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Freedom in the World 2011 - Bulgaria

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 26 May 2011
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2011 - Bulgaria, 26 May 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4dde17c423.html [accessed 16 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Capital: Sofia
Population: 7,590,000

Political Rights Score: 2 *
Civil Liberties Score: 2 *
Status: Free

Overview

The right-wing government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, elected in July 2009, sought to fulfill its campaign pledges to combat organized crime and corruption in 2010. It presided over a series of police operations, indictments of leading opposition politicians, and institutional reform efforts, but the European Union warned in July that additional and sustained improvements – particularly in the judicial branch – would be needed.


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 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 37. Voter turnout was 60 percent.

The new GERB government pledged to tackle corruption and organized crime, including misdeeds by the previous government, and oversaw a series of high-profile reforms, police raids, and prosecutions that extended through 2010. Several former cabinet ministers were indicted for alleged financial misconduct in office, and former prime minister Sergei Stanishev was charged in July 2010 with mishandling classified documents during his tenure, though he claimed the case was politically motivated. In another sign of partisan friction, GERB in March launched an unsuccessful bid to impeach President Georgi Parvanov of the BSP after he secretly recorded and then publicized a conversation with Finance Minister Simeon Djankov, who had accused him of amassing illicit wealth. A member of the new government, Health Minister Bozhidar Nanev, resigned that month after being charged with breach of duty for approving unfavorable drug contracts.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Bulgaria is an electoral democracy. The unicameral National Assembly, composed of 240 members, is elected every four years. Georgi Parvanov of 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 open discussion of the practice reportedly helped to alleviate its effects.Prior to the elections,authorities had increased penalties for vote buying, and nearly a dozen convictions were reported the following year. A recount of votes cast at polling sites in neighboring Turkey resulted in the invalidation of some 18,000 ballots and the reassignment of one parliament seat from the DPS to GERB in early 2010.

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.

Corruption is a serious concern in Bulgaria. The European Commission's July 2010 progress report hailed the GERB government's "strong reform momentum," but warned that major substantive improvements were still necessary. It called for changes including greater institutional capacity for procurement-contract auditing, effective whistleblower protections, and a new emphasis on asset seizures. In late November, the parliament created a new commission to handle conflict-of-interest cases involving senior officials, though it had not begun operating by year's end. Among other corruption cases during the year, businessman Mario Nikolov received a 12-year prison sentence in May for fraud and embezzlement of some €7.5 million ($9.2 million) in EU funds, though he remained at liberty pending the outcome of appeals. Separately, longtime DPS leader Ahmed Dogan was acquitted in October of conflict of interest, having accepted private consulting payments on a publicly funded hydroelectric project while his party was in government in 2008. Bulgaria was ranked 73 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, making it second only to Greece among the worst performers in the EU.

Bulgarian media have benefited from significant foreign investment, 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. A member of the ruling GERB party was forced to resign as deputy speaker of parliament in July 2010 after being accused of trying to quash a report by the privately owned Nova TV on possible corruption among customs officials. Journalists continued to face the threat of violence during the year. Crime writer and radio host Bobi Tsankov was murdered by two gunmen in January, and in February journalist Dimitar Varbanov of the private station bTV was allegedly struck in the head with a hammer by a fraud suspect he was attempting to interview. 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. The authorities in some areas have blocked the construction of new mosques. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

The authorities generally respect the 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. A number of peaceful protests took place during 2010, including a September demonstration organized by the Orthodox Church to call for mandatory religious education and an October march to protest proposed pension reforms.

Bulgaria's judiciary has benefited from a series of structural reforms associated with EU accession. However, the July 2010 European Commission report urged the government to push forward with a judicial reform strategy unveiled in June, noting that increased police and prosecutorial efforts to combat corruption and organized crime had often foundered in the courts, with cases subject to indefinite procedural delays and dismissal on technicalities. While some organized crime figures have been convicted, their cases were resolved through plea bargaining and inordinately lenient sentences rather than successful trials. Amendments to the penal procedure code that took effect in May were designed to streamline criminal trials, provide for witness protection, and ease cumbersome evidence rules; minor improvements in efficiency were reported by year's end.

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 – including suspects in Tsankov's murder in January – were arrested and charged. However, most defendants were released pending trial, and there were no major convictions by year's end. 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 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.


* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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