Freedom in the World
Bulgaria officially joined the European Union on January 1, 2007, and held its first elections for the European Parliament in May. A report by the European Commission in June warned that the government would risk penalties if it failed to make further progress in combating corruption and organized crime by mid-2008. A new center-right party won the most votes in both the May polling and municipal elections held in the fall.
Bulgaria gained autonomy within the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and full independence in 1908. It lost some territory as a result of World War I, and was occupied by Soviet forces toward the end of World War II; the monarchy was abolished shortly after the war. Communist leader Todor Zhivkov ruled the country from 1954 to 1989, when the broader political changes sweeping the region inspired a massive prodemocracy rally in Sofia.
Over the next 12 years, power alternated between the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), successor to the Communist Party, and the center-right Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). The latter achieved significant success in privatizing and restructuring most of the old state-run economy, as well as winning an invitation for European Union (EU) membership talks, which began in 2000. In 2001, Bulgaria’s former child king, Simeon II, returned from exile and formed the National Movement for Simeon II (NDSV). It won that year’s elections and formed a governing coalition with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a party representing the country’s Muslim and ethnic Turkish minorities.
By the time of new elections in 2005, Simeon’s government had lost popular support owing to economic difficulties and widespread corruption. Amid record-low turnout, the BSP captured 82 seats in parliament. The NDSV placed second (53 seats), followed by the DPS (34 seats). The ultranationalist Ataka (Attack) party, running for the first time, took 9 percent of the vote (21 seats). The three largest parties formed a coalition, with BSP leader Sergei Stanishev as prime minister. In the October 2006 presidential election, incumbent Georgi Parvanov easily defeated Ataka leader Volen Siderov for a second term. Voter turnout remained low at about 42 percent.
Bulgaria formally joined the EU on January 1, 2007. The country’s first elections for its 18 seats in the European Parliament were held on May 20, but voter apathy and foul weather drove turnout down to about 29 percent. The BSP and a new center-right opposition party—Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB)—each received five seats, with GERB taking advantage of a government corruption scandal to narrowly win the most ballots. The DPS secured four seats; Ataka, running a stridently anti-Turkish campaign, took three; and the NDSV took one.
The European Commission released a report on Bulgaria’s reform progress in June, warning that the country would have to take additional steps to combat high-level corruption and organized crime by mid-2008 or risk possible EU penalties.
Municipal elections held in two rounds in late October and early November were marred by reports of vote buying and the organized busing of voters from Turkey. Large and complicated ballot papers contributed to the rejection of 8 percent of ballots cast, and a raft of lawsuits challenged the results in various districts. GERB claimed to have captured the most votes and called for early parliamentary elections, but Stanishev rejected the proposal, noting that the three governing parties combined had outpolled GERB. Voter turnout fell from 42 percent in the first round to 29 percent in the second, both down from 47 percent in the 2003 municipal elections.
Bulgaria is an electoral democracy. The unicameral National Assembly, composed of 240 members, is elected every four years. Georgi Parvanov of the BSP is currently serving his second five-year term as president, having won reelection in October 2006. The president serves as head of state, but presidential powers are very limited. The legislature chooses the prime minister, who serves as head of government.
The top vote-earners in the 2005 parliamentary elections were the left-wing BSP, the centrist DPS, and the center-right NDSV, which was renamed the National Movement for Stability and Progress in 2007. There are several small Romany (Gypsy) parties, and Roma were better represented on the main party lists in the 2007 municipal elections. GERB, a new center-right party led by Sofia mayor Boyko Borisov, won the most votes in the 2007 polls but has not yet contested parliamentary elections. After a bitter debate ahead of the European Parliament elections, the legislature enacted rules requiring Bulgarian voters to have lived in Bulgaria or another EU state for at least 60 days in the three months before the balloting. The measure, principally aimed at ethnic Turkish citizens, had the effect of removing some 234,000 people from the voter lists, including 186,000 living in Turkey.
Corruption is a serious concern in Bulgaria. Reforms in 2005 and 2006 introduced financial disclosure rules, conflict-of-interest safeguards, and mechanisms for removing parliamentary immunity. However, very few high-level officials have been prosecuted, and the European Commission’s June 2007 report noted that current laws barred investigations of unexplained wealth in the absence of a clear link to criminal activity. The report also pointed out that a number of officials and agencies were tasked with fighting corruption, meaning that there was no unified effort and little accountability for results. Corruption scandals in May 2007 led to the firing or resignation of Economy and Energy Minister Rumen Ovcharov; his deputy, Kornelia Ninova; and Delyan Peevski, the deputy minister of disaster management. Bulgaria was ranked 64 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Bulgarian media have evolved considerably since 1989, but political and economic pressures sometimes lead to self-censorship. Although the state-owned television station, radio station, and news bureau are often very critical of the government, ineffective legislation leaves them vulnerable to political influence. Intimidation from local authorities and organized crime groups remains the biggest obstacle to press freedom. In February 2007, Ataka party leader Volen Siderov and a number of supporters entered the offices of the affiliated newspapers 24 Chasa and 168 Chasa to object to a recent article. They reportedly made physical threats and verbally abused journalists. In separate incidents, an investigative reporter was threatened with an acid attack in February, and police officers in May beat a photojournalist as he attempted to comply with their demand to delete pictures of a witness’s heavily armed security detail outside a courthouse. The government does not place any restrictions on internet access.
A special commission charged with opening the archives of the Communist-era security services began work in 2007, vetting electoral candidates and top officials for past collaboration. Candidates linked to the security services were not disqualified, but their parties could opt to remove them from party lists. Under the 2006 law that created the panel, the public would eventually have full access to the files, with exceptions covering current ambassadors, intelligence chiefs, and national security issues.
Members of minority faiths report occasional instances of harassment and discrimination despite constitutional guarantees. The government has in recent years made it difficult for “nontraditional” religious groups—those outside the Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities—to obtain registration permits for their activities, and has withdrawn recognition for one side in a Bulgarian Orthodox Church schism. Calls for the construction of new mosques have reportedly met with opposition among politicians and the public. The Ataka party has used hostile and provocative language aimed at Jews and Muslims during its political campaigns since 2005.
The government does not restrict academic freedom. However, researchers at a German university drew a nationalistic response from Bulgarian media and politicians, including Parvanov, in April 2007, when they questioned contemporary accounts of an 1876 massacre by Ottoman Turkish forces.
The authorities generally respect constitutional freedoms of assembly and association. Trade union rights are in place, but the laws are insufficient to prevent employers from discriminating against union members. Among the year’s demonstrations, taxi drivers protesting violent crime blocked roads in Sofia in February 2007, police used force to disperse an unauthorized protest by coal miners seeking higher wages in July, and teachers mounted a two-month strike from September to November over low wages and inadequate state spending on education.
The complicated judicial system is enshrined in the constitution, inhibiting reform. Some progress has been made in recent years, including improvements to the public defender system and an increased judicial budget in 2006, but the 2007 European Commission report found that low salaries were contributing to corruption among judges. The report also noted the justice system’s failure to solve multiple contract killings aimed at organized crime figures and local politicians. More than 100 urban contract killings over the past decade remain unsolved. Public opinion polls have reportedly shown widespread lack of confidence in the courts and the police.
Incidents of mistreatment by police continue to be reported, and the European Court of Human Rights has ruled against Bulgaria on a number of such cases. The claims have included beatings during questioning and the use of firearms against unarmed suspects; vague language in the Interior Ministry’s code of conduct reportedly permits the latter practice. Prison conditions have improved somewhat thanks to EU-backed reforms, but they remain inadequate in many places.
Ethnic minorities, particularly the Roma, continue to face discrimination in employment, health care, education, and housing. Government assistance, including a new aid plan adopted in 2006, has focused on improving living conditions for the Roma, but critics argue that such subsidies provoke resentment among other Bulgarians and fail to address shortfalls in Romany education and employment. A number of raced-based attacks and clashes were reported in 2007.
Women remain underrepresented in political life, making up about 20 percent of National Assembly members. Domestic violence is an ongoing concern. The country is a source of human-trafficking victims, with an estimated 10,000 women trafficked abroad each year, and internal trafficking is increasing. Romany children are disproportionately affected by child trafficking. The government in October 2007 appeared to reverse plans to legalize prostitution, which is neither banned nor permitted by any specific law at present. Prosecutors had warned that legalization could encourage human trafficking and sex tourism.