Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

Despite multiparty elections and a number of reforms, human rights problems persisted in Bulgaria. The "revolution" in Bulgaria was different from the others in Eastern Europe in that it was initiated from above, in a "palace-led" coup. On November 10, 1989, Bulgarian Communist Party chief Todor Zhivkov was forced to step down by the party leadership. During the next year, until November 1990, Bulgaria was governed by the same party, which simply changed its name from Communist to Socialist. The pace of change was correspondingly slow. Parliamentary elections in June, which returned the Socialists to power, were followed by a serious economic crisis that all but paralyzed the new government. Neither the ruling Socialists nor the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (who controlled the presidency) wanted to initiate unpopular measures to streamline the bureaucracy or address the country's enormous economic problems.

A similar paralysis was seen in the lack of leadership on human rights issues. Although many laws at the national level were rewritten to extend human rights to minorities and others, there were few changes at the local level, where administrators were given almost free reign to implement policies as they choose. Many of these local officials were holdovers from the Zhivkov era. Local elections were originally scheduled for the fall of 1990, but were postponed until sometime in 1991.

In late November, mass demonstrations and a general strike brought about the resignation of Prime Minister Andrei Lukanov. In December, a coalition government was formed, the first successful attempt at multiparty rule since the downfall of Zhivkov.

The June parliamentary elections were marked by allegations of physical violence, widespread voter intimidation and some election irregularities. There was also an unequal distribution of resources to parties competing with the party in power. The Socialist (formerly Communist) Party retained control of newsprint and offices, and strictly limited such resources to opposition parties.

Minorities experienced serious human rights problems in 1990, and it was unclear how much the central government was prepared to do to remedy these difficulties. On December 29, 1989, the government reversed Zhivkov's assimilation policy and announced that everyone in Bulgaria would be free to choose his or her name, religion and language. In 1990, legislation was enacted to implement this new policy. However, the initial legislation adopted (the Law on Names) contained many flaws and raised questions about the government's commitment to its new policy. Passed by the National Assembly in March, the law allowed citizens whose names had been forcibly changed during the assimilation campaign to restore their former names. But applicants were required to use a judicial procedure to change their names, and after December 31, 1990, to pay a fee for the procedure. Many individuals whose names had been forcibly changed during the assimilation campaign objected to this procedure. They argued – with good cause – that their names had been taken away by an administrative (non-judicial) procedure, and thus they should be able to restore their names by a simple administrative procedure rather than a cumbersome judicial one. Applicants were also required to retain the traditional Bulgarian name endings (ov, ev, ova, eva), to which many objected. In November, Parliament enacted new legislation to respond to these concerns, allowing the use of an administrative procedure to restore names that had been forcibly changed, deferring fees for this process until 1995, and permitting names without traditional Bulgarian endings.

In March, the National Assembly passed the Law on Political Parties, part of which bans the formation of political parties on ethnic or religious lines. Its effect was felt in the aftermath of the June elections, in which many ethnic Turks supported the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a political movement, led by an ethnic Turk, which advocates human rights for all Bulgarians, including cultural rights for ethnic Turks. Leaders of both the Socialist Party and the Union of Democratic Forces cited the Law on Political Parties in seeking to ban the Movement's 23 deputies from sitting in the Assembly as representatives of the Movement. However, by the end of 1990, this attempt had not succeeded.

In November, a Sofia district court invoked the Law on Political Parties to deny the Democratic Roma Union (an organization that defends Gypsy rights) registration as a political party. The Roma Union had sought registration to be able to participate in local elections.

An amendment to Article 52 of the Bulgarian Constitution was adopted in March which some legal experts argued prohibits the formation of social and cultural organizations on ethnic or religious lines. The amendment reads: "Organizations that endanger the sovereignty, the territorial integrity of the country and the unity of the nation, incite racial, national, ethnic or religious intolerance or violate personal rights and freedoms, as well as fascist organizations and organizations striving to achieve their purpose through violence, are prohibited." In June, the Blagoevgrad regional court denied the Ilinden United Macedonian Organization (an unofficial association which defends the cultural and human rights of Macedonians living in Bulgaria) permission to register as an organization. As a result of this ruling, the Petric mayor and police prevented Ilinden members from gathering petition signatures in October. The same grounds were cited to prevent Ilinden members from holding a congress in August; one Ilinden member was fined 300 leva (the average monthly salary) for attempting to organize and hold the congress.

Those who support such restrictions on the formation of political and cultural groups argued that Bulgaria is a small country which needs to maintain its national identity, particularly since the country has frequently been dominated by foreign powers, notably the Soviet Union and the Ottoman Empire. Mincho Minchev, the speaker of the Fatherland Party of Labor, explained his concerns to Helsinki Watch:

[I]n the past 45 years, the Bulgarian nation lost much of its patriotism. In 50 to 60 years, it is possible that the Bulgarian national will not exist. If at this historical moment we do not unite, I fear we will be doomed. We are for the rights of the individual, but not for the differentiation of separate groups within the country because this would lead to a split of the nation. We are against the generation of separate ethnic identities. We would like to see everyone in Bulgaria call himself a Bulgarian.

While such concerns with maintaining the nation's territorial integrity are widespread in Bulgaria, Helsinki Watch is concerned that they not be addressed by denying freedom of association for all Bulgarians, including Bulgaria's minorities.

Sometimes less abstract concerns, such as simple prejudice or a desire to maintain power, seemed to motivate those who denied minorities their rights, particularly on the local level. During the parliamentary election campaign, local officials frequently intimidated minorities into casting their ballots for the Socialist Party.1 Rumors were spread – particularly in Gypsy communities – that pensions would be reduced or rents raised for those who did not vote for the Socialist candidates. Many Gypsies, not trusting the secret ballot, believed these rumors.

Ethnic tensions rose to the surface as the rigid social control once exercised by the state apparatus loosened. The economic crisis probably exacerbated this tendency and led some Bulgarians to use minorities as scapegoats. For example, the Gypsy community was widely blamed for profiteering on the black market from shortages of food and consumer goods. In most instances, the Bulgarian government did nothing to refute these allegations, and sometimes it even instigated them. For example, the state-controlled television and radio broadcast frequent reports criticizing the Gypsy community for black-market activities, even though many ethnic Bulgarians also trade on the black market. So far, the new government has done little to reduce ethnic tension or to try to heal the wounds that have been created over centuries, particularly during the latter years of Zhivkov's rule.

Bulgaria had other human rights problems unrelated to minorities. State Security (the secret police) continued to monitor the activities of human rights activists and those who were working to promote minority rights. In Preslav, for example, secret police reportedly intimidated those campaigning during the pre-electoral period for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. In the Pirin mountain region, secret police closely monitored the Macedonian group Ilinden and harassed its activists. For example, several dozen Ilinden members were denied exit visas when they attempted to attend a Macedonian meeting in Yugoslavia. Many opponents of the government reported suspicious interference with their telephone and mail services and speculated that State Security was responsible.

In September, President Zhelev pardoned several dozen political prisoners who had been sentenced under the Zhivkov regime. At the end of 1990, there were still some 28 prisoners in jail who may have been imprisoned for political reasons. Nearly all were ethnic Turks. The President's office, as well as the Parliament's Commission on Human Rights, were investigating these cases further, and the President seemed prepared to extend additional pardons for those found to be confined for having exercised their right to peaceful expression.

No trials were held in 1990 of those responsible for human rights abuses under the Zhivkov regime, even though several newspapers and independent groups collected information on the sites of mass graves and on labor camps to which political opponents were sent from the 1940s to the 1960s. Zhivkov himself has been the focus of a criminal investigation into his role in the unlawful imprisonment of political opponents. The government also announced in early 1990 that it would examine the 1978 killing of Bulgarian exile and journalist Georgi Markov, who was allegedly shot with a poison pellet in London by someone carrying an umbrella. However, the investigation appeared to be stagnant at the end of 1990. No other investigations into Zhivkov-era abuses had been announced at year's end.

Although on April 3 the Bulgarian Constitution was amended in several respects to respond to the dramatic political changes of the previous November, the Constitution is still problematic from a human rights point of view. For example, the prohibition on certain ethnic and religious organizations quoted above is an unjustifiably broad restriction on freedom of association. On July 30, the National Assembly established a commission to prepare a new draft by the end of 1990, but the commission took no visible action because the National Assembly was preoccupied with the country's economic crisis and other issues deemed to be more pressing.

On the positive side, the press was free to criticize the government, and many large, peaceful demonstrations took place without government interference.

US Policy

The Bush administration demonstrated strong interest in the June 10 parliamentary elections and on several occasions expressed its hope that Bulgaria would hold "free and fair elections." Indeed, most of the administration's public statements relating to human rights issues focused on the fairness of the parliamentary electoral process. In public fora, the administration failed to address other human rights issues adequately, including the situation of the minorities, past abuses, and invasion of privacy by State Security.

The administration played a positive role in attempting to foster free and fair electoral conditions in June. As early as February, Secretary of State James Baker visited Bulgaria and met with leaders of the ruling Socialist Party and the primary opposition group, the Union of Democratic Forces. He discussed pre-election conditions and expressed the US government's concern that the electoral process be fair. The administration continued to monitor campaign conditions through the US embassy in Sofia and, ten days before election day, issued a three-page statement noting the following:

  • In many instances, the electoral lists reportedly contained numerous errors.
  • The principle of party parity had not been strictly observed in the formation of electoral commissions, especially at the regional level.
  • There had been a number of allegations of physical violence and psychological intimidation against members of various parties, in particular, a number of allegations showing "a consistent pattern of intimidation in provincial areas by members of local government against elements of the population."
  • There was an unequal distribution of resources available to the competing parties in the pre-electoral period, such that "the resources of the ruling party are vastly superior to those of the opposition, and not enough has been done to offset these advantages."

The State Department called upon the Bulgarian Central Election Commission, the government, and the major political parties to resolve these problems prior to election day. On June 5, to highlight its concerns in a dramatic way, the State Department announced that the US Ambassador to Bulgaria had flown to Copenhagen to make a personal report on pre-election conditions to Secretary of State Baker.

Several days before June 10, President Bush announced that he would send a presidential mission to observe the elections, again signaling the administration's concern over their fairness. The presence of the oberserver team helped serve to deter further acts of intimidation against voters, but it undoubtedly was insufficient to erase the fear generated by past intimidation. Its impact might have been greater if the administration had announced the plans to send it earlier, if the team had stayed in Bulgaria for more than two days, and if the team had included the June 17 parliamentary run-off elections within its mandate.

On June 21, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher assessed the election results. He noted that the process had been marred by "irregularities and serious inequities," which "may have had a significant effect on the outcome of the voting." The State Department asked the Bulgarian authorities to investigate all electoral irregularities promptly, and to hold accountable those guilty of intentional misconduct.

The administration has made few public comments on the minorities question. In its June 21 statement on the elections, the State Department noted that diverse viewpoints were represented by the parties that had won the parliamentary elections, "including minorities," and that this was "an important and welcome step" in the process of building a democracy.

Earlier in the year, just after the Bulgarian government announced that it was reversing Zhivkov's policy of forced assimilation, State Department spokesman Boucher publicly welcomed the decision. He called it a "significant step forward in Bulgaria's respect for human rights and in honoring its commitments under the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe agreements." However, the State Department issued no public protest about the attacks against the Movement for Rights and Freedoms later in the year, or about the human rights problems of Gypsies and Macedonians.

When President Zhelev visited the United States in October, President Bush announced that the US government would provide 100,000 tons of feedcorn to Bulgaria. The US President made no public statement on Bulgaria's lingering human rights problems.

The Work of Helsinki Watch

Helsinki Watch focused its efforts in 1990 on the rights of minorities, including ethnic Turks, Pomaks, Macedonians and Gypsies, as well as on constitutional reform and electoral conditions. Helsinki Watch maintained a full-time representative in Bulgaria for much of the year.

Helsinki Watch placed a special emphasis on the rights of minorities, both because it is by far the most serious human rights problem in Bulgaria and because neither of the two major political parties have focused on this issue. On several occasions, Helsinki Watch raised its human rights concerns about the plights of the minorities with government officials, such as President Zhelev's adviser on nationality problems and representatives of the Interior Ministry. Helsinki Watch also met frequently with members of the National Assembly's Commission on Human Rights.

Helsinki Watch has focused considerable attention on the situation of the Turkish and Pomak minorities which have continued to experience human rights abuses since Zhivkov's assimilation campaign was initiated against them in the 1970s. In February, a Helsinki Watch mission traveled to Bulgaria to investigate continuing ethnic tensions. The mission met with representatives of the Turkish and Pomak communities and with Ahmet Dogan, the chairman of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Helsinki Watch issued a newsletter in March which expressed its deep concern about the plight of the Turkish and Pomak minorities. It noted that although conditions had improved somewhat for the Turks and Pomaks after the new government reversed Zhivkov's assimilation policy, significant human rights problems remained. Helsinki Watch called upon the Bulgarian government to guarantee the cultural and religious rights of all of its citizens.

In May and June, another Helsinki Watch mission followed up on the situation of the Turkish and Pomak minorities and visited numerous regions with Muslim populations, including Kurdzhali, Djebel, Orlyak Perperek, Gotse Delchev, Tolbunin, Sumen, Preslav, Kaolinovo and Todor Ikonomovo. The mission participants spoke with ethnic Turks, Pomaks and Bulgarians, and with government officials. They examined not only the human rights problems of the ethnic minorities, but also the situation of the Bulgarians who live in predominantly Turkish regions and also experience human rights problems.

In August, Helsinki Watch issued a newsletter on the continuing human rights problems and tensions in the Turkish and Pomak provinces. The newsletter focused on a number of human rights violations. One section described cases of local officials who discriminated against minorities in contradiction of central government policy. Helsinki Watch recommended that local elections be held as soon as possible to replace old mayors and local councils, and that adequate minority representation be established on local council committees that have responsibility for such matters as education, delivery of social services, and allocation of public resources. Another section focused on the new opportunities for minorities to participate in politics, and recommended that the National Assembly increase these opportunities by rescinding the portion of the Law on Political Parties that banned political parties from forming on ethnic or religious lines. The newsletter described some of the shortcomings of the Law on Names, enacted in March, and recommended that the law be amended to allow Turks and Pomaks to reclaim their names through a simple administrative procedure, and to enable them to take their names without traditional Bulgarian endings. Another section focused on the relations between ethnic Turks and Bulgarians, and noted that the assimilation campaign had produced deep tensions and psychological wounds in regions cohabitated by these two ethnic groups. The newsletter noted that these "lingering tensions may prove to be the most difficult problem for the new government to solve." It recommended that a special commission be appointed to examine the causes of the assimilation campaign, and that the results be made public. It also recommended that the National Assembly adopt a law to prohibit managers and workers in state-owned enterprises from discriminating against minorities, and that the government investigate and prosecute alleged violations of civil rights.

In the fall, Helsinki Watch began an investigation of the situations of the Macedonian and Gypsy minorities, two groups that have received little attention in the international human rights community despite the significant human rights problems that they face. In November, a Helsinki Watch mission visited Blagoevgrad to meet with members of Ilinden, a Macedonian group, and visited Sliven and the Fakulteta region in Sofia, which have large Gypsy populations. While in Sliven, the Helsinki Watch representatives met with the mayor and other local officials to discuss problems that the Gypsies were having with social services, housing and education. They also met with several members of the National Assembly who have an interest in the Gypsy issue, including Manush Romanov, chairman of the Democratic Roma Union, and the Bulgarian Minister for Higher Education. Helsinki Watch will continue to investigate the problems of the Macedonian and Gypsy minorities in Bulgaria, and plans to issue newsletters describing their situations in early 1991.

Helsinki Watch also sent two missions early in 1990 to examine pre-election conditions. In February, Helsinki Watch representatives met with human rights activists and leaders of several political parties to explore changes in the political scene and to examine pre-election conditions. An article on these topics, "The Bulgarian Difference," appeared in The New York Review of Books on May 17. In March, Helsinki Watch issued a newsletter describing the numerous privileges and advantages enjoyed by the Communist Party and calling on the government to ensure that the June elections would be free and fair.

In May, a Helsinki Watch mission again evaluated pre-election conditions. The members visited numerous cities and villages, including Kurdzhali, Sliven, Pernik and Trun. They also met with the Chairman of the Central Election Commission and with the Procurator General. A special "Election Report" was issued by Helsinki Watch from Bulgaria in June, describing significant human rights violations in the pre-election process, particularly in the provinces. The report recommended that the Bulgarian government and the Socialist Party ensure free electoral conditions, noting that they had a special obligation to do so because of their responsibility for past abuses and their control of the political system. It also recommended that the government and all political parties encourage voters to renounce violence and all forms of intimidation.

Helsinki Watch has offered assistance to a group of Western lawyers who are planning a constitutional reform project in Bulgaria. A constitutional conference is planned for February 1991.

Helsinki Watch has closely followed the work of the National Assembly's Commission on Human Rights with respect to political prisoners. Helsinki Watch is satisfied that the cases of prisoners who may have been imprisoned for peaceful expression are being adequately investigated and is pleased that President Zhelev has extended pardons to those individuals deemed to be imprisoned for exercising their right to free speech.

Helsinki Watch is also monitoring the investigation of past abuses in Bulgaria and will observe the trial of Todor Zhivkov, should a trial be held.

1 The electoral process was marred by many irregularities which may have affected the outcome of the voting in certain districts.

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