Bulgaria’s democratic system holds competitive elections and has seen several transfers of power in recent decades. The country continues to struggle with political corruption and organized crime. The media sector is less pluralistic, as ownership concentration has considerably increased in the last 10 years. Journalists encounter threats and even violence in the course of their work and are sometimes fired for not following the editorial line. Ethnic minorities, particularly Roma, face discrimination. Despite funding shortages and other obstacles, civil society groups have been active and influential.
- In December, the parliament reinstituted the state subsidies for political parties, which had controversially been cut in July. The July amendment to the Political Parties Act also lifted the ceiling on donations for political parties by private persons, businesses, and other organizations.
- In September, the director general of the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) removed a prominent journalist from a live-broadcast and suspended BNR programming for an unprecedented five hours. Civil society’s strong reaction prompted the formation of a parliamentary committee to investigate the events. BNR’s director was ousted in October.
- In September, an outcry from right-wing political groups claimed the judiciary’s independence was threatened, after an Australian national, convicted of killing a law student in 2007, was granted parole. The groups called for the dissolution of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee due to its role in providing legal assistance to the convicted man.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The president, who is directly elected for up to two five-year terms, is the head of state but has limited powers. In 2016, former air force commander Rumen Radev—an independent supported by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP)—defeated parliament speaker Tsetska Tsacheva of the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party, taking more than 59 percent of the vote. The election was generally well administered, and stakeholders accepted the results.
The legislature chooses the prime minister, who serves as head of government. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, of the center-right GERB, returned to office after his party’s victory in the 2017 parliamentary elections.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The unicameral National Assembly, with 240 members, is elected every four years in 31 multimember constituencies. The 2017 elections were deemed free and fair by international observers. GERB led with 95 seats, followed by the BSP with 80, the nationalist United Patriots alliance with 27, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) with 26, and the right-wing populist Volya with 12. Following the elections, a coalition government of GERB and the United Patriots took office.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
The Central Election Commission administers Bulgarian elections and generally works professionally and impartially, though some flaws have been reported in past elections. The parliament passed controversial reforms to the electoral laws in 2016, introducing compulsory voting and new rules on voting abroad that limited the number of polling places and led to protests throughout the diaspora. In 2017, the Constitutional Court struck down the law on compulsory voting.
Changes to the electoral system in a 2016 referendum, such as the introduction of a majoritarian system for parliamentary elections, were supported by a majority of voters yet failed to reach the turnout threshold for the vote to be binding.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Bulgaria’s party system is competitive and quite volatile, featuring both long-term players like the BSP and DPS, as well as cycles in which new parties emerge while others decline or disappear. GERB first won seats in the parliament only in 2009, and the 2017 elections featured the emergence of the United Patriots alliance with 27 seats.
A controversial clause of the 2016 referendum—cutting state subsidies for political parties—was enacted by Parliament in July 2019. Parliament also amended the Political Parties Act, removing the ceiling on donations to political parties by private persons, businesses, and other organizations, without introducing any further requirements on spending or reporting standards. Major opposition party BSP and other political experts criticized these changes, seeing their potential to undermine political pluralism and encourage corrupt practices. In December, after the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) voiced concerns about these amendments, Parliament voted to partially reinstate the state subsidy for political parties. However, no restrictions on private donations were reintroduced.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
There have been multiple peaceful transfers of power between rival parties through elections since the end of communist rule in 1990. In the 2017 parliamentary elections, the BSP, currently the main opposition party, gained 41 seats compared with the previous balloting. At the European Parliament elections in May 2019, BSP gained an additional seat (currently 5).
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||3.003 4.004|
Bulgarians are generally free to make independent political choices. However, economic oligarchs dominate the major political parties and influence their platforms, a problem that is exacerbated by a lack of transparency in campaign finance law and the lack of limits to private donations for political parties that was lifted in July 2019.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
While marginalized groups generally have full political rights, the law dictates that electoral campaigns must be conducted in the Bulgarian language, which hinders outreach to non-Bulgarian-speaking minority groups. The ethnic Turkish minority is represented by the DPS, but the Roma are more marginalized. Small Romany parties are active, and many Roma reportedly vote for the DPS, though none hold seats in the parliament. Members of far-right nationalist parties, including the United Patriots, engage in hate speech against Roma, ethnic Turks, Jews, Muslims, migrants, and refugees, among other groups, particularly during election periods, raising concerns about the normalization of xenophobia and discrimination.
There are currently 62 women in the 240-seat parliament, and the representation of women in politics remains an issue.
Further problems come from the influence of oligarchs on the vote in smaller municipalities and within marginalized groups in particular, an issue that is called the “controlled vote.”
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
Elected executive and legislative officials are generally able to set and implement policies without undue interference from external or unelected entities. However, oligarch politicians dominate the government and greatly influence policymaking.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Bulgaria, which joined the European Union (EU) in 2007, has struggled to meet the bloc’s anticorruption requirements amid resistance from much of the political class. Anticorruption laws are not adequately enforced, including in high-profile cases, contributing to a culture of impunity. The country remains subject to long-term monitoring by the EU’s cooperation and verification mechanism, whose annual reports have called for new legislative efforts to combat corruption.
In January 2018, the parliament overrode a presidential veto and adopted legislation that created a centralized anticorruption commission to replace multiple existing bodies. The record of the commission’s achievements is mixed to date—despite having extensive prerogatives that were further boosted at the end of 2018, some of its flagship cases were overturned in court, while analysts have raised serious concerns that the organization is politically motivated. In July 2019, a scandal involving the personal assets of the anticorruption commission’s director led to his resignation, further undermining both the commission’s authority in society and its effectiveness.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
Although Bulgaria has laws meant to ensure that the government operates with transparency, they are only partially enforced. While the transparency in the work of Parliament, the cabinet, municipal bodies, and others has increased considerably in recent years, public access to information about the budgets and spending of various government agencies is sometimes inadequate or presented in an inaccessible way. In January 2019, Bulgaria halted its citizenship by investment program due to concerns from the EU that the program lacked transparency.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because access to information about the work of the parliament, the cabinet, and municipal bodies has improved considerably in recent years.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution protects freedom of expression, including for the press, but journalists face threats and pressure from private owners or public media management. Even though the media sector remains pluralistic, many outlets are dependent on financial contributions from the state (through advertising), putting pressure on them for government- friendly coverage.
Several negative developments both in the private and public media occurred in 2019. After Swedish entertainment conglomerate Modern Times Group (MTG) sold the largest Bulgarian private media group (Nova Broadcasting Group) to Bulgarian businessmen Kiril and Georgi Domuschiev in April 2019, contracts of prominent investigative journalists working on a political show at Nova TV were terminated, putting extra pressure on journalists there to follow the new pro-government editorial line.
In July 2019, the pro-government journalist and former politician Emil Koshlukov was appointed director general of the public broadcasting group Bulgarian National Television (BNT). Critical voices at BNT were silenced after several journalists and executives were dismissed. In September, a similar attempt at the public Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) by its newly appointed director sparked public outrage. Prominent journalist Silvia Velikova, known for her critical investigating, was removed during a live-broadcast and subsequent programming was suspended for five hours. The incident was investigated by a special parliamentary commission, and the BNR director was dismissed in October.
Many analysts voiced concerns that Bulgarian prosecutor general’s office was targeting voices critical of government. Two journalists were detained and questioned in 2018 after investigating the destruction of documents that may have exposed a fraud scheme in Bulgarian politics related to projects funded by the EU. In March 2019, the investigative news site Bivol exposed the corrupt dealings of the head of the anticorruption commission, Plamen Georgiev, as well as several other GERB members of parliament. Subsequently, a European warrant for Bivol’s editor-in-chief was issued by the Bulgarian prosecutor general, allegedly for his links to a cyberattack that leaked the personal data of over five million Bulgarian taxpayers. Many saw the investigation as retribution for Bivol’s critical work. Representatives of the prosecutor’s office have attacked journalists and media outlets critical of their work with increasing regularity, which has been met with strong outcries from the Bulgarian chapter of the Association of European Journalists, among others.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to sustained pressure by the government and pro-government investors on independent media.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||3.003 4.004|
Religious freedom is generally respected, but members of minority faiths in what is a mostly Orthodox Christian country have reported instances of harassment and discrimination, and some local authorities have prohibited proselytizing and other religious activities by such groups. A 2016 law that imposed fines for the wearing of face-covering garments in public locations was widely understood to be directed against Muslims. The United Patriots, along with other parties, have tried to limit foreign donations to religious denominations as well as proselytizing by foreign nationals. The Religious Denominations Act which entered into force in early 2019 thwarted those efforts. It raised the state subsidies for religious denominations with adherents comprising a minimum of one percent of the population to 10 leva (US$5.81) per person.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally upheld in practice.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution, and there are no significant impediments to free and open private discussion.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
The authorities generally respect constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly. A number of mass demonstrations proceeded without incident during 2019, with participants airing grievances on several issues, including the controversial nomination procedure for the next prosecutor general.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely and have a degree of influence, though they experience funding shortages, often rely on foreign donors, and sometimes face hostility from politicians and interest groups.
In 2019, nationalist politicians, including defense minister Krasimir Karakachanov and European Parliament member Angel Chavdarov Djambazki, called for the prosecutor general to disband the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee in the wake of the Jock Palfreeman court case. Though the call was declared unfounded, attacks against human rights watchdogs continued (against Roma minority rights-focused groups in particular) and intensified, particularly during the two electoral campaigns in 2019—for European Parliament in May and local elections in October.
Analysts have expressed significant concerns over the treatment of human rights watchdogs by the prosecutor general and his deputy. For a second consecutive year, in 2019 Prosecutor General Sotir Tzatzarov returned, unopened, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee’s (BHC) annual report on the state of human rights in Bulgaria, refusing to read or discuss it. Then Deputy Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev emailed the BHC two books, having marked chapters referring to Bulgarian resistance against Ottoman rule in 19th century and to a story about a Roma mother abusing the trust of her Bulgarian neighbors helping her sick child. Geshev became the prosecutor general in December.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
Workers have the right to join trade unions, which are generally able to operate, but some public employees cannot legally strike. Collective bargaining is legal—collective contracts are listed in a specialized public registry. Trade unions are partners to the government and business in discussing public budgets and other issues (retirement age, pensions reforms, and healthcare reforms, for example), yet their voice and influence is weak.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||3.003 4.004|
Bulgaria’s judiciary has benefited from legal and institutional reforms associated with EU membership, but it is still prone to politicization. A new Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), responsible for judicial and prosecutorial appointments and management, was installed under revised rules in 2017, with half the members (six judges, four prosecutors, and an investigator) elected by their peers and half by a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Tensions have increased in recent years between the prosecutor general’s office and some of the courts, with high-ranking prosecutors verbally attacking the Supreme Court of Cassation (SCC) and its court decisions, and the SJC (taking the side of the prosecutors) launching disciplinary procedures against judges. Tensions grew in the wake of the selection process for the new prosecutor general. Within a seven-year-mandate and without much accountability, the authority of the prosecutor general is a major point of contention with regard to Bulgaria’s judicial system.
In September, the judges involved in the Jock Palfreeman case were attacked by their peers on the SJC. In response, 292 judges voiced their concern over the growing political pressure on Bulgarian courts.
Attacks against the president of the SCC, Lozan Panov, by the prosecutor general’s office, pro-government media, and the SJC have prompted public demonstrations in his defense.
Political parties Ataka and the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO) attempted to pressure the courts by organizing demonstrations in front of the courthouse during the last hearing on the Jock Palfreeman case in early October 2019.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
Constitutional rights to due process are not always upheld. Police have been accused of misconduct, including arbitrary arrests and failure to inform suspects of their rights. Public trust in the justice system is low due to its reputed vulnerability to political and outside pressure.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Although the population faces few acute threats to physical security, police brutality, including abuse of suspects in custody, remains a problem. Overcrowding and violence plague many of Bulgaria’s prisons. Organized crime is still a major issue, and scores of suspected contract killings since the 1990s are unsolved.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
Ethnic minorities, particularly Roma, face discrimination in employment, health care, education, and housing, though the government and NGOs operate a number of programs meant to improve their social integration. Authorities periodically demolish illegally constructed or irregular housing—mostly in areas occupied by Roma—without providing alternative shelter.
Migrants and asylum seekers have reportedly faced various forms of mistreatment by Bulgarian authorities, including beatings and extortion. According to a July 2018 report by the Bulgaria-based Foundation for Access to Rights, the rate of detention for asylum seekers has remained high despite a decline in new arrivals in recent years.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal, but societal bias against LGBT+ people persists. In July 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on preventing gender-based violence was unconstitutional, finding fault with its conceptualization of gender. Conservative critics argued that the convention would create a basis for expanded rights for LGBT+ people.
The annual gay pride celebrations in Sofia is routinely attacked by nationalist groups. Its ban was a major item on the platforms of right-leaning candidates for 2019 European Parliament and local elections. In spring 2019, the Strategy for the Child (outlining state policies for child protection) was attacked by a malicious campaign of nationalist and radical conservative groups to subvert the Istanbul convention ratification. Protests by these groups against the newly adopted Social Services Act led to the November resignation of the minister for social and labor policy and the postponement of the Act’s entry into force, leaving many marginalized groups without much needed social services.
A gender equality law passed in 2016 was designed to foster equal opportunity for women, but discrimination in employment persists: women are employed less often and paid less than men.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
For the most part, Bulgarians face no major restrictions on their freedom of movement. Corruption and bias can sometimes hamper efforts to change one’s place of employment. In 2017, the government issued a rule that restricted the ability of asylum seekers to move outside of the district where they are housed.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
The legal and regulatory framework is generally supportive of property rights and private business, though property rights are not always respected in practice, and corruption continues to hamper business and investment. The gray economy of undeclared business activity is estimated at nearly 30 percent of the country’s economy.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
The law generally grants equal rights to men and women regarding personal status matters such as marriage and divorce. Domestic violence remains a problem. People who have experienced domestic violence and NGOs addressing gender-based violence claim that state authorities are often ineffective in providing protection and pursuing criminal charges when abuse is reported.
Same-sex marriage is illegal in Bulgaria, and same-sex couples are barred from adopting children.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Labor laws provide basic protections against exploitative working conditions, but they do not extend in practice to gray-market employment. Roma and other ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to trafficking for sexual and labor exploitation. Although the government has continued to step up efforts to combat trafficking, shelter victims, and punish perpetrators, these measures have not matched the scale of the problem, and punishments remain light in practice.
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