Freedom in the World
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Georgi Paranov was reelected president in October 2006 in what was viewed as a free and fair vote. The European Commission issued a generally favorable report the same month, prompting the European Union (EU) to grant Bulgaria membership as of January 1, 2007.
Bulgaria gained autonomy within the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and full independence in 1908. It joined the German-led Central Powers in World War I, losing some territory as a result. Having initially sided with Germany again in World War II, Bulgaria’s government fell to a Communist-led coup when Soviet forces invaded in 1944, and the monarchy was abolished shortly after the war. From 1954 to 1989, Communist leader Todor Zhivkov ruled the country. His 35 years in power ended when the broader political changes sweeping the region inspired a massive prodemocracy rally in Sofia.
In the immediate post-Communist period, the main political parties 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 old state-run economy as well as winning an invitation for European Union (EU) membership talks, which began in 2000.
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 National Assembly elections, the NDSV won 120 of the 240 seats, the UDF took 51, and the Coalition for Bulgaria (which included the BSP) won 48. The NDSV formed a governing coalition with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which had won 21 seats, with Simeon as prime minister. By 2003, however, there were signs that his popularity was beginning to wane.
The government lost its majority in mid-2004 when 13 NDSV members of the Assembly formed their own faction. Their New Time party joined the ruling coalition in February 2005, but lack of transparency in the government’s privatization of the state-owned tobacco company magnified divisions between the parties.
By 2005, Simeon’s government had lost popular support owing to economic difficulties and widespread corruption. A controversial government plan to boost turnout in that year’s parliamentary elections included a lottery in which voters could win prizes ranging from cellular telephones to a new car. Nevertheless, turnout in June was the lowest in Bulgaria’s post-Communist history. With 32 percent of the vote, the BSP captured 82 seats.. The NDSV placed second (53 seats), followed by the MRF (34 seats). The nationalist Ataka (Attack) party, running for the first time, took 9 percent of the vote (21 seats). After two months of negotiations, the three largest parties formed a ruling coalition, with BSP leader Sergei Stanishev as prime minister.
The presidential election was held in October 2006. The incumbent, Georgi Parvanov, won a second term against Volen Siderov, leader of Ataka, with an impressive 75 percent of the vote, marking the first time in Bulgaria’s history that an incumbent was popularly reelected as president. The election was deemed free and fair by international and domestic observers. The campaigning period, which started in September, was relatively low key and did not receive much media coverage or attention among the electorate. The voter turnout was approximately 42 percent.
Following a favorable October 2006 report by the European Commission, the EU decided to grant Bulgaria official membership the same month, scheduled to come into effect on January 1, 2007. However, while noting the continuous efforts by the Bulgarian government to fulfill all membership criteria, the commission expressed concern about the state of the judiciary and the continued presence of serious corruption.
Bulgaria is an electoral democracy. The unicameral National Assembly, composed of 240 members, is elected every four years. Georgi Parvanov of the BSP was first elected to a five-year term as president in November 2001 and then reelected in October 2006. The president serves as head of state; however, presidential powers are very limited. The Assembly chooses the prime minister, who serves as head of government.
The constitution forbids political groups that act against national integrity, call for ethnic or religious hostility, or create secret military structures. The June 2005 parliamentary 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, most of them ethnic Turks, are almost exclusively represented by the MRF. Several parties in the 2005 elections represented the Romany (Gypsy) minority.
Corruption is a serious concern in Bulgaria. Under pressure from the EU, the government has stepped up efforts to combat the problem. In December 2005, a new code of ethics was adopted, requiring financial disclosures for government officials and stipulating rules to prevent conflict of interest. In March 2006, constitutional amendments were passed to provide for criminal liability among lawmakers and allow their immunity to be lifted under certain conditions. However, despite these measures, very few high-level officials were prosecuted in 2006. Bulgaria was ranked 57 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Bulgarian media have evolved considerably since the end of Communist rule, but political interference and economic pressures sometimes lead to self-censorship. Although Bulgarian National Television, Bulgarian National Radio, and the country’s state-owned news bureau, the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency, are often very critical of the government’s actions, ineffective legislation leaves the state-owned media vulnerable to government influence. Local media organizations report that politicized intimidation from local authorities and organized crime groups are the biggest obstacles to press freedom. In April 2006, unidentified assailants detonated a bomb at the home of a Nova Television journalist, Vasil Ivanov, causing extensive damage but no injuries. Ivanov had also received threats several months before the attack and had police protection for a period of time. The government does not place any restrictions on internet access.
Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed; however, members of minority religions continue to report occasional instances of harassment and discrimination. The government has in recent years made it difficult for “nontraditional” religious groups—those outside the Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities—to obtain registration permits for their activities. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has been divided since 1992 between those who support Patriarch Maksim, appointed by the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1971, and the minority supporting Metropolitan Inokentii, who was canonically elected. The Bulgarian government favors the former, and it further institutionalized this preference through the 2002 Confessions Act—essentially a law on religion that makes Patriarch Maksim the only representative of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and withdraws the right of Metropolitan Inokentii’s priests to preach. The Council of Europe and others have criticized the act for restricting freedom of religion. The country’s Jewish and Muslim populations were subjected to racist provocations in the media during the 2005 parliamentary and 2006 presidential elections by the nationalist party Ataka. However, according to the Jewish organization Shalom, these attacks had a limited impact on the overall level of tolerance in society.
The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the authorities generally respect these rights. The government prohibits the formation of groups that propagate ethnic, religious, or racial hatred, or that seek to achieve their goals through the use of violence. In previous years, there have been reports that the government has denied ethnic Macedonians and certain other groups the right to hold public gatherings. In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Bulgaria had violated the rights of its citizens by preventing the Macedonian group, Ilinden, from holding peaceful public gatherings. Consequently, in 2006, the authorities allowed Ilinden to hold a public rally. Trade union rights are in place, but the laws are insufficient to prevent employers from discriminating against union members.
The complicated judicial system is enshrined in the constitution, inhibiting reform. Bulgaria is in its fifth year of a judicial reform strategy that has produced some results, but further changes are needed. A law designed to reform Bulgaria’s legal aid administration took effect in January 2006, guaranteeing higher standards of free legal assistance for defendants. In another positive development, the budget for the judiciary increased 18 percent in 2006. However, new provisions on the recruitment of magistrates have not been implemented, and a new Civil Procedure Code had not yet been adopted. Corruption within the judiciary remains a problem.
The number of complaints of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officers continued to decline in 2006, although the practice has not ended altogether. Mistreatment by police is less common partly as a result of human rights training. Although prison conditions are often inadequate, in May 2006 the European Commission noted moderate improvements in living conditions in certain detention facilities.
The situation for minorities has improved in recent years, but the Roma in particular continue to face discrimination in employment, health care, education, and housing. In March 2006, the government adopted the National Program for Improvement of the Living Conditions of Roma and allocated 630 million euros for the next 10 years. Initiatives aimed at keeping Romany children in school seem to be yielding some success, but much still needs to be done to provide the Roma with equal access to health care and employment opportunities.
A national plan to provide equal opportunities for men and women was adopted in December 2004, but funding is insufficient. Women remain underrepresented in political life, making up about 20 percent of National Assembly members. Domestic violence is an ongoing concern in Bulgaria. The country is a source of human-trafficking victims, and internal trafficking is increasing. Romany children are disproportionately affected by the practice.