Bulgaria

Semi-Consolidated Democracy
58
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 58.33 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 4.50 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
59 100 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 2021

  • Judicial Framework and Independence declined from 4.50 to 4.25 to reflect concerns about the politicization of the prosecutor general’s office, the lack of accountability for police and prosecutorial misconduct, and the discriminatory treatment of Romany citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, Bulgaria’s Democracy Score declined from 4.54 to 4.50.

header2 Executive Summary

By Angel Petrov

Bulgaria’s political climate deteriorated further in 2020, with a fragile consensus forged around launching a response to the coronavirus pandemic quickly falling apart. As the crisis exposed deficiencies in education and health care, political affairs, scandals, and wars of words between institutions for a time receded from the news cycle. Instead, it became dominated by coverage of efforts to boost health care outside of Sofia (which saw varying levels of success), a relatively effective drive to rein in the pandemic during its early months, a quick transition to distance learning, and implementation of other anti-COVID measures.

As the crisis seemed to subside, that changed. Cracks began to appear in the consensus between health experts and the government—as well as within the government itself—as a faster-than-predicted reopening was enacted. The rapid relaxation of measures was in part due to businesses’ discontent, and took place as misinformation about the virus was spreading. Throughout autumn the coronavirus crisis loomed large again, often dwarfing other issues, as new cases skyrocketed and prompted the imposition of a partial lockdown the last week of November,1 which continued into 2021. That month, Bulgaria’s COVID mortality rate became Europe’s highest.2

During and after the state of emergency that was in force from March 13 to May 13, public and political debates unrelated to the virus continued. Prior to the pandemic, the aftermath of a water crisis in Pernik, in southwestern Bulgaria, and elsewhere led in January to the first arrest and resignation of an acting minister, Environment Minister Neno Dimov. However, critics claimed he was not an essential figure in the scheme to drain water reserves that had left Pernik without supply. Also in January, Vasil Bozhkov, arguably among the most country’s influential businessmen and referred to by his critics (and later by the state) as an oligarch, was indicted and fled to Dubai. From there, he engaged in a war of words and allegations with authorities and offered supposed evidence of a government-orchestrated extortion scheme, while some officials came under fire over allegedly preferential treatment of Bozhkov and his gambling-industry assets.

Officials also sought to blame Bozhkov for massive protests that erupted across the country in July. At the demonstrations—which Bozhkov backed but did not organize—protesters called for the government’s resignation and a more decisive fight against corruption and deficiencies in the rule of law. Public anger mounted as the public prosecutor’s office, following months of attacks from Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev against the presidency, raided the head of state’s premises in a move perceived widely as political revenge. (The president had vetoed Geshev’s appointment in 2019, but was obliged to approve it upon its second submission.) Earlier, national security guards had barred an opposition leader’s access to a section of a public beach located near a political figure’s villa, prompting outrage about corruption and patronage. The incident also raised questions about the misuse of the National Service for Protection, which provides security detail to senior Bulgarian officials. Thousands flocked to the streets in large cities and demanded Geshev and Borisov’s resignations, marking a shift in many Bulgarians’ political preferences less than a year before the April 2021 elections. The government initially pondered resignation, only to change its mind and propose a new constitution in August, which was later abandoned.

A political clash between the president and prime minister was a leitmotif of both the protests and the year’s entire public discourse, with President Rumen Radev questioning most of the policies of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s government. Tensions culminated in the summer, as the president rallied protesters around him to demand Borisov and Geshev’s resignations, dubbing them “mafia.” At the same time, Borisov accused President Radev of colluding with the “mafia” to topple the government. The president’s conflict with Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev also deepened as Geshev continued to hand court material directly to the media to bolster his office’s arguments, and as he hinted at investigating Radev for high treason.

The year saw a slight deterioration of the work environment for journalists. There were cases of police using force against media workers during the year’s demonstrations, and some journalists were verbally or physically assaulted in other contexts. The trial against publisher Ivo Prokopiev, who was accused of misconduct over remarks he made about the sale of a state-owned stake in a utility company, was viewed as politically motivated by a number of major international organizations, and resulted in an acquittal in July. In its first rule-of-law report on all member states, issued in September, the European Union (EU) raised concerns over politicians de facto owning media outlets. Months after the report, the media assets of lawmaker Delyan Peevski, alongside those of the biggest online media group and one of the most-watched television stations, were sold to media and telecoms provider United Group, with the potential to create Bulgaria’s biggest media conglomerate in 2021.

In party politics, the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), Bulgaria’s biggest party for the last decade, and its coalition partner the United Patriots (UP), saw their support wane, with established public figures either establishing new political vehicles or boosting existing ones, mostly in response to the protests. GERB in particular was exposed to a direct attack on its voter base as former second-in-command Tsvetan Tsvetanov, having fallen out of favor following the massive Apartmentgate scandal of 2019, founded his own party, albeit with limited success according to the polls. The main opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) failed to capitalize on social discontent, unlike Demokratichna Bulgaria, a coalition mostly backed by urban educated voters. A new party led by ex-BSP official and talk-show-host-turned-politician Slavi Trifonov also gained momentum.

A series of scandals, many of them involving the prime minister, gathered steam. While the opposition pointed to these controversies in questioning Borisov’s democratic credentials, they have not resulted in substantial changes in Bulgarian politics. One involved an international money-laundering scheme with the suspected role of the prime minister investigated by prosecutors in Barcelona, unveiled in February. The publication of pictures from his bedroom showing €500 banknotes and a gun also made headlines. A separate incident in which a state-owned bank gave a large, controversial loan to a small enterprise prompted the dismissal of the bank’s entire board by Borisov.

Developments in the judiciary and the fight against corruption did not live up to the expectations voiced in the European Commission’s last Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report, published in 2019. Brussels refrained from lifting the CVM, noting the need to avoid a downward trend in the handling of both issues as protests were still unfolding. And for the first time, in February, the United States imposed sanctions on a Bulgarian judge over what it described as credible information of his involvement in significant corruption.

The European Commission and the World Bank pointed to a milder-than-expected economic slowdown in light of COVID-19, but the country also saw a slower-than-expected recovery.3 In October ratings agency Moody’s raised Bulgaria’s rating to Baa1, with a stable outlook, but urged more anticorruption reforms, as well as initiatives to boost the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.4 The World Bank noted that a trend toward economic improvement was threatened by the COVID-19 crisis. However, unemployment only rose mildly in absolute terms even though its jump beyond 6 percent was steeper than in many other European countries.

A turn was noted in foreign policy. While Bulgaria had previously touted itself as a possible bridge between the EU and Russia, diplomats from Moscow were told to leave Bulgaria in 2020: two in January, two others in September, and a fifth in December, all in cases involving claims of espionage. Chief Prosecutor Geshev lashed out at Russia on issues such as the extradition of banker Tsvetan Vasilev from Serbia, which he said Moscow had been thwarting. Bulgaria took a more decisive posture on Belarus, which saw enormous prodemocracy protests during the year after a massively fraudulent election, and recalled its ambassador. A defense road map was agreed between Bulgaria and the United States during a visit by Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov to Washington. However, Bulgaria was subject to US criticism over its decision to build pipeline infrastructure, called Balkan Stream, to connect to the Turkish Stream gas pipeline carrying Russian gas. The United States has threatened sanctions to discourage further development of the Turkish-Russian pipeline projects.

Bulgaria also started a campaign of threats against North Macedonia, vowing to block its EU accession talks if it failed to settle historic disputes with Bulgaria—despite having styled itself as the major backer of Skopje’s Euro-Atlantic integration. This culminated in an explicit veto against the talks in November,5 helping to delay them, with Bulgaria upholding a 2019 promise to reverse its foreign-policy course on North Macedonia (one that had accelerated its European path) unless several bilateral demands were met.

Partial lockdowns in Romany neighborhoods during the spring, with police setting up checkpoints for entry and exit in such neighborhoods in several cities, were condemned by activists as discriminatory; the government denied the claims and cited a need to follow epidemiological measures during the coronavirus pandemic. The move was rebuked by two UN rapporteurs and the Council of Europe.6 A few months later, ruling coalition partner the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO), in arguments that derided LGBT+ Bulgarians, sought to gin up opposition to the antigovernment protest movement among conservatives by characterizing it as pushing for the legalization of gay marriage.

With much of 2020 characterized by intense polarization, more of the same is expected in 2021 in the run-up to parliamentary elections set for April, as an increasing number of political actors fight over an increasingly fragmented political space and chip away at GERB’s support base. Presidential elections expected later in the year are likely to further strain the relationship between Bulgaria’s institutions, especially if the contest emerges as a fight between personalities.

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
  • The months immediately following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic were characterized by unusual parliamentary accord, with the main opposition BSP backing GERB and the United Patriots’ proposed state of emergency. However, by the late summer Parliament’s work had slowed in light of political disagreements, and the success of the government’s initiatives often depended on its ability to garner sufficient support from small parties. Some plenary sessions never opened because the BSP refused to participate in solidarity with antigovernment demonstrators, resulting in the lack of a quorum. A number of pandemic measures adopted were proposed by the government or by Borisov himself. In many cases, hundreds of millions of euros’ worth of proposed assistance was announced through video statements, with half a billion pledged to the most vulnerable in a single October statement by Borisov.1
  • Protests against the government and against corruption topped the public agenda in July. Borisov refused to step down, arguing that while staying in power would hurt his image, he could help ensure stability during a pandemic-related financial crisis. Instead, he reshuffled his cabinet, replacing ministers seen as inefficient, controversial, or allegedly linked to Delyan Peevski, the powerful businessman, media mogul, and lawmaker with the opposition Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS);2 among them, notably, was Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov. Others replaced included the ministers of justice, interior, economy, and tourism.3
  • President Radev repeatedly disagreed with Borisov’s cabinet on a variety of issues, including anti-COVID-19 measures; the allegations against fugitive tycoon Vasil Bozhkov; lowering the value-added tax (VAT) for bars, restaurants, and books, and the introduction of state-owned petrol stations to rein in prices.4 He vetoed five laws, including a national security service reform and an electoral-code change (See Electoral Process), but lawmakers secured majorities to override his moves. The president also demanded the “discredited” parliament resign on several occasions. At the beginning of the protest movement, he even used the derogatory phrase “mutri, out” (“mutri” referring to 90s-era organized crime leaders) to call for Borisov and Geshev’s resignation.5 During the protests, Borisov and Radev accused one another of colluding with Peevski.6 (Borisov’s allegations referred to Radev’s interim cabinet and Peevski’s influence in it.7)
  • In mid-August, Borisov proposed a new draft constitution to be debated and further shaped by a Great National Assembly—as constitutional changes require that a body of 400 lawmakers discuss them after the dissolution of Parliament. In the draft, GERB proposed that the number of lawmakers in the unicameral parliament be cut from 240 to 120, and that the Great National Assembly itself be scrapped, leaving future constitutional changes for debate in the legislature.8 The president spoke against it, while other critics suggested that the new draft did not differ substantially from the current charter. The government froze the debate on the proposal to wait for the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission to produce its opinion.9 (As antigovernment protests continued, Justice Minister Daniel Kirilov, who had coauthored the text, resigned after the first constitutional draft was completed.) In September, GERB managed to introduce the draft constitution with the surprise support of a businessman’s party that had initially opposed it; its leader later made clear he had not read the text before signing it, saying it was “nothing and of no importance.”10
  • In November, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission criticized the proposal to halve the number of lawmakers in the parliament as arbitrary, and warned against phrases such as “boosting birth rates” that could be used to discriminate against women or members of ethnic, religious, or other minority groups, among other issues. However, plans to alter the mechanisms giving the country’s chief prosecutor overarching powers, and to improve scrutiny of their work, were commended.11 A few days later, Parliament failed to agree on calling Great National Assembly elections, an initiative that would have required a two-thirds majority. The parliamentary committee that oversaw the work on the draft constitution was dissolved, effectively ending the initiative.12
  • The year also saw growing confrontation between president and the public prosecutor. In January, Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev sought to investigate Radev (who had opposed his appointment) on suspicion of having committed conflict-of-interest crimes,13 and asked the Constitutional Court whether that was possible.14 The institution barred him from doing so in its reasoning half a year later. Separate investigations into links between a presidential adviser and businessman Plamen Bobokov, related to an alleged influence-peddling scheme, culminated in prosecutors raiding the presidency in July, sparking the year’s antigovernment protest movement (see Civil Society and Judicial Independence).15
  • Political figures and parties not currently in Parliament saw their profiles rise during the summer at the expense of GERB and their coalition partners, the United Patriots. Among them were former talk show host Slavi Trifonov’s party, which was registered in 2020 but at year’s end was already seen a frontrunner in 2021 elections; also ascendent were Demokratichna Bulgaria, a union of liberal or anticorruption parties; and former BSP lawmaker and ex- ombudsman Maya Manolova’s Izpravi se.BG. The latter decided to team up with the protest organizers known as “The Poisonous Trio” for the election.16 A party also splintered off GERB, as its second-in-command, the former interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, set up Republicans for Bulgaria and drew support from disillusioned GERB voters.17
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
  • In contrast with recent years, only around a dozen municipalities held elections in 2020; GERB won most of the seats (See Local Democratic Elections). The prospect of early parliamentary elections dominated political discourse during the second half of the year, but never materialized.
  • Machine voting, which had been available at some polling stations since 2019 for European, presidential, and parliamentary elections, was up for discussion again in 2020. With regular parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in the spring, GERB pushed for introducing machine voting in all stations with more than 300 voters, amounting to at least 9,000 of more than 11,000 polling stations, but also insisted on also allowing voters to choose between machine voting and paper ballots.1 The first-reading adoption of the resulting bill, released in September, was backed by GERB and the United Patriots, and only applied to parliamentary and presidential elections. The opposition insisted on only machine voting, saying this would reduce vote buying. Among the arguments for keeping paper voting were the need to disinfect machines too often due to the coronavirus pandemic. In the end, lawmakers agreed to allow paper voting, and the law was adopted in September. The debate was relevant due to concerns over transparency and fairness of the vote over the years.
  • In late August, ahead of voting on the machine-voting bill, Central Election Commission head Stefka Stoeva stepped down.2 She cited personal reasons, but had earlier criticized amendments to the law tasking the commission with securing machines for the vote.3 Late in September, President Radev expressed opposition to the dual machine- and paper-voting system and vetoed relevant parts of the amendments that he said were redundant, created confusion and opportunities for manipulation, or were designed to benefit the ruling coalition.4 Radev maintained that machine voting, which was being introduced to ensure fairness of the vote, was unnecessary if it co-existed with paper voting and ballots were counted manually after the election. Lawmakers managed to override the veto in October.5
  • The public agenda in Bulgaria was also marked by discussions on how the Great National Assembly—an institution of 400 lawmakers tasked with drafting a new constitution or introducing substantial amendments to the existing one—should be elected, as one would become necessary if Borisov’s push for a new constitution were to advance. On GERB’s initiative, Parliament discussed introducing a mixed system for the assembly in which one half of the members would be elected through majority voting, and the others through the standard proportional system in force for parliamentary elections. With coalition partners and part of the opposition successfully resisting Borisov’s call for a new charter, the debate became moot.6
  • Borisov’s draft constitution had halved the number of lawmakers in the parliament from 240 to 120, prompting discussion of that issue during the year. The change would have substantially altered the electoral process, but was similarly no longer up for discussion at the end of 2020, as the constitutional draft was abandoned. 7
  • In October, the EU Parliament’s justice and civil liberties committee, known as LIBE, raised concerns about amending the electoral regulation around seven months before the next regular election. Their resulting resolution was supported by the EP. 8
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
  • A widespread protest movement started in July, triggered initially by the removal by National Protection Service (NSO) guards of Demokratichna Bulgaria’s co-chair, Hristo Ivanov, from a public beach located next to the villa of Ahmed Dogan, the honorary chair of the DPS.1 Outcry followed, as beach access had been unlawfully restricted; it was also revealed that the NSO had been providing security for Dogan for years. Days later, after the prosecutor’s office authorized the raid on the presidency, thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Borisov and Prosecutor General Geshev. Many were also enraged after pictures and video footage emerged of Borisov sleeping in his bedroom alongside gold bars, a pistol, and 500 euro banknotes.2 The demonstrations went on for weeks in major cities, and in August, tent camps emerged in Sofia, raising occasional tensions with authorities. Most opposition forces backed the protests, with some figures taking part.3
  • Several violent episodes occurred, especially in September. Both police and protesters claimed that provocateurs were behind instances of rioting and attacks on law enforcement officers. Police claimed the provocations were funded “from abroad,” by people “sought by police.”4 Authorities occasionally voiced anger at the protests; Borisov argued the “mafia” wanted him to resign, for instance.5 As the autumn went on, protesters’ numbers declined considerably.
  • In July, a draft law on foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) was introduced by coalition partner VMRO to allegedly increase transparency by forcing organizations that receive more than 500 euros in revenue, excepting EU funds, to declare it as “foreign funding.” Moreover, governing bodies’ directors and members of foreign-funded NGOs will be required to provide asset declarations similar to those of high-ranking public officials.6 The EU Commission said the draft proposals “raise concerns,” and several NGOs expressed outrage. Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov claimed that some of nearly 50,000 NGOs’ interests were not “in line” with Bulgaria’s, and that protests were helping “Sorosoid NGOs”— referring to Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros—to introduce “gay marriage and create a gender republic.”7 The latter part of his remarks referred to a twisted interpretation of the Istanbul Convention on gender equality and combatting gender-based violence, which after a push from his party was rejected in Bulgaria.
  • The same bill on NGOs, which had not been voted into law at the end of 2020, would limit the functions of a Civic Development Council that brings NGOs together by curtailing its right to oversee how central and local authorities distribute public funds to NGOs. A third change would allow a Finance Ministry–controlled agency to revoke or suspend organizations’ registration over “irregularities.” The European Commission’s rule-of-law report, released in September, drew attention to the failure of lawmakers to carry out consultations and impact assessments for proposals in the bill.8
  • The United Patriots campaigned against amendments to the Social Services Act, which would include NGOs in efforts to remove children from the care of families in which they suffered violence, arguing that “Norwegian organizations” would come and take Bulgarian children away. Additionally, the Constitutional Court in July ruled against provisions of the Social Services Act that granted NGOs and municipalities the right to certain identifying information in cases where services are provided following cases of child abuse. Access to information on the case was thus narrowed, with the court saying broader access would infringe on parents’ rights. 9 The court, however, backed most of the remaining provisions of the law, including delegating the implementation of social services to private providers.10
  • In May, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled against Bulgaria over its refusal to register various organizations that claim to speak for an unrecognized Macedonian minority. The move was backed in a note from the Committee of Ministers, which called on Bulgaria to cease refusing similar organizations’ registration on national security grounds, or for technical irregularities.11
  • Rights activists criticized a move to seal off several Roma neighborhoods across Bulgaria on grounds of a lack of enforcement of coronavirus prevention measures, noting that Romany neighborhoods were placed under harsher movement restrictions than areas where Roma did not constitute a majority.12
  • 1. The DPS‘s member, MP and businessman Delyan Peevski, was the main source of anger during massive 2013 protests.
  • 2. Later, Borisov indicated there was no doubt about the footage’s authenticity in principle but those objects had been added by the photographer. See: “Warum hatten Sie Geld, Gold und eine Pistole am Bett, Herr Ministerpräsident? [“Why do you have money, gold and a pistol at Bett, Mr. Prime Minister?],” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, November 8, 2020, https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/borissow-wie-pistole-und-go…
  • 3. “С позиция БСП подкрепи протеста утре пред Народното събрание[ With a position, the BSP supported the protest tomorrow in front of the National Assembly],” 24 Chasa, September 1, 2020, https://www.24chasa.bg/novini/article/8961994; “Нощта на барикадите: Фалшиви новини за сблъсъци с полицията, първи конфликт между самите протестиращи [Barricade Night: Fake news of clashes with police, first conflict between protesters themselves],”Duma.bg, August 9, 2020, https://duma.bg/noshtta-na-barikadite-falshivi-novini-za-sblasatsi-s-po…; “Слави Трифонов за протестите и за коалиции с ГЕРБ и ДПС [Slavi Trifonov for the protests and for coalitions with GERB and MRF],” Dnevnik.bg, August 5, 2020, https://www.dnevnik.bg/4099243
  • 4. “‘Едни хора с телефони им дават указания.’ МВР обвърза сблъсъците на протеста с ‘издирвани лица’, [‘Some people with phones give them directions.’ Interior Ministry links protest clashes with ‘wanted persons’],” Svobodna Evropa, July 11,2020, https://www.svobodnaevropa.bg/a/30720927.html
  • 5. “Борисов: Мафията иска да ни свали, затова няма да дам оставка [Borissov: The mafia wants to take us down, so I will not resign],” Dnevnik.bg, September 9, 2020, https://www.dnevnik.bg/bulgaria/2020/09/09/4111547_borisov_mafiiata_isk…
  • 6. “"Перфектният враг". Неправителствените организации под прицела на нов закон ["The perfect enemy." NGOs under the aim of a new law],” Svobodna Evropa, July 9, 2020, https://www.svobodnaevropa.bg/a/30714211.html
  • 7. “Целта на протестите според Каракачанов: Гей бракове и джендър република [The purpose of the protests, according to Karakachanov: Gay marriages and a gender republic],” Mediapool, August 9, 2020, https://www.mediapool.bg/tselta-na-protestite-spored-karakachanov-gei-b…
  • 8. “Законопроект за изменение и допълнение на Закона за юридическите лица с нестопанска цел [Bill amending and supplementing the Non-profit Legal Entities Act],” National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria, July 1, 2020, https://www.parliament.bg/bg/bills/ID/157496; “ВМРО призовава за строг контрол върху парите на чуждестранните НПО-та в България [IMRO calls for strict control over the money of foreign NGOs in Bulgaria],” Darik News, July 1, 2020, https://dariknews.bg/novini/bylgariia/vmro-prizovava-za-strog-kontrol-v…; “Хелзинкският комитет: Промените срещу гражданския сектор сочат тревогата на властта,[ Helsinki Committee: Changes against the civil sector point to the authorities' concern],” Dnevnik.bg, July 7, 2020, https://www.dnevnik.bg/4088036
  • 9. “Текстове от Закона за социалните услуги са обявени за противоконституционни [Texts of the Social Services Act have been declared unconstitutional],” Mediapool, July 14, 2020, https://www.mediapool.bg/tekstove-ot-zakona-za-sotsialnite-uslugi-sa-ob…; Furthermore, VMRO introduced in December draft legislation that would boost the role of parents when cases of child protection are considered by agencies, limit that of state institutions and bar NGOs from taking any part. The proposals angered experts and were seen as legitimization of domestic violence.
  • 10. “3 на 45. Конституционният съд защити Закона за социалните услуги [3 of 45. The Constitutional Court defended the Social Services Act],” Svobodna Evropa, July 16, 2020, https://www.svobodnaevropa.bg/a/30729900.html
  • 11. “Interim Resolution CM/ResDH(2020)197/Execution of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights/United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and Others group against Bulgaria,” Council of Europe, October 1, 2020, https://search.coe.int/cm/pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectId=0900001680…
  • 12. “Полицаи на входа на квартала: сигурност или дискриминация по време на пандемия [Police officers at the entrance to the neighborhood: security or discrimination during a pandemic], Dnevnik.bg, April 8, 2020, https://www.dnevnik.bg/bulgaria/2020/04/08/4050927_policai_na_vhoda_na_…
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
  • Some journalists were physically attacked during the year, while others were subject to threats and insults from government figures. In February, Prime Minister Borisov compared reporters to turkeys.1 In May, speaking to a reporter with bTV, one of the most-watched television stations in Bulgaria, he characterized the station as “Bozhkov TV,” suggesting it was aligned with the fugitive businessman Vasil Bozhkov;2 Borisov later refused to apologize, arguing he had been misunderstood. Slavi Angelov, a journalist looking into criminal activity and the editor in chief of weekly 168 Chasa, was severely beaten in the spring; prosecutors called the attack “an attack against the state.”3
  • In contrast, the Prosecutor’s Office did not investigate death threats against Nikolay Staykov, a journalist with the Anti-Corruption Fund NGO, though they did assign him police protection. The Anti-Corruption Fund’s work has been very critical of the government and the judicial system, and its investigations have exposed wrongdoing in both places.4
  • In September, European Parliament members of the body’s media working group urged Bulgarian authorities to investigate reports that freelance journalist Dimiter Kenarov had been beaten and detained by police while covering a protest,5 and that Agence France-Presse’s photojournalist Nikolay Doychinov had been hit in the back with police batons, and that police had damaged his camera.6 There were also reports of journalists being pepper sprayed at one protest.
  • International journalists’ organizations argued that a fraud case against businessman Ivo Prokopiev, who co-owns the media group Economedia, amounted to political pressure intended to stifle critical reporting at two of the media group’s news outlets.7 Prokopiev was among those acquitted in June of alleged misconduct in the sale of a state-owned stake in energy utility company EVN.8 The charges against Prokopiev and his codefendants related to remarks on the sale voiced at a meeting of a consultative council, which the plaintiffs said amounted to an attempt to lower the company’s share price. The court ruled that the remarks were acceptable under the council’s mandate and that no other crime had occurred, and acquitted them.
  • A series of acquisitions during the year contributed to further consolidation of media ownership and, unless regulators intervene, appeared likely to result in the creation of a massive media conglomerate. Businessman Kiril Domuschiev—who is considered a government ally,9 and who had bought Nova in 2019—was permitted by regulators in February to take over major online media group Netinfo.10 In October, Nova also acquired Kanal 3, a staunchly progovernment channel whose former manager had become Nova’s chief executive. She announced Kanal 3 would be Nova’s television news station.11 In December, however, a deal was announced under which Nova was acquired by United Group, which also owns Bulgaria’s largest telecommunications company, Vivacom, as well as a number of media outlets across the Western Balkans.12 It bought Nova’s entire parent company, Nova Broadcasting Group (also Bulgaria’s largest media company), and with it took hold of the biggest online platform.13 After agreeing to purchase radio stations linked by media reports to Delyan Peevski,14 it also showed interest in buying Peevski’s network of tabloids—which had arguably been among the reasons the EU Commission voiced concern in September over politicians’ ownership of media outlets.15 Pending regulatory approval and confirmation of the newspapers deal, the moves are set to create Bulgaria’s largest media conglomerate.
  • bTV, the other leading station, was taken over by Czech entrepreneur Petr Kellner’s PPF Group in October.16 The bTV and Nova television stations are by far the most watched in Bulgaria, and have played a role in shaping public opinion for decades. At the end of 2020, notable editorial effects of the two ownership changes were yet to be seen.
  • In public media, Andon Baltakov was appointed as a new director general at the Bulgarian National Radio, while still reeling from last year’s scandals. However, he submitted his resignation in October after disagreeing with the culture minister over draft amendments to the Radio and Television Act that would affect appointment procedures for the radio’s governing board,17 but later retracted it in light of support from colleagues at the broadcaster.18
  • Additionally, during mass demonstrations, anger was directed at Bulgarian National Television and its director general, Emil Koshlukov. Protesters questioned Koshulkov’s credentials and raised concerns over the alleged appearance of progovernment bias in public television news programming.19
  • The European Commission’s rule-of-law report, released in September, voiced concerns about opaque media ownership, media pluralism issues, flawed state advertising expenditures, politicians owning media outlets, and reports that EU funds were used by local authorities to control media.20
  • In May, Betina Zhoteva was elected chairperson of Bulgaria’s television and radio watchdog. Days later she questioned Reporters Without Borders’ ranking of Bulgaria as 111 of 180 countries evaluated for press freedom, saying she found it insulting.21 She claimed journalists wanted to be untouchable, and that that was a problem.22
  • An attempt to make disinformation on COVID-19 punishable with up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to €5,100 under emergency laws was thwarted by a presidential veto in the spring. The September EC report said the provision, had it been implemented, would have resulted in significant self-censorship among journalists and citizens.23
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
  • Elections took place in more than a dozen municipalities, with most constituencies won by the ruling GERB party.1
  • Financial problems limited municipalities’ activities in 2020. A Finance Ministry analysis published in April showed less than half (121 of 265 municipalities) had no unpaid dues to the central government, a slight deterioration since the previous outlook.2 This, and legislation setting clear limits to municipal autonomy, meant a string of crises that emerged or deepened required intervention from the central government. President Radev echoed calls from a number of economists for “decentralization of municipalities,” to grant them greater financial and decision-making autonomy.3
  • Before the COVID-19 outbreak, numerous local institutions faced hardships related to an ongoing water crisis in Pernik, in which the Studena Dam reservoir had been effectively drained. In January, prosecutors indicted Environment Minister Neno Dimov and several others for allowing a local plant to use water from the reservoir illegally. To alleviate local water shortages the government authorized the construction of new infrastructure linking Pernik’s system with Sofia’s to ensure water supply.4 Water supply cuts in Pernik lasted more than half a year until authorities in Sofia approved the mayor’s move to use the Studena reservoir again, after the water supply had been replenished, although an alternative source was used again in August due to maintenance activities.5
  • Municipalities across Bulgaria warned of similar scenarios. In Botevgrad, tensions emerged over claims that a hydropower plant owned by the father of the former chief executive of Lukoil Bulgaria had drained water from the local Bebresh reservoir. In January, a state-owned water and sewage company was set up with a capital of 500 million euros, on the insistence of Borisov, to oversee problems across the country, with representatives from several ministries on its supervisory board.6 In November, Burgas, Bulgaria’s fourth-largest city, was on the brink of a similar crisis.7
  • Sofia Municipality’s digitalization improved. Its public procurement system became paper-free, and municipal councilors in Sofia switched to online voting due to COVID-19 after Parliament changed local-administration legislation to allow it.8 With the same legislation introduced by GERB’s coalition partner, VMRO, however, councilors were allowed to vote their own salaries. Due to the bill judicial conflict-of-interest proceedings against them that had begun after their election in 2019 were cancelled, despite an earlier restriction on councilors having contracts or any other legal links to firms with municipal participation or to firms that signed contracts with the municipality.9
  • Even as Bulgaria fared relatively well in terms of numbers of coronavirus patients in the spring and summer, the crisis exposed shortcomings in regional health care systems, notably a lack of infrastructure. For example, in Dobrich, a town of just 92,000, hundreds of cases were registered in the summer—in part due to nonimplementation of prevention measures in understaffed hospitals.10 A shortage of medical staff in smaller towns exposed regional health care disparities, as did11 delays in treatment that led to deaths.12
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. 4.254 7.007
  • Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev was often in the spotlight in 2020. Critics accused him of politicizing the institution and protesters urged him to resign, describing him as a link between the government and Peevski (See Civil Society). His media appearances ranged from attacks on the presidency or defendants in ongoing cases, publication of evidence on social media, television stations, or press releases, to overseeing a “specialized anticrime operation” over the theft of €50 in a village.1
  • Tensions rose between him and the president in January, when Geshev announced that he had asked the Constitutional Court to consider whether a sitting president’s immunity is absolute. The petition also aimed to obtain an interpretation of the term “high treason.”2 The war of words deepened as prosecutors investigated links between presidential adviser Plamen Uzunov and businessman Plamen Bobokov in June. As part of the investigation, the prosecution ordered a raid on the offices of the presidency, sparking outrage and protests. Bobokov was indicted alongside Uzunov on charged of influence peddling in July.3 One instance of court material sent to the media included Bobokov’s chat communications with Uzunov and the president on allegedly awarding consultancy contracts and ambassadorial appointments to Algeria and Nigeria.
  • Geshev engaged in a heated exchange with fugitive gambling tycoon Vasil Bozhkov, who left for Dubai in January before being charged with crimes including tax avoidance, organized crime involvement, and influence peddling (See Corruption).4 In July, criticizing both the president and protesters, Geshev announced new high treason proceedings, allegedly involving Bozhkov, opposition politicians, and journalists.
  • A Constitutional Court ruling in July barred the chief prosecutor from overseeing investigations against himself, paving the way for evidence-based action against the chief prosecutor over alleged wrongdoing.5 In December, ruling-coalition lawmakers proposed amendments to the criminal code that would allow for the appointment of a prosecutor to oversee investigations into the chief prosecutor.6
  • The European Commission (EC) did not lift its Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) on judicial reform and anticorruption fight as it had suggested it might in 2019. The EC has indicated that the mechanism would be lifted once Brussels views Sofia’s judicial reforms as irreversible.7
  • The EU’s new rule-of-law report,8published in September, highlighted the lack of accountability of the chief prosecutor, the vulnerability of the Supreme Judicial Council to government pressure, low levels of trust in the independence of courts, and other issues. It singled out for criticism the “considerable influence” and powers of the chief prosecutor to amend or annul any decision of any other prosecutor that has not been removed by a judge.9
  • In a first, the United States blacklisted Bulgarian judge Andon Mitalov in February, adding him to the so-called Magnitsky list “due to his involvement in significant corruption.” Mitalov had allowed a Russophile movement leader charged with espionage, to receive a state decoration in Russia without consulting prosecutors.10 The Supreme Judicial Council stopped short of firing him, citing a lack of evidence, but launched disciplinary proceedings. Later, reports emerged that the prosecution’s raid on the presidency had been vetted and approved by Mitalov.11
  • The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (CoE) referred in October to a group of cases of alleged ill-treatment and torture of detainees by police and in prisons, and urged Bulgaria to amend antitorture provisions in legislation and introduce video recordings of investigations.12 Separately, Parliament approved in December amendments restricting prison inmates’ right to appeal.13
  • Amendments to the Judicial System Act approved in January removed the requirement for judges, prosecutors, and investigating magistrates to declare membership of professional organizations. The provision had been questioned by the CoE’s Venice Commission which had expressed concern that it threatened freedom of association.14
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
  • In previous years, nearly any corruption or embezzlement claim was enough to trigger an investigation by the public prosecutor, and former economy and energy minister Rumen Ovcharov was handed a suspended sentence on August 1 in a willful neglect case. Yet, throughout 2020, no other high-profile corruption case ended with a conviction.
  • Top-level public officials were implicated in a number of corruption scandals. They included Borisov, when Barcelona-based El Periódico in February revealed that both Barcelona’s police and Anti-corruption Prosecution were investigating his links to an international money-laundering scheme (both corroborated the reporting). The claims came in addition to allegations from 2015 about Borisov’s links to the purchase of a luxury estate in Barcelona, apparently using funds that were not present in his asset declarations. Borisov later denied the reports.1 In October, the prosecution announced it was still conducting a probe into the affair and had summoned Borisov for questioning.2
  • Claims by businessman Vasil Bozhkov also prompted scrutiny of senior officials. Months after his indictment over the nonpayment of fees,3 Bozhkov claimed he had paid a sum worth roughly €30 million to Borisov and former finance minister Vladislav Goranov to secure “political support” for his business, at their behest. His claims included abuse of office, blackmail,4 and racketeering against him, aimed at taking control of his lottery business, and that he had been forced into paying top officials 20 percent of the lottery's profit.5 Bozhkov further implied Borisov’s adviser Sevdelina Arnaudova had acted as a go-between in their dealings. Two months later, Arnaudova quit the government.6
  • In April, former singer Lilana and her brother were arrested over a probe into EU funds abuses, in which Bozhkov was also implicated. Lilana’s company had developed the road infrastructure agency’s app on repair works and traffic accident data, and the company alerted prosecutors after discovering irregularities in the production of e-vignette (or road toll) stickers. The two were subsequently charged with participation in an organized criminal group that was illegally absorbing EU funds.7 Lilana was released on bail in October.
  • Also in April, Prime Minister Borisov dismissed the head of the state-owned Bulgarian Development Bank, Stoyan Mavrodiev, and the bank’s entire board after it emerged the institution had granted a 75 million lev (€38.5 million euro) loan to a debt-collection firm with 2000 lev (€1,000) in revenue during the coronavirus pandemic. The move followed similar scandals in the past that had involved Mavrodiev, but in which no charges or other consequences emerged.8
  • Antigovernment and anticorruption protests directed the attention of the European Parliament to the situation in Bulgaria, amid discussions on an EU mechanism linking EU funds to the rule of law. EU lawmakers from a number of parties argued during a debate on rule of law and rights in Bulgaria that EU money frequently fell victim to corruption when disbursed to parties in Bulgaria.9

Author: Angel Petrov is journalist on the International News Desk of Dnevnik.bg, a Bulgarian news website, and has a soft spot for covering the Balkans, the Middle East, and the post-Soviet space. He is the former editor in chief of Sofia News Agency, an English-language news service on Bulgaria and previously the Balkans. He has also had bylines with the Financial Times, and was part of BIRN’s Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence in 2019.

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