal state of Turkey. The monarch was supposed to be male and of Orthodox religion, although, in a legal act, an exception to the religious restriction was made when electing Alexander I as the first principal.
The head of state had the power to initiate a legislative campaign and to coordinate the activities of the prime minister and the cabinet. Although the ministers were entitled to act as if they were representing the monarch, by signing with their own signature they agreed to take responsibility for what resulted from their actions. The principal’s signature was also required for a legal act to become law after it had passed through parliament.
In 1908, when Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha proclaimed the independence of Bulgaria, he assumed the title "tzar" and the Tarnovo Constitution was amended, substituting the word “principle” with “tzar” wherever it occurred throughout the document.
General regulations regarding citizens and society
In accordance with its constitution, Bulgaria promulgated equality for all its citizens and, despite being a monarchy, prohibited the promotion of any kind of aristocratic titles. Censorship was prohibited, although the article which stated this was suspended several times. Article 61, which dealt with slavery and human trafficking, was one of the reasons why the Tarnovo Constitution was considered to be liberal and ahead of its time:
|“||Nobody in the Principality of Bulgaria is permitted to buy or sell human beings. Each and every enslaved human being, regardless of his/her gender, faith or ethnicity is declared free at the moment he/she sets foot in our land.||”|
The Constitution declared property rights to be sacrosanct and implied that all citizens, except for the monarch and his successor, must pay taxes to the state. All (male) citizens were obliged to serve in the military; this requirement included the monarch (who was head of the military forces) and his successors.  All citizens were allowed freedom of association, and were free to form political parties or start their own companies.
The Tarnovo Constitution prohibited punishment of a citizen whose case had not been examined by a court. This rule was ignored by the “People’s Tribunal” of 1945, during the Soviet occupation of the country. The tribunal did not hold the statute of а court yet passed on more than 10,000 sentences to people who were seen as a threat by the Bulgarian Communist Party, which was coming to power at the time.
Temporary suspension and definitive abolishment of the Tarnovo Constitution
The article prohibiting censorship was suspended in the 1880's by a law enforced by the Russian general Sobolev; this law restricted media to seven selected newspapers and magazines, and limited comments critical of the government. Similar regulations were in effect in the late era of Stefan Stambolov's government.
In 1881, the Grand National Assembly (the supreme form of parliament) was manipulated by the principal Alexander I of Battenberg in order to suspend the entire constitution. During the next seven years, the monarch had unlimited power and issued a series of ordinances which were only technically approved by the ministers. This period, which Bulgarian historians refer to as a regime, ended in 1888 when the power of the constitution was restored.
The Tarnovo Constitution faced temporary suspension several times more, most notably during the Coup d’état of 1934 led by Kimon Georgiev and the Coup d’état of 1944 organized by the communist party. The Referendum of 1945 that led to the transition from a constitutional monarchy to a people’s republic, which took place during the Soviet occupation of the country, was also technically illegal since the Tarnovo Constitution did not provide for a change in the type of government.
The Tarnovo Constitution was permanently abolished in 1947 when another one, bearing the name of the communist party’s leader Georgi Dimitrov, came into effect. The Dimitrov's Constitution was less liberal and democratic than the Tarnovo Constitution, as it allowed censorship and the establishment of a one-party system while depriving citizens of certain fundamental rights including the right of private property.
- "Конституция на българското княжество (законъ от 16 априлий 1879)", Сборник на действующите съдебни закони на княжеството (1878-1906), София: Официално издание на Министерството на Правосъдието, 1906
- Hertslet, Edward (1891), "Constitution of the Principality of Bulgaria", The Map of Europe by Treaty; which have taken place since the general peace of 1814. With numerous maps and notes, IV (1875-1891) (First ed.), London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, pp. 2866–2776, retrieved 2012-12-25
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Bulgaria/History". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Конституция на Княжество България от 1879 г. (Tarnovo Constitution), Article 4
- Конституция на Княжество България от 1879 г. (Tarnovo Constitution), Article 38
- Конституция на Княжество България от 1879 г. (Tarnovo Constitution), Article 9
- Конституция на Княжество България от 1879 г. (Tarnovo Constitution), Article 18
- Конституция на Княжество България от 1879 г. (Tarnovo Constitution), Article 57
- Конституция на Княжество България от 1879 г. (Tarnovo Constitution), Article 58
- "Български хроники III", Стефан Цанев, 2008 ("Bulgarian Chronicles III" by Stefan Tsanev). ISBN 954528861
- Конституция на Княжество България от 1879 г. (Tarnovo Constitution), Article 67
- Конституция на Княжество България от 1879 г. (Tarnovo Constitution), Article 71
- Конституция на Княжество България от 1879 г. (Tarnovo Constitution), Article 73
- "Български хроники IV", Стефан Цанев, 2009 ("Bulgarian Chronicles IV" by Stefan Tsanev)
- The text of the Constitution in Bulgarian at the site of the Bulgarian Parliament.
- Translation of the Constitution into English can be found in Wright, Herbert F., ed. (1919), "Bulgaria", The Constitutions of the States at War 1914-1918 (First ed.), Washington: Government Printing Office, pp. 87–104, retrieved 2012-12-24