Bulgaria | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2009

2009 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Bulgaria’s Political Rights rating declined from 1 to 2 due to backsliding in the government’s efforts to combat corruption and organized crime, which prompted the European Union to suspend substantial aid payments in July.

The European Commission penalized Bulgaria in July 2008 for inadequate progress in combating organized crime and corruption, suspending a large portion of European Union aid payments and barring two Bulgarian agencies from processing such funds. Conditions had failed to improve, and were widely thought to have worsened, since Bulgaria joined the bloc in January 2007. Suspected contract killings and small bombings continued to occur in 2008, and the interior minister was forced to resign in April after two senior subordinates were arrested.

Bulgaria gained autonomy within the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and full independence in 1908. It lost some territory as a result of World War I, and was occupied by Soviet forces toward the end of World War II; the monarchy was abolished shortly after the war. Communist leader Todor Zhivkov ruled the country from 1954 to 1989, when the broader political changes sweeping the region inspired a massive prodemocracy rally in Sofia.

Over the next 12 years, power alternated between the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), successor to the Communist Party, and the center-right Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). The latter achieved significant economic restructuring and won an invitation for European Union (EU) membership talks, which began in 2000. In 2001, the National Movement for Simeon II (NDSV), led by the former king, won national elections and formed a governing coalition with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a party representing the country’s Muslim and ethnic Turkish minorities.

Amid record-low turnout, the BSP captured 82 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections. The NDSV placed second (53 seats), followed by the DPS (34 seats). The new, ultranationalist Ataka (Attack) party took 9 percent of the vote (21 seats), while the remainder was divided among the UDF and smaller parties. The three largest parties formed a coalition, with BSP leader Sergei Stanishev as prime minister. In the October 2006 presidential election, incumbent Georgi Parvanov easily defeated Ataka leader Volen Siderov for a second term.

Bulgaria formally joined the EU in January 2007 and held its first elections for the European Parliament in May, with the new center-right opposition party—Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB)—edging out the BSP. GERB also led municipal elections in the fall, which were marred by reports of vote buying and the organized busing of voters from Turkey.

After a series of warnings, the European Commission in July 2008 suspended 486 million euros ($713 million) in aid funds and barred two Bulgarian agencies from handling EU aid, citing ongoing corruption and organized crime. The commission’s report found that the country, the first EU member to receive such penalties, had failed to extract concrete results from its accession-related institutional and legal reforms. Bulgaria would face more severe sanctions if its performance did not improve. A few days after the EU rebuke, the government survived its second no-confidence vote of the year, and its sixth since taking office in 2005.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Bulgaria is an electoral democracy. The unicameral National Assembly, composed of 240 members, is elected every four years. Georgi Parvanovof the BSP is currently serving his second five-year term as president, having won reelection in 2006. The president is the head of state, but his powers are very limited. The legislature chooses the prime minister, who serves as head of government.

The top vote-earners in the 2005 parliamentary elections were the left-wing BSP, the centrist DPS, and the center-right NDSV, which was renamed the National Movement for Stability and Progress in 2007. In May 2008, an NDSV splinter faction formed the Bulgarian New Democracy party, which sided with the opposition. There are several small Romany parties, and Roma were better represented on the main party lists in the 2007 municipal elections than in the past. GERB, a new center-right party led by Sofia mayor Boyko Borisov, won the most votes in the 2007 polls but has not yet contested parliamentary elections. The July 2008 European Commission report noted that there had been few investigations and no sentences pertaining to alleged vote-buying and other irregularities in the 2007 municipal polls.

Corruption is a serious concern in Bulgaria. Anticorruption reforms associated with EU accession, including the recent creation of the State Agency for National Security (DANS), have yielded few convictions or sentences of high-level officials. The July 2008 European Commission report cited poor monitoring of government procurement and a lack of strategy on combating local corruption, among other problems. It found that Bulgarian officials did not take decisive action when fraud was identified, and it pointed to low public-sector salaries as a factor contributing to graft. Anticorruption efforts apparently slackened after EU accession, with Balkan Insight reporting that 142 people were convicted of corruption in 2007, compared with 602 in 2006. The director of the customs agency and two of his deputies were among several officials who resigned amid corruption allegations in2008, though some disgraced officials in the past have retained political influence and returned to public office. Bulgaria was ranked 72 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, the worst performance in the EU.

Bulgarian media have improved considerably since 1989, due in part to increasing foreign ownership, but political and economic pressures sometimes lead to self-censorship. Although the state-owned media are often critical of the government, ineffective legislation leaves them vulnerable to political influence. Intimidation from the authorities and organized crime groups remains the biggest obstacle to press freedom. Ognyan Stefanov, editor in chief of the news website Frognews.bg, was beaten by multiple assailants armed with hammers in September 2008, leaving him in a coma. A Frognews employee had recently been questioned by the DANS about the site’s alleged affiliation with the anonymous website Opasnite, which published sensational articles involving top government and security officials; Opasnite had been shut down by the DANS earlier in September. The government does not place restrictions on internet access, but it uses a broad interpretation of EU rules on information retention by internet service providers (ISPs), allowing authorities to access users’ information when investigating even minor crimes.

Members of minority faiths report occasional instances of harassment and discrimination despite constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. The authorities in some areas have made it difficult for “nontraditional” religious groups—those outside the Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities—to operate, and the state has denied recognition to one side in a Bulgarian Orthodox Church schism. Mosques suffered a rash of hate graffiti and an arson attack in September 2008, and the Ataka party has used hostile and provocative language aimed at Jews and Muslims during its political campaigns. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

The authorities generally respect constitutional freedoms of assembly and association. Trade union rights are in place, but the laws are insufficient to prevent employers from discriminating against union members. In 2008, farmers mounted repeated protests to demand that the government compensate them for aid withheld by the EU.

Bulgaria’s judiciary has benefited from a series of structural reforms associated with EU accession, with most designed to bolster the courts’ independence, efficiency, and transparency. However, the July 2008 European Commission report highlighted a number of remaining weaknesses, including stalled computerization and inadequate staff and equipment. The report repeated calls for an overhaul of the penal code, and noted that court proceedings were plagued by leaks, outside influence, and crippling delays over minor procedural issues. Earlier in July, a DANS operation led to bribery charges against the head of Varna’s administrative court. Separately, raucous supporters of Ataka leader Volen Siderov in May forced the postponement of perjury proceedings against him and his wife over a 2006 incident in which he had allegedly attacked a motorist after an automobile accident. They were eventually acquitted in October.

Organized crime remains a serious problem in government, in the economy, and on the streets. Ivan Ivanov, deputy director of a police division devoted to fighting organized crime, was arrested in March 2008 for leaking information on investigations. A former Interior Ministry chief secretary was arrested the same month for allowing an illegal wiretap of Ivanov. Interior Minister Rumen Petkov resigned under pressure in April, shortly after the government survived a no-confidence vote over the problems; Petkov reportedly admitted to meeting with crime bosses in 2006 to curb killings ahead of EU accession. Ivanov received an 18-month suspended prison sentence in October, and after a closed trial, Petkov was cleared in November of an alleged leak related to the scandal. Petkov retained his seat in the parliament. None of the roughly 150 suspected contract killings since 1990 have been solved, and new killings in early April 2008 took the lives of well-known crime writer Georgi Stoev and an energy executive. Several small bombings with suspected links to organized crime or business disputes occurred during the year. While official statistics showed a slight drop in overall crime in 2007, some analysts noted that victims often failed to report crimes due to a lack of confidence in the justice system. Meanwhile, the untaxed “grey” economy is believed to account for at least a quarter of gross domestic product. In 2008, the government shut down duty-free shops and gas stations along the borders in an effort to thwart rampant smuggling schemes. Incidents of mistreatment by police have been reported, and prison conditions remain inadequate in many places.

Ethnic minorities, particularly the Roma, continue to face discrimination in employment, health care, education, and housing. Sexual minorities also face discrimination. Dozens of people were arrested in June 2008 while attempting to disperse the country’s first gay rights march by pelting participants with rocks and firecrackers.

Women remain underrepresented in political life, making up about 20 percent of National Assembly members. Domestic violence is an ongoing concern. The country is a source of human-trafficking victims, and internal trafficking is increasing to meet demand in coastal resort areas and border towns. Romany women and children make up a disproportionate number of trafficking victims, accounting for roughly a third of the total.