Bulgaria | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2010

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A new right-wing government led by Prime Minister Boyko Borisov took office in July following parliamentary elections. Borisov pledged to combat organized crime and corruption in order to restore European Union (EU) aid funds that had been frozen in 2008. The EU released some of the aid during 2009, but decided to extend its monitoring mechanism into 2010 amid continued problems with the judiciary and the handling of high-profile cases.

Bulgaria gained autonomy within the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and full independence in 1908. Its monarchy was replaced by communist rule after Soviet forces occupied the country during World War II. Communist leader Todor Zhivkov governed Bulgaria 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 ethnic Turkish minority. However, both parties became junior partners in a BSP-led coalition government after the 2005 elections.
Bulgaria formally joined the EU in January 2007, and its first elections for the European Parliament in May featured the emergence of a new center-right opposition party, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), led by Sofia mayor Boyko Borisov. The party gained popularity as the BSP and its allies were blamed for unchecked corruption, particularly after the EU decided to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in aid funds over the issue in July 2008.
GERB led the European Parliament elections in June 2009, taking 5 of Bulgaria’s 17 seats, and went on to capture 116 of 240 seats in the national parliament elections in July. Borisov took office as prime minister with the support of the ultranationalist Ataka party (21 seats), the center-right Blue Coalition (15 seats), and the new Order, Law, and Justice party (10 seats).The BSP-led Coalition for Bulgaria was left in opposition with 40 seats, as was the DPS, with 38.

The new GERB government pledged to tackle corruption and organized crime, including misdeeds by the previous government, and took several steps to that end during its first months in office. Meanwhile, the EU released several tranches of frozen aid for transportation and agriculture over the course of the year, but withheld some of the suspended funds and decided to extend its monitoring of Bulgaria’s performance into 2010.

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 2009 parliamentary elections were held under new rules enacted less than three months before the voting. The changes created 31 single-member constituencies that varied widely by population, leaving the other 209 seats under the existing system of regional proportional representation. Vote buying remained a problem, although monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that open discussion of the practice during the campaign helped to alleviate its effects.The authorities had increased penalties for vote buying before the elections, and made a number of arrests after the balloting; a deputy emergency situations minister was among those charged. Voter turnout was 60 percent, up from 56 percent in 2005 and 39 percent in the June 2009 European Parliament elections.
Bulgaria’s multiparty system includes a variety of left- and right-leaning factions, and the ethnic Turkish minority is represented by the DPS. Roma are not as well represented, with just one Romany candidate winning a National Assembly seat in 2009. Roma are also seen as vulnerable to vote-buying and intimidation efforts.
Corruptionis a serious concern in Bulgaria. The European Commission’s July 2009 progress report cited a lack of political will for the paucity of law enforcement action, though it noted some progress with respect to misappropriation of EU funds. Among other corruption cases during the year, a deputy interior minister resigned amid bribery allegations in June, a former DPS lawmaker was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in July for profiting from public contracts, and a former agriculture minister was charged in September for allegedly illegal land swaps. Investigations were launched against at least two other cabinet ministers after they left office following the elections. Margarita Popova, who had led an antifraud unit that won praise from the EU, was named justice minister in the new GERB government, and a respected World Bank economist was named finance minister. The new government also launched an overhaul of the graft-prone customs service, firing more than 500 officials and forcing 3,000 others to reapply for their jobs. Bulgaria was ranked 71 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, tying with Greece and Romania for 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 have at times been critical of the government, ineffective legislation leaves them vulnerable to political influence. The OSCE found that state television favored the incumbents in the 2009 elections, while the major private stations and print outlets provided more balanced coverage. Unlike in previous years, no major cases of violence or intimidation aimed at journalists were reported in 2009. The government does not place restrictions on internet access, but broad information retention rules allow it to access user 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 blocked the construction of new mosques, and the European Court of Human Rights ruled in January 2009 that the government had violated religious freedom beginning in 2002 by intervening on behalf of one side in a Bulgarian Orthodox Church schism. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The authorities generally respect constitutional freedoms of assembly and association. Workers have the right to join trade unions, but public employees cannot strike or bargain collectively, and private employers often discriminate against union members. An antigovernment protest in January 2009 turned violent, leading to over 170 arrests. Other protests during the year remained peaceful, including labor-related demonstrations by policemen in March and workers from many sectors in June.
Bulgaria’s judiciary has benefited from a series of structural reforms associated with EU accession. However, the July 2009 European Commission report found that some judges and prosecutors were allegedly subject to outside influence, and criticized procedural rules that effectively allowed criminal defendants to stall their trials indefinitely. It noted that while some organized crime figures had been convicted, the cases were resolved through plea bargaining rather than successful trials.
Organized crime remains a serious problem, and scores of suspected contract killings over the past decade have gone unsolved. Small-scale bombings with suspected links to organized crime continued to occur in 2009, as did attacks on prominent businessmen and local officials. High-profile lawyer Petar Loupov was murdered in March, while construction magnate Kiro Kirov, who was abducted that month, was released by his kidnappers in April after his son paid a ransom. A similar abduction, allegedly by the same group, was reported in October. In September, a bomb blast killed the wife and child of the interim mayor in Razlog. Incidents of mistreatment by police have been reported, and prison conditions remain inadequate in many places.
Ethnic minorities, particularly Roma, continue to face discrimination in employment, health care, education, and housing. Sexual minorities also face discrimination.
Women remain underrepresented in political life, accounting for 21 percent of the National Assembly seats after the latest elections. However, the new chamber elected the first female speaker, and Sofia elected its first female mayor to replace newly elected prime minister Boyko Borisov. Domestic violence is an ongoing concern. The country is a source of human-trafficking victims, of whom Roma make up a disproportionate share. Several Bulgarians were arrested during 2009 for allegedly selling infants across the border in Greece.