Bulgaria | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2012

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A series of small bombings targeted opposition-oriented media and political parties during 2011, and the killing of an ethnic Bulgarian youth in September triggered a series of street protests against organized crime and the Romany minority. Nevertheless, concurrent presidential and municipal elections proceeded peacefully in late October, with Rosen Plevneliev of the ruling Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party defeating Ivailo Kalfin of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party in a runoff vote for the presidency.

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 until 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). In 2001, the National Movement for Simeon II, led by the former monarch, won national elections and formed a governing coalition with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a party representing the ethnic Turkish minority. However, both parties became junior partners in a BSP-led coalition government after the 2005 elections.

Bulgaria formally joined the European Union (EU) in January 2007, and its first elections for the European Parliament in May featured the emergence of a new right-leaning 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 suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in aid funds over the issue in July 2008.

GERB captured 117 of 240 seats in the July 2009 parliamentary elections. 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 right-wing Order, Law, and Justice (RZS) party (10 seats). The BSP-led Coalition for Bulgaria was left in opposition with 40 seats, as was the DPS, with 37.

The new GERB government pledged to tackle corruption and organized crime, overseeing a series of high-profile reforms, police raids, and prosecutions that extended through 2010. However, according to EU progress reports, flawed investigations and deep-seated problems with the judiciary meant that few high-profile cases resulted in convictions.

In 2011, a succession of small bombings struck targets that had been critical of the government, including the weekly publication Galeria in February, the offices of RZS and a constituent party of the Blue Coalition in July, and the car of television journalist Sasha Dikov in October; there were no casualties. Both Galeria and RZS were reportedly linked to suspected crime boss Aleksei Petrov, who was facing racketeering charges after an arrest in the government’s 2010 anticrime campaign. The government argued that the blasts, which coincided with key EU visits or reports, were meant to discredit it. In January, Galeria had published alleged telephone conversations that purported to show Borisov and other officials seeking favors from the customs chief, which led to an unsuccessful no-confidence vote in the parliament.

The September 23 death of a 19-year-old ethnic Bulgarian youth in the village of Katunitsa, in an apparent hit-and-run by an associate of reputed local Romany crime boss Kiril Rashkov, set off violent protests in which some of Rashkov’s properties were destroyed. Over the subsequent week, demonstrations led by right-wing soccer fans and political parties were held in several cities, with overlapping slogans aimed at Roma, Turks, and criminals. Hundreds were arrested, often for carrying weapons, and Rashkov was charged with threatening those who burned his property. After the initial outbreak of violence in Katunitsa, police mobilized to protect Romany communities from protesters.

In the October presidential election, GERB candidate Rosen Plevneliev, a businessman who had served as regional development and public works minister in Borisov’s government, led the first round with 40 percent, followed by Ivailo Kalfin of the BSP with 29 percent, independent former EU commissioner Meglena Kuneva with 14 percent, Ataka leader Volen Siderov with 3.6 percent, and 14 other candidates with smaller shares of the vote. Plevneliev went on to win the runoff with about 53 percent, and was set to replace the term-limited Georgi Parvanov of the BSP. GERB also performed well in concurrent municipal elections, winning in most large cities.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Bulgaria is an electoral democracy. The unicameral National Assembly, composed of 240 members, is elected every four years. The president, elected for up to two five-year terms, is the head of state, but his powers are limited. The legislature chooses the prime minister, who serves as head of government. International observers generally praised the 2011 presidential and municipal elections, but found flaws in the Central Election Commission’s performance, adherence to vote-counting procedures, and the accuracy of the voter list. There were widespread claims of vote buying.

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, though a number of small Romany parties are active, and many Roma reportedly vote for the DPS.

Corruption is a serious concern in Bulgaria. The European Commission’s July 2011 progress report found that the GERB government’s anticorruption efforts had yielded insufficient results to date, noting a lack of final convictions and sentences. A new commission to handle conflict-of-interest cases involving senior officials was created in late 2010, but it was slow to begin functioning in 2011. In April, the parliament reduced public access to an official database of private-sector contracts and activities, threatening transparency and obstructing investigative reporting. In July, lawmakers rejected legislation that would have enabled asset seizures in cases of suspected corruption. Bulgaria was ranked 86 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Bulgarian media have become more vulnerable to political and economic pressures as some foreign media firms withdraw from the struggling market and domestic ownership becomes more concentrated. Although the state-owned media have at times been critical of the government, ineffective legislation leaves them exposed to political influence. Most election coverage in 2011 was paid political content, creating a dearth of independent information. Journalists continued to face the threat of violence during the year. Reporter Mirolyuba Benatova of bTV received numerous threats and insults over her coverage of the initial anti-Roma protests in September. However, in a symbolically important ruling in February, former president Petar Stoyanov was fined for slapping a journalist in 2009. In April, the parliament passed legislation that prescribed up to four years in prison for instigating discrimination based on a broad range of categories; critics warned that the vaguely defined law could be used to curtail media freedom. The government does not place restrictions on internet access.

Members of minority faiths report occasional instances of harassment and discrimination despite constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, and authorities have blocked the construction of new mosques in certain areas. In May 2011, Ataka supporters clashed with Muslims praying outside a central Sofia mosque. Ataka’s actions were widely criticized, including by three of its own lawmakers, who quit the party in protest. The mosque later agreed to curtail use of outdoor speakers and accommodate more worshipers inside. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

The authorities generally respect 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 without facing serious repercussions.

Bulgaria’s judiciary has benefited from reforms associated with EU accession, but recent European Commission reports have noted that increased efforts to combat corruption and organized crime had often foundered in the courts, with cases subject to lengthy procedural delays and dismissal on technicalities. In 2011, this led to public pressure from the interior minister, who criticized judges for releasing organized crime suspects. The EU has also cited ongoing flaws in the judicial appointment process despite de jure improvements enacted in December 2010.

Organized crime remains a serious problem, and scores of suspected contract killings over the past decade have gone unsolved. The GERB government oversaw multiple police operations targeting criminal syndicates in 2010, and several reputed mob bosses were arrested and charged. However, most defendants were released pending trial, and there have been few major convictions to date; the EU has cited weaknesses in investigations, evidence collection, and witness protection for the lack of convictions. Incidents of mistreatment by police have been reported, and prison conditions remain inadequate in many places.

Authorities routinely hold asylum seekers in detention for many months, in violation of Bulgarian law and EU regulations.

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 2009 elections. However, the new chamber elected the first female speaker, and Sofia elected its first female mayor that year. Domestic violence is an ongoing concern. The country is a source of human-trafficking victims, of whom Roma make up a disproportionately large share.