Freedom in the World
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Parliamentary elections held in June 2005 resulted in no party gaining a majority, and nearly two months passed before consensus was reached and a government was formed. The delay was considered a setback for Bulgaria's aspiration to join the European Union (EU) in January 2007.
Bulgaria became independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. After originally siding with Germany in World War II, Communist Todor Zhivkov ultimately persuaded a none-too-reluctant army to side with the Russians. A Communist government was established in Bulgaria after the Soviet Red Army swept through the country toward the end of 1944. From 1954 to 1989, Zhivkov ruled the country. His 35-year reign ended when a massive prodemocracy rally in Sofia was inspired by the broader political changes sweeping across Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.
In the immediate post-Communist period, the main political actors in the country were the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). The BSP dominated the legislature from 1989 to 1997, and the UDF was in power from 1997 to 2001. The UDF was credited with significant success in privatizing and restructuring most of the state economy as well as winning an invitation for European Union (EU) membership talks.
In 2001, Bulgaria's former child king, Simeon II, returned from exile and formed the National Movement for Simeon II (NDSV). Promising quicker integration into Europe, Simeon attracted a large segment of the electorate. In the 2001 elections to Bulgaria's National Assembly, the NDSV won 120 of the 240 seats; the UDF, 51; and the Coalition for Bulgaria (which includes the BSP), 48. The NDSV formed a coalition with the small Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). By 2003, however, there were signs that Simeon's popularity was beginning to wane.
The government lost its majority in 2004 when 13 members of the Assembly formed their own faction. Their new New Time Party joined the ruling coalition in February, but lack of transparency in the government's handling of privatization of the state-owned tobacco company magnified divisions between the parties.
By 2005, the government of Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg (Simeon II) had lost popular support owing to economic difficulties and widespread corruption. A controversial government plan to boost turnout in the elections involved a lottery in which voters could win prizes ranging from cell phones to a new car. Nevertheless, as a result of voter fatigue, turnout was the lowest in Bulgaria's post-Commu-nist history.
In the June 2005 legislative elections, the BSP captured the most votes but failed to gain a majority. The NDSV came in second, and the MRF third. The new radical nationalist group Attack ran for the first time; it won 8 percent of the vote, generally believed to have come from both the right and the left, but no major party would agree to formally cooperate with it. Drawn-out negotiations between the BSP, the NDSV, and the MRF finally resulted in the formation, in August, of a fragile coali-tion-fragile given political differences, especially between the NDSV and the oth-ers-that controls 169 assembly seats. Sergei Stanishev of the BSP was chosen as prime minister.
Bulgaria signed its accession treaty with the EU in April. It is scheduled to join in January 2007, but the EU could delay for one year if Bulgaria fails to meet its standards. The long time required to form a government after the 2005 elections was widely considered to have slowed Bulgaria on its EU course, given that many reforms still need to be passed.
Bulgarians can change their government democratically. The unicameral National Assembly, composed of 240 members, is elected every four years. Georgi Parvanov of the BSP was elected in November 2001 to a five-year term as president. The president serves as head of state and fills other executive duties. The Assembly chooses the prime minister.
The constitution forbids political groups that act against national integrity, call for ethnic or religious hostility, or create secret military structures. The June 2005 elections included 22 parties (as opposed to 51 in 2001), but were dominated by the center-right NDSV, the left-wing BSP (which has moved away from its Communist past), and the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). Muslims in Bulgaria, mostly of Turkish origin, are almost exclusively represented by the MRF. Several parties in the 2005 elections represented the Roma (Gypsy) minority.
Corruption is a serious concern in Bulgaria. Although overall levels have decreased, investigation and prosecution of cases remain weak. Organized crime dominates several sectors of the economy. A February legal amendment provides for measures to combat high-level corruption, but implementation has not followed through. Bulgaria does have laws in place to promote government transparency, although implementation is incomplete. A new law on financing of political parties was passed in March. Bulgaria was ranked 55 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Bulgarian media have evolved considerably since the end of communism, but political interference and economic pressures leading to self-censorship are problematic. Although the media market is competitive, flawed regulations in some cases and inadequate enforcement in others impede media independence. For example, a Romanian journalist arrested in Bulgaria in November 2004 for filming with a concealed camera was fined 1,000 leva (US$682.60) in December. Although a Bulgarian law does make such action illegal, it had never previously been used against a journalist. In contrast, libel cases are generally decided in favor of media freedom. Internet access is not restricted.
Freedom of religion is generally respected in Bulgaria. The government has in recent years made it difficult for "nontraditional" religious groups-those outside the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Islamic, and Jewish communities-to obtain registration permits allowing them to be active. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has been divided for 12 years between those who support Bishop Maxim, appointed by the Bulgarian Communist Party 30 years ago, and those who support Bishop Inokentii, who was canonically elected. The Bulgarian government favors the former, and it further institutionalized this preference through the 2002 Confessions Act-essen-tially a law on religion that makes Bishop Maxim the only representative of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and thereby withdraws the right of Bishop Inokentii's priests to preach. The Council of Europe and others have criticized the act for restricting freedom of religion.
The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights. The government prohibits the formation of groups that propagate ethnic, religious, or racial hatred, or that advocate achieving their goals through the use of violence. There have been reports that the government has denied ethnic Macedonians and other groups less favorable to the government the right to hold public gatherings. Trade union rights are in place, although laws are insufficient to prevent employers from discriminating against members.
Bulgaria's complicated judicial system is enshrined in the constitution, thus inhibiting reform. Bulgaria is in its fourth year of a judicial reform strategy that has produced some results, but further reforms are needed. Corruption in the judiciary is a major problem. In addition, prosecutors have used their position for political purposes, such as intimidation of whistle-blowers. A new Penal Code adopted in October is designed to improve the timeliness, objectivity, and transparency of the pretrial process.
The number of complaints of torture and ill-treatment continues to decline, although the practice has not ended altogether. Mistreatment by police is less common as a result of human rights training. Still, international watchdogs continue to report problems, including the government's failure to investigate those allegations of ill-treatment of detainees that do arise. Authorities do not consistently respect procedural rights in detention, and use of excessive force by law enforcement has led to injury and even death. Prison conditions are often inadequate.
The situation for minorities has improved in recent years, but Roma in particular continue to face discrimination in employment, health care, education, and housing. Roma are also disproportionately affected by police ill-treatment. A 2003 antidiscrimination law has resulted in a number of landmark judgments in cases of discrimination against Roma, but overall the situation has not improved.
A national plan for equal opportunities for men and women was adopted in December 2004, but funding is insufficient. About 20 percent of National Assembly members are female. Domestic violence is an ongoing concern. Bulgaria is a source country for victims of human trafficking, and internal trafficking is increasing. Roma children are disproportionately affected.