Bulgaria

Semi-Consolidated Democracy
59
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 58.93 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 4.54 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
60 100 Semi-Consolidated Democracy
The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0-100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

header1 Score changes in 2020

  • Electoral Process rating declined from 5.75 to 5.50 after amendments to the electoral framework allowed for increased influence by special interests and failed to address issues of transparency and electoral fraud.
  • Independent Media rating declined from 3.75 to 3.50 amid the continued consolidation of the media sector, political inference in the work of the public broadcaster, and harassment of critical journalists by the prosecution and public officials.
  • As a result, Bulgaria’s Democracy Score declined from 4.61 to 4.54.

header2 Executive Summary

By Emilia Zankina and Boris Gurov

The year 2019 was eventful in Bulgarian politics. The ruling party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), reaffirmed its hold on power in two elections, the European Parliament (EP) elections in May and local elections in October. Still, there was a clear protest vote against the governing coalition, and political dynamics in the country were characterized by polarization and institutional conflict. Antidemocratic tendencies deepened, with media freedom steadily deteriorating, legislative changes restricting political competition and the entrance of newcomers, and the Chief Prosecutor’s Office abusing its power and violating the presumption of innocence. Additionally, major corruption scandals involving members of the governing coalition further eroded trust in institutions, and civil society organizations were subjected to attacks by politicians and government officials.

Political confrontation has been the norm in Bulgaria’s public discourse, institutional relations, and intraparty politics. The conflict between President Rumen Radev, supported by the main opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and Prime Minister and GERB chairman Boyko Borisov continued in 2019, including a series of presidential vetoes easily overruled by the GERB-dominated National Assembly (Bulgaria’s unicameral parliament) as well as verbal attacks. GERB itself suffered internal divisions, undergoing intraparty purges as a result of corruption scandals. GERB’s second in line, Tzvetan Tzvetanov, head of the party’s parliamentary group and PM Borisov’s closest ally since the party’s founding, resigned amid the so-called Apartmentgate scandal in May, as did justice minister Tzetzka Tzatcheva and the head of the country’s anticorruption body, Plamen Georgiev. Agriculture minister Rumen Porozhanov was also forced to resign following a major scandal involving the misuse of European Union (EU) funds.

Similarly, the BSP faced an internal confrontation between party leader Kornelia Ninova and the leader of the Party of European Socialists (PES), Sergei Stanishev (a former PM and BSP leader), especially in the context of the EP elections, which put into question whether Stanishev would remain on the BSP list. The governing coalition suffered from divisions as well. The junior coalition partner, United Patriots (UP), split apart in July after expelling Ataka’s Volen Siderov, but GERB continued to work with UP’s other two members, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) and the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB). The traditional right, which had suffered continued fragmentation over the last 18 years, gave birth to another ideologically unusual coalition uniting environmental activists and conservatives. The coalition took the name “Democratic Bulgaria” and managed to gain one seat in the EP, as well as a number of municipal seats in larger cities during the local elections.

Although both elections were declared fair, there were persistent irregularities and serious concerns over vote buying, a common practice for all major parties. The abolishment of machine voting after piloting it during the EP elections clearly demonstrated the lack of political will to address irregularities in the electoral process. The political party financing law, which was changed several times, failed to deliver on its promise to significantly cut government subsidies to parties—and also allows for unlimited party donations by individuals and businesses. Local elections, particularly in the capital Sofia, took place amid polarized debates on such issues as corruption, the environment, infrastructure, and transparency and inclusion of citizens in local government. GERB registered a decline in support in the local elections, losing several regional cities to BSP. In fact, the races in the capital and several other larger cities showed a clear protest vote against GERB.

Bulgaria continued its decline on all media freedom indicators. Journalists were subjected to harassment and intimidation by government officials and the prosecution during the year. Scandals affected the national radio and television, with journalists being attacked and dismissed by the public broadcasters’ new leadership. In addition, business moguls acquired the country’s largest media group, Nova, then dismissed critical journalists and imposed control over editorial content.

The country’s institutional effectiveness was further put in question in July when personal information of all working adults was leaked after the hacking of the National Revenue Service’s database, and a lack of oversight in waste management led to a summer highway fire that received belated attention. Serious problems with local governance, such as poor air quality in some cities and water shortages in Pernik and surrounding towns, also exposed institutional deficiencies.

The election of a new chief prosecutor dominated public debate throughout the year and resulted in a series of protests against the single candidate, Ivan Geshev—a controversial figure who publicly stated that he does not believe in the separation of government powers.

Pro- and anti-Russian attitudes continued to define political discourse and specific policies. The purchase of F-16 fighter aircraft following a public procurement procedure, lengthy parliamentary debates, and tough negotiations with the U.S. government clearly illustrated the depth of such divisions in Bulgarian society. A celebration of the 75th anniversary of the communist coup, labeled “liberation from fascism” by the Russian government and a large number of Russian sympathizers in the country, also demonstrated the population’s lack of consensus on Bulgaria’s geostrategy. Meanwhile, a fierce debate over history textbooks displayed a similar lack of consensus on the interpretation of the communist past.

Media investigations revealing that operatives of the GRU (the Russian foreign military-intelligence agency) were involved in the attempted assassination of a Bulgarian arms trader in 2015 created tensions between Bulgarian and Russian authorities. A visit in May by Pope Francis was met with a lukewarm reaction at best by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which, supported by nationalists, refused to join the pontiff in a common prayer. Nationalists used the opportunity to espouse anti-immigration rhetoric and criticize Pope Francis for his support for refugees. Although Euroskepticism and nationalism in Bulgaria remain more moderate in scale compared to other EU countries, such sentiments put in question Bulgaria’s geostrategic orientation. At the same time, PM Borisov and GERB maintained and reaffirmed their Euro-Atlantic position in every interaction with EU institutions, as well as during the November meeting between Borisov and U.S. President Donald Trump. Such public positions notwithstanding, Borisov also played up to Russian interests in the country as illustrated by his support for the construction of the TurkStream natural gas pipeline in Bulgaria.

Economically, Bulgaria fared well in 2019 with modest GDP growth of over 3.5 percent and a budget deficit below the EU’s 3-percent limit. Bulgaria’s credit rating was raised in December, giving PM Borisov and the governing coalition an opportunity to praise their achievements.

The same positive sentiment was echoed in the European Commission’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report in October, which stated that Bulgaria had made sufficient progress in judicial reform and the fight against corruption, satisfying the commitments made by the country at the time of accession. Consequently, the commission considered abandoning the CVM mechanism and relying instead on monitoring and implementation by the Bulgarian authorities—an opinion that was later reversed in favor of continuing the CVM monitoring.

National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 4.254 7.007
  • Bulgaria’s democratic institutions functioned satisfactorily in 2019, but they struggled to do so amid an atmosphere of polarization that ininflamed the political discourse. The confrontations between President Rumen Radev and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov continued throughout the year, and most parliamentary parties, as well as the governing coalition, suffered from internal conflicts and divisions. The ruling party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), reaffirmed its hold on power in two elections, but there was a clear protest vote against GERB leadership in the local elections.
  • The conflict between President Radev, supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and PM Borisov (GERB) continued in 2019.1 Radev has exercised his presidential veto power more than 20 times thus far in the three years of his mandate.2 The president and prime minister clashed over a number of issues during the year, including over the membership of the Central Electoral Commission, the purchase of F-16 fighter jets from the United States, amendments to the Criminal Code, amendments to the Party Law, and reform of the prosecution. In fact, the president was the only pubic official calling for a debate on these issues. Radev’s attempts to organize public consultations were neglected, and he was subject to political attacks.
  • GERB itself suffered from internal divisions as intraparty purges resulted from corruption scandals.3 The party’s second in line, Tzvetan Tzvetanov, head of the parliamentary group and Borisov’s closest ally since the founding of GERB, resigned amid the so-called Apartmentgate scandal, as did justice minister Tzetzka Tzatcheva and the head of the anticorruption body, Plamen Georgiev. Likewise, agricultural minister Rumen Porozhanov was forced to resign following a major scandal involving the misuse of EU funds.4 The governing coalition also suffered divisions as the junior partner United Patriots (UP) split apart, with Ataka founder Volen Siderov expelled from the UP leadership.5
  • The BSP was also torn by internal conflict with a confrontation between party leader Kornelia Ninova and the leader of the Party of European Socialists (PES), Sergei Stanishev (former PM and BSP leader).6 This divisiveness persisted throughout the year and was evident in parliamentary votes, as well as during party meetings and debates.7
  • The traditional right, which had suffered continuous fragmentation over the last 18 years, gave birth to an ideologically mixed coalition in April. Called “Democratic Bulgaria,” this unusual new formation united environmental activists and conservatives.8
  • Institutional effectiveness and the separation of powers were questioned as a result of two major events—the hacking of the National Revenue Service’s database in July,9 and the election of a new chief prosecutor, Ivan Geshev, a controversial figure who publicly stated that he does not believe in the separation of government powers.10
  • Pro- and anti-Russian attitudes continued to define Bulgaria’s political discourse and specific policies. The purchase of F-16 fighter jets from the U.S. and accompanying public debate illustrated one aspect of this divide.11 A visit by PM Borisov to the White House reaffirmed GERB’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic structures.12 At the same time, Borisov also played up to Russian interests as illustrated by his support for the construction of the TurkStream natural gas pipeline in Bulgaria.13
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 5.506 7.007
  • The year 2019 was eventful with the holding of European Parliament (EP) elections in May and local elections in October. Major changes to the electoral law and political party financing law restricted party competition, failed to increase transparency, and introduced unlimited private financing for political parties. Although both elections were declared fair in practice, the legislative changes were considered a serious setback for the fairness of the electoral process and its openness to newcomers.
  • There were numerous and contradicting changes made to the electoral law in 2019, further evidence of the volatility and unpredictability characterizing the parliament’s policy work in recent years. In February, the National Assembly consented to gradually introduce machine voting, which was adopted in at least 3,000 polling sites for the May EP elections and 6,000 sites for the October local elections.1 The February version of the electoral law stipulated that all subsequent elections should be carried out exclusively by machine voting. The legislation also mandated a deadline of March 2020 for the creation of a road map to introduce electronic voting for all Bulgarian citizens.
  • Following the EP elections, the National Assembly revised its decision in July and abolished machine voting for all local and parliamentary elections.2 The stated rationale for the policy reversal was that machine voting is expensive and complicated, and poses risks that could undermine the legitimacy of the upcoming local elections.3 This twist was heavily criticized by parliamentarians outside the governing coalition, who argued that machine voting would expose irregularities and electoral fraud.4
  • Another major change that could radically affect party competition for years to come was the July amendment to the political party financing law, which initially reduced government subsidies to political parties from BGN 11 to just 1 lev per vote.5 Due to reports that parties had received more support from the finance ministry than lawfully calculated, PM Borisov had declared that party subsidies would be abolished outright. Without any public discussion or debate, amendments to the law were drafted, including a total suspension of subsidies. The final draft included a government subsidy of just BGN 1, yet also allowed for unlimited party donations by individuals and businesses.
  • The October local elections were the first that allowed this direct funding from individuals and businesses.6 In December, however, when voting on Bulgaria’s 2020 budget, the parliament reversed its policy yet again. Following an agreement between the ruling coalition and the socialist opposition, party subsidies were increased to BGN 8 per vote with the stipulation on direct funding remaining intact.7 Consequently, Bulgaria was investigated by the Council of Europe’s anticorruption monitoring body, GRECO, at year’s end.8 Transparency International and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also criticized the amendments.9
  • Preparations for the May EP elections started with a debate on whether to elect new members to the Central Electoral Commission, since the current mandates were due to expire in March. GERB pressed for keeping the same membership during the EP elections, arguing that a change could threaten their fair conduct; contrarily, the BSP saw this as a violation of policy and an attempt to influence the election outcomes.10 Ultimately, President Radev appointed a new commission in March.11
  • The EP elections proceeded smoothly, and the chief prosecutor declared no serious issues. Yet, various political parties reported a range of irregularities, including vote buying, pressure on minorities and electoral commission members, active campaigning on election day, and other issues.12 Furthermore, there were problems with machine voting, including securing the privacy of voters when using the machines and accurately transferring preferential votes to the protocols.13
  • The EP elections were won by GERB, whose members of parliament (MEPs) received 31.7 percent of the vote and 6 seats, followed by the opposition BSP with 24.26 percent and 5 seats. The ethnic Turkish party (Movement for Rights and Freedoms, DPS) received 16.55 percent and 3 seats; VMRO received 7.36 percent and 2 seats; and Democratic Bulgaria received 6.06 percent and 1 seat. Voter turnout was 32.64 percent.14 None of the other parliamentary parties (Ataka, NFSB, or Volia) passed the 4-percent electoral threshold.
  • The October local elections were declared fair, although vote buying was reported across the country, especially in rural areas.15 Independent organizations decried the high number of invalid ballots, an issue also stressed by the president as “undermining trust in the electoral process.”16 The Central Electoral Commission provided no satisfactory explanation. Even though GERB won the elections, it lost positions in a number of major cities.17 BSP, which secured no mayors of regional cities in the previous elections, won in four regional centers in 2019 running against GERB. DPS maintained its stronghold in Kardzhali and also won in a number of smaller towns. Three regional cities were won by center-right coalitions running against GERB.18
  • The competition for the capital Sofia was particularly intense between incumbent GERB mayor Yordanka Fandakova and Ombudsman Maya Manolova. The major issues of the campaign were clean air, transportation, education, and corruption. The second round of the elections was a clear protest vote against GERB, with many GERB and traditionally right-wing voters supporting Manolova, as well as BSP voters uniting with Democratic Bulgaria and other right-wing voters in the Sofia elections for municipal mayors. Manolova lost to Fandakova in the runoff by only 20,000 votes compared to the 38,000-vote difference in the first round.19
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses the organizational capacity and financial sustainability of the civic sector; the legal and political environment in which it operates; the functioning of trade unions; interest group participation in the policy process; and the threat posed by antidemocratic extremist groups. 5.506 7.007
  • Developments in Bulgaria’s civic sector were mixed in 2019. On the one hand, there was a decline in the sustainability of civil society organizations (CSOs),1 a continued lack of public trust in NGOs,2 persistent attacks on organizations by politicians and public officials, and a state of financial uncertainty in a culture with little tradition of charitable giving.3 On the other hand, there were encouraging signs of increased citizen participation in various protests throughout the year and the increased voicing of concerns by the public.
  • Politicians launched verbal attacks on CSOs during the year. Following a decision by three judges to grant conditional release to an Australian convict sentenced for murder, nationalist parties organized protests in front of the capital courthouse. In September, they also requested the banning of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.4
  • Nationalist parties in the governing coalition proposed changes to the Law of Judicial Power to introduce new financial restrictions on judicial associations. In particular, the changes would have banned NGOs working in the justice sector and professional organizations from receiving support from foreign groups.5 The proposal resurfaced after the early release of the Australian convict and the activities of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, including seminars and judicial trainings as well as recognition awards for judges.
  • Protests and citizen activism increased in 2019, with demonstrations focusing on a number of issues. The year witnessed protests by doctors and nurses, policemen, transportation workers, mothers of children with disabilities, local governance issues, unemployment and wages, environmental issues, LGBT+ rights, social policy, among other issues.6
  • Despite citizen activism, there was no progress on such major issues as the Child Strategy (a contentious topic that has mobilized CSOs and a number of protests in recent years),7 working conditions of medical workers and the right to organize,8 or legislation on violence against women9 following the Constitutional Court’s blockade of the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention.
  • Some of the protests were met by counterprotests incited by disinformation campaigns. One such example in October was spurred on by rumors that the new Child Strategy would allow public officials to take children away from their families.10
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines the current state of press freedom, including libel laws, harassment of journalists, and editorial independence; the operation of a financially viable and independent private press; and the functioning of the public media. 3.504 7.007
  • The media environment in Bulgaria continued to deteriorate during the year as journalists and independent outlets were pressured and harassed by public officials and business interests. The transparency of media ownership continued to be a problem due in part to a controversial 2018 law that helped solidify the position of its proponent, media mogul and former parliamentarian Delyan Peevski, rather than increase transparency.1 In 2019, judicial interference in the work of journalists appeared as a new trend to further undermine media independence.
  • The legal framework for media became more restrictive during the year despite petitions by outlets and NGOs. A group of online media protested the Peevski Law, which obliges outlets to disclose their sources of funding or risk fines of thousands of euros. Critics argued that these new requirements put small-scale media outlets that rely on online donations and crowdfunding at risk.2 The process of bringing legislation in line with the EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) was used by officials, however, as a pretext to potentially limit media freedoms. In April, the Union of Bulgarian Journalists protested their exclusion from the working group on a new media law that should harmonize with the EU directive.3 Another working group was formed in November by the Parliamentary Committee on Culture and Media to work on a new Radio and Television Law. The working group was dominated by commercial media representatives despite the fact that changes to the law would primarily affect the public broadcasters.4
  • A new development during the year involved attacks on journalists by the prosecution. In May, Rossen Bossev, a reporter for Capital Weekly, was convicted and fined €500 by a Sofia court for defaming the former chairman of the Financial Supervision Commission, Stoyan Mavrodiev, in a TV interview in January 2015. The judge assigned to the case, Petya Krancheva, had been criticized by Bossev in the newsweekly. Bossev asked the court to grant impartiality, but Krancheva refused to recuse herself, claiming that she had not read his critical articles.5 In August, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office issued a European Investigation Order (EIO) targeting Atanas Tchobanov, a Bulgarian investigative journalist living in France, claiming that he had been implicated in the hacking of the Bulgarian tax authorities.6 According to Tchobanov, the order contained requests to confiscate working documents and data, exposing his confidential sources. Media organizations harshly criticized the prosecution for launching cases against journalists, claiming that this practice can lead to self-censorship.7
  • There was interference by business moguls in the conduct of free and independent reporting. After the high-profile brothers Kiril and Georgi Domuschiev8 acquired the Nova Broadcasting Group in April, three investigative journalists were dismissed from Nova TV.9 The brothers then proceeded to close the regional news network, Dariknews, also part of Nova Broadcasting Group, in September.10 Earlier, in May, sports journalists from the site Gong.bg collectively resigned, claiming they were subject to editorial interference by the new owners.11
  • Dismissals and harassment occurred at the national television and radio, too, following the appointment of new leadership at the public broadcasters. The former politician and new director of Bulgarian National Television, Emil Koshlukov, stated in his strategic concept that there should be greater institutional control over the public television.12 During the year, Koshlukov removed three notable journalists who had criticized him in the past.13 In the fall, the senior public radio editor on the judiciary, Sylvia Velikova, was taken off the air.14 Velikova is known for her criticism of the only candidate for chief prosecutor, Ivan Geshev. In solidarity with Velikova, none of her colleagues agreed to replace her, and the Bulgarian National Radio stopped broadcasting for five hours on September 13, blaming the shutdown on technical maintenance.15 A scandal erupted after journalists protested, and Velikova was reinstated on the show.16 The new director, Svetoslav Kostov, was forced to resign a month later by the media regulator.17
  • In July, the parliament appointed Galina Georgieva as a member of the Council of Electronic Media (CEM, the regulatory body that appoints the directors of the public broadcasters), once again raising questions about the independence and capacity of CEM. The nomination of Georgieva, which was supported by the ruling coalition, received criticism because of her lack of professional expertise.18
  • Bulgaria was ranked 111th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index, remaining, by far, the most problematic country for independent media in the EU.19
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 4.755 7.007
  • The 2019 local elections installed new mayors in several cities that had been strongholds of the governing party; the opposition gained mayoral seats in several regional cities, too. This new leadership map is likely to bring even wider change in local governance in the coming years. At the same time, municipalities continued to struggle with indebtedness and financial dependence on the central government. Several large municipalities failed to address urgent issues, indicating poor governance and weak institutions.
  • The October local elections resulted in loss of control for GERB in several important regional cities, while the BSP gained control in four cities.1 The ethnic Turkish party (Movement for Rights and Freedoms, DPS) retained control in its traditional strongholds, and three regional cities were won by center-right coalitions running against GERB.2 The competition for the capital Sofia was particularly intense, indicating a clear protest vote against GERB (see “Electoral Process”).
  • Changes to the electoral law in February resulted in greater control by the central government. This amendment, for instance, increased the number of residents required for a municipality to have its own mayor from 100 to 350 persons—thereby disenfranchising a large number of voters in small localities.3
  • Municipalities experienced serious and continued financial problems and remained largely dependent on direct government transfers during 2019. Despite the low-interest lines of credit released by the government several years earlier, municipalities continued to accumulate debt. By December, 49 percent of municipalities had unpaid dues to the central government,4 no different than the previous trimester and the one before that.5 Sofia, the largest and richest municipality, also had the greatest debt. According to the Ministry of Finance, most of that debt was due to large investment projects.6
  • In December, following a long debate, the parliament rejected a proposal by BSP (also supported by the Association of Municipalities) to allow municipalities to retain a percentage of the income tax and the VAT.7 At year’s end, over 85 percent of expenses at the local level were funded by the central government, and local authorities did not receive any share of income or VAT taxes.8 Given the legal restrictions for additional revenues and the chronic financial dependence on the central government, municipalities have moved to increase local taxes.9
  • Poor governance and weak institutions at the local level produced several scandals during the year, including over the capital city’s poor air quality,10 a water shortage and water rationing in Pernik11 and surrounding towns,12 and a highway fire due to lack of oversight over waste management. This last issue proved to be a much bigger problem that included the illegal or semi-legal import of waste from other EU countries.13
Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses constitutional and human rights protections, judicial independence, the status of ethnic minority rights, guarantees of equality before the law, treatment of suspects and prisoners, and compliance with judicial decisions. 4.505 7.007
  • Bulgaria’s judiciary had a mixed record in 2019. On the one hand, the European Commission acknowledged progress in the constitutional and legal framework and was considering abolishing the post-accession monitoring mechanism at year’s end. On the other hand, there was significant controversy around the election of the new chief prosecutor, as well as pressure on journalists by the prosecution, continued political attacks on judges, and no progress in high-profile cases. In December, PM Borisov admitted that he had interfered in the appointment of high-level judges.1
  • The year was dominated by the election of a new chief prosecutor, an extremely important position in Bulgaria. The prosecutors’ organization nominated former deputy chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev (backed by then chief prosecutor, Sotir Tzatzarov), but Minister of Justice Danail Kirilov recused himself from nominating an alternative candidate2 despite demands from the Union of Judges, political parties, and NGOs to allow for a competitive choice.3 Consequently, Ivan Geshev was elected by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) in a vote of 20 to 4 in late October amid public unrest both in support of and against his election.4
  • President Radev refused to sign Geshev’s appointment and returned the procedure to the SJC pointing out that the lack of competition for the position was not in the public interest and damaging to the already tarnished reputation and legitimacy of the judiciary.5 He further stated that the SJC did not publish the positions of professional groups and CSOs on the issue. The presidential veto was overruled by the SJC with the same 20-to-4 vote.6 The new chief prosecutor’s election was harshly criticized by Irish MEP Clare Daly at a European Commission meeting, who stated that “Geshev’s presence at the meeting erodes its legitimacy.”7
  • In January, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) sanctioned Bulgaria for not respecting the presumption of innocence.8 In the case Lolov and others v. Bulgaria, the ECtHR stated, “the presumption of innocence requires that state officials should not declare that a person is guilty of a crime before being sentenced by the Court.” This had been disregarded by members of the governing coalition, MPs, and especially the Chief Prosecutor’s Office.9 If former chief prosecutor Tzatzarov rarely violated this principle personally (leaving that to his spokesperson instead), the deputy chief prosecutor and newly elected chief prosecutor, Ivan Geshev, did so quite often.10 In his “Conception for the development of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office” and in his public hearings during the election process, Geshev clearly indicated that the prosecution would continue to present evidence through the media against individuals, before their trials actually started. 11
  • Judges continue to be subject to attacks by government officials and politicians. Following a decision by a tri-member tribunal to grant early release to an Australian convict, the judges involved were subject to virulent attacks by members of the governing coalition. The Australian, Jock Palfreeman, was granted early release after having served 11 years of a 20-year sentence for murder.12 The nationalists in the governing coalition organized protests outside the capital courthouse demanding that the decision be reversed, while media outlets close to Delyan Peevski staged a concerted media attack on the three tribunal judges.13
  • The October report of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) concluded that Bulgaria had made sufficient progress on all commitments and recommended transitioning to a different monitoring mechanism.14 The report noted positive developments in the constitutional and legislative framework, and the commitment by Bulgarian authorities to fulfill the recommendations of the Venice Commission on the accountability of the chief prosecutor and the protection of magistrates.
  • In December, the Venice Commission adopted its opinion on draft amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code and the Judicial System Act concerning criminal investigations against top magistrates.15 PM Borisov assured that the government would fulfill all recommendations and introduce a mechanism for independent investigation of the chief prosecutor. However, the draft proposed by the government in mid-December did not meet the commission’s recommendations,16 highlighting the lack of accountability for the chief prosecutor already identified by the European Commission, the ECtHR, and Council of Europe.
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Looks at public perceptions of corruption, the business interests of top policymakers, laws on financial disclosure and conflict of interest, and the efficacy of anticorruption initiatives. 3.754 7.007
  • The year was dominated by large corruption scandals implicating top government officials, cases of embezzlement of EU funds and tax fraud, and a threat by U.S. authorities to sanction Bulgarian politicians for corruption.1 At the same time, the EU Commission declared in the 2019 CVM report that Bulgaria had made sufficient progress on the fight against corruption.2 While the anticorruption institutional framework had considerably improved, implementation was lagging behind and visible results were yet to be seen. Bulgaria continued to be rated as the most corrupt country in the EU by Transparency International.3
  • A major corruption scandal, “Apartmentgate,” rocked the county on the eve of the EP elections, becoming the focal point of debate and overshadowing important campaign issues.4 In March 2019, Free Europe published an investigation that implicated Tzvetan Tzvetanov, GERB’s number two and head of the party’s parliamentary group, in benefiting from his position to purchase real estate at below-market value.5 In the following days, Justice Minister Tzetzka Tzatcheva, as well as other deputy ministers and key GERB figures, were also implicated in acquiring apartments under similar circumstances. All apartments were acquired from the same construction company, Arteks, which had benefitted from a 2017 legislative amendment that allowed it to extend the construction permit for a controversial skyscraper.6 Realizing that the scandal could potentially harm GERB in the election, PM Borisov enforced party discipline by promising harsh punishments for all GERB members involved. Tzvetanov and Tzatcheva both resigned a week later. Still, the investigation into Apartmentgate had yet to bring any results by year’s end.7
  • Another major scandal involving high-level officials concerned the misuse of EU funds. A large number of real estate properties, built or renovated using EU funds earmarked for the development of rural areas, turned out to be private homes. They were used by politicians and public officials and often registered to relatives, friends, or shadow companies. The deputy economy minister, Aleksander Manolev, resigned in April after the media exposed that he was using such a house built on property he owned in southeastern Bulgaria as a holiday home.8 The media exposé triggered a thorough investigation in which the Ministry of Agriculture uncovered that 253 of 276 guesthouses funded had infringed on the program, and ordered the return of BGN 46 million to the Agricultural Fund.9 Agriculture minister Rumen Porozhanov, previously in charge of the Agriculture Fund, resigned in May and the prosecution charged Manolev for initiating and facilitating the misuse of the EU funds.
  • Following the two scandals, the head of the state anticorruption commission, Plamen Georgiev, a supposed key figure in the investigations, was himself implicated in acquiring a luxury apartment below market price and underreporting the size of the property to the tax authorities.10 He was put on indefinite leave by PM Borisov while his case was investigated, but shortly afterwards was appointed as Consul in Valencia, Spain. Borisov reportedly commented that Georgiev had made many enemies and needed a new assignment.11
  • In its most recent and perhaps final CVM report for Bulgaria, the EU Commission stated that it had found sufficient progress in the country’s fight against corruption.12 The report noted significant progress in the institutional framework over the past two years, highlighting the appointment of a new head of the anticorruption commission following the resignation of Georgiev.13 The report also noted the government’s commitment to establish a post-monitoring council as well as its work with the Council of Europe.
  • Despite the commission’s praise, the appointment of former chief prosecutor Sotir Tzatzarov as the new chair of the Anti-Corruption Commission in December was met with criticism. Tzatzarov had a poor track record of dealing with corruption cases while chief prosecutor and had been involved himself in corruption scandals.14 His election seemed to confirm allegations of political manipulation of state institutions by the governing majority.15

Authors

Emilia Zankina is Dean of Temple University Rome and Associate Professor in Political Science. She has served as Provost of American University in Bulgaria, Associate Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and Managing Editor of East European Politics and Societies. She holds a PhD in International Affairs and a Certificate in Advanced East European Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research examines democratization, populism and political parties, public administration reform, and gender and political representation.

Boris Gurov is a researcher and assistant professor at the Economic Research Institute at the Bulgarian Academy of Science. He holds a degree in sociology from Université de Provence Aix-Marseille I. He has led numerous research projects in Bulgaria on such topics as civil rights, media freedom, economic competitiveness, and indebtedness. He is a visiting professor at New Bulgarian University and American University in Bulgaria.

Note

The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0–100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

On Bulgaria

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  • Global Freedom Score

    80 100 free