Multiple parties compete in Bulgaria’s democratic system, and there have been several transfers of power between rival parties in recent decades. The country continues to struggle with political corruption and organized crime. While the media sector remains pluralistic, ownership concentration is a growing problem. Journalists at times encounter threats or violence in the course of their work. Ethnic minorities, particularly Roma, face discrimination. Despite funding shortages and other obstacles, civil society groups have been active and influential.
- The COVID-19 outbreak dominated public life and discourse from early March to mid-May, with the government commanding high levels of support due to its relatively well-managed and effective response. However, authorities’ response to the pandemic’s second wave was hesitant, and at the end of December, the country had one of the highest rates in the world of COVID-19-related deaths, as measured by number of deaths per million people.
- Romany neighborhoods were placed under harsher COVID-19 restrictions than neighborhoods where Roma did not constitute a majority. The severe restrictions placed on Roma drew statements of alarm from local and international rights groups, who said that in addition to unduly restricting movement, the rules harmed the ability of Romany people to access work, services, and education.
- Mass antigovernment protests erupted in July in response to a series of corruption scandals, and continued through most of the year. The protests, at which participants called for the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his government, and the prosecutor general, featured occasional violence against participants and journalists by police, but were largely peaceful.
- The European Commission’s new rule-of-law report, issued in September, reiterated long-standing concerns about the sweeping powers of and lack of accountability for the prosecutor general. The prosecutor’s decision to conduct a raid of the offices of President Rumen Radev’s staff was among the numerous catalysts of the year’s antigovernment protest movement; Radev had tried to block the appointment of the prosecutor general, Ivan Geshev, in 2019.
|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 candidate supported by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), defeated parliament speaker Tsetska Tsacheva of the ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party. 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 Borisov, of the center-right GERB, returned to office after his party’s victory in the 2017 early 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 early elections were deemed free and fair by international observers.
|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 (CEC) administers Bulgaria’s elections and generally works professionally and impartially, though some flaws have been reported in past elections. High numbers of invalid ballots (including 4.6 percent of ballots cast in 2017 parliamentary elections) has prompted concern and calls for reform by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Other OSCE recommendations have questioned restrictions on voting rights of prisoners and persons with disabilities, as well as restrictions on the ability of ethnic minority members campaigning in their preferred language.
The parliament passed controversial reforms to the electoral laws in 2016, introducing compulsory voting and new rules on voting abroad that reduced the number of polling places and led to protests throughout the diaspora. In 2017, the Constitutional Court struck down the law on compulsory voting.
Controversial changes to electoral code were introduced in September 2020, just six months ahead of elections set for March 2021. These mandated a “mixed” mode of voting, using both paper ballots and voting machines. Claiming that the expected chaos would allow governing parties to steal the next election, the opposition vehemently criticized the changes and President Radev imposed a veto, which was overruled by the majority in Parliament.
|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 established parties like the BSP and Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), as well as cycles in which new parties emerge while others decline or disappear. GERB first won seats in parliament in 2009, and the 2017 elections featured the emergence of the United Patriots (UP) alliance, which won 27 seats. New political parties emerged in 2020 as well, one of which was polling third at year’s end.
|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 early parliamentary elections, the BSP, currently the main opposition party, gained 41 additional seats compared with the previous balloting. Two new parties that emerged in 2020 are likely to enter next parliament in 2021, and could become governing coalition members.
|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, limited public funding and unlimited private funding for political parties leaves parties vulnerable to the undue influence of private donors.
Economic oligarchs dominate major political parties, and prominent businessmen exert influence over party platforms and policy decisions. The problem of business influence is exacerbated by a lack of transparency in campaign finance law.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, 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. Courts have continued to deny registration to the political party OMO Ilinden, which seeks legal recognition of a Macedonian ethnic minority in Bulgaria; this issue was featured in a critical European Parliament resolution on the rule of law and fundamental rights in Bulgaria, adopted in October 2020.
Members of far-right nationalist parties, including the current government junior coalition partner UP, have engaged in hate speech against Roma, ethnic Turks, Jews, Muslims, migrants, and refugees, among other groups, particularly during election periods.
There are currently 62 women in the 240-seat parliament, and the representation of women and women’s issues in politics is generally lacking.
So-called oligarchs exert influence on the vote in smaller municipalities and within marginalized groups in particular, an issue referred to as the “controlled vote.”
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
Elected executive and legislative officials in general are able to set and implement policies without undue interference from external or unelected entities. However, “oligarch” politicians in the last several years have had increasing influence on policy making.
The informal influence on government of the nominally opposition party DPS and its honorary chair Ahmed Dogan, and the widespread perception that aspects of the state have been “captured” by dubious business figures, were among the triggers of the mass antigovernment protests that shook the country in July 2020 and continued throughout most of the year. In one of the year’s most discussed political incidents, it was revealed that sections of a public beach had been reserved for Dogan’s exclusive use, and that state security agents were tasked with keeping citizens away from the area. The businessman and DPS lawmaker Delyan Peevski is also suspected of having had influence over policymaking, and of having played a role in securing the appointment of Geshev as the country’s controversial prosecutor general. In July, as protests continued, Borisov replaced several of his cabinet ministers and GERB released a statement saying the dismissals were necessary to “eliminate insinuations that GERB and the three are directly controlled by the DPS and Peevski.”
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to evidence of the ability of politicians and businesspeople to exert informal, opaque, and outsized influence on elected leaders and state institutions.
|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 some of the organization’s actions are politically motivated. Corruption scandals involving oligarchs who until recently had enjoyed government favors helped bring about mass antigovernment protests at which participants demanded the resignation of the public prosecutor for allegedly serving illegitimate interests.
|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, and municipal bodies has increased considerably in recent years, public access to information about budgets and spending of various government agencies is sometimes inadequate or presented in an inaccessible way.
|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), effectively resulting in pressure to run government-friendly material. Media ownership remains opaque, with this issue being among those prominently covered in the 2020 European Commission’s Rule of Law Report on Bulgaria, as well as by the European Parliament’s 2020 Resolution on the rule of law and fundamental rights in Bulgaria.
Assaults on journalists continued in 2020. Journalist Polina Paunova was attacked while attempting to interview participants at a GERB party conference, while another journalist, Dimiter Kenarov, was subject to police violence during his coverage of the antigovernment protests in September.
|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. UP, 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.
|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. However, in 2020, Penal Code amendments included in coronavirus-related state-of-emergency measures sought to curb the spread of “false information” with heavy fines and prison terms; these were successfully vetoed by President Radev. Nevertheless, the prosecutorial office on several occasions brought charges for sparking panic, most notably against the President of Bulgarian Pharmaceutical Union, prompting public outcry. A court dismissed the charges.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
The authorities generally respect constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly. However, a COVID-19-related state of emergency that lasted for two months in the spring of 2020 featured a ban on mass gatherings.
Mass antigovernment demonstrations erupted in July, after a series of public scandals involving the prime minister, the prosecutorial office, and various politicians. Though state authorities generally respected the right to peaceful protest during the protests, tolerating even unauthorized street blockades, on at least two occasions police used excessive force against participants, prompting criticism in the country and from international organizations.
|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. The long-standing hostility of the UP toward NGOs that accept funds form out-of-country donors took legal form in July 2020, when its lawmakers submitted amendments to the Non-profit Legal Entities Act. Under the guise of “improved transparency for the activity of public-benefit NGOs,” they aimed to limit both the powers of the newly established Public Council of Civil Society Organizations—where representatives of NGOs critical of government were elected as members—and, to curb the activities of foreign-funded NGOs. The amendments were pending at year’s end.
|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 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), its court decisions, and its chair. The SJC, taking the side of the prosecutors, has launched disciplinary procedures against judges critical of it, which are widely seen as politically motivated.
The Justice Minister was among the five ministers that resigned amid mass antigovernment, anticorruption protests in 2020.
|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.
The selection of the new prosecutor general in 2019 sparked controversy, amid suspicions of undue political influence on the choice. The long, seven-year mandate and the lack of effective accountability measures for the position have long been noted as major problems with the prosecutorial office, weakening due process and the rule of law in the country. Though the Constitutional Court ruled in July 2020 that any prosecutor may launch an investigation on the activities of the prosecutor general, his strong position both with regard to career promotion within the prosecutorial office, and within SJC, does not de facto permit such investigations to take place. This leaves the most powerful figure within the judicial system without effective mechanisms of control over their actions. A series of international organizations, including the EU in its 2020 rule-of-law report, have issued recommendations to address these problems, to little effect.
A series of scandals involving the prosecutorial office, including alleged raids of private businesses, actions suppressing voices critical of the government, as well as a raid of the offices of the Bulgarian president, were among the triggers of the 2020 antigovernment protests.
|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. Arrests of ordinary citizens by the police during a protest in September 2020 prompted investigation for disproportionate use of force, which at year’s end had not yet been concluded.
|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.
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 pride celebration in Sofia is routinely attacked by nationalist groups. In October 2020, a widely circulated video depicted youths attacking people they suspected of being gay, while police stood by; an investigation was subsequently launched.
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.
COVID-19-related restrictions were unevenly enforced, with the Romany minority subject to more severe restrictions. Human rights watchdogs in the country and abroad raised serious concerns that COVID-19 had exacerbated racism against the Roma in Bulgaria.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
For the most part, Bulgarians have faced few major restrictions on their freedom of movement. However, the COVID-19-related state of emergency featured selective blockades of mostly Romany-populated neighborhoods in several towns. This was achieved by placing severe limits on the movement of people and only allowing exceptions for work on permanent employment contracts, which very few of the inhabitants of such neighborhoods possessed. As the pandemic progressed, local municipalities used other excuses to introduce stricter limits on Romany communities, the most often quoted being insufficient compliance within the respective neighborhoods with the anti-COVID-19 measures—but only in a few cases were strict blockades introduced as a result of actual spike in cases. This prompted local NGOs including the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and Amalipe Center; international NGOs such as Amnesty International, the European Roma Right Centre, and the Open Society Foundations; and international human rights protection bodies to express alarm over the discriminatory treatment of Roma during the pandemic, as well as for the disproportionate negative effect of COVID-19 outbreak on access to education and employment for this minority group.
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.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to disproportionate and discriminatory restrictions on the movement of members of the Romany minority connected to COVID-19.
|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 has been estimated at nearly 30 percent of the country’s economy. Attempts at business raiding, including with the suspected assistance of state institutions and the prosecutorial office, are perceived to be on the rise and were among the triggers of the antigraft protests in 2020.
|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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