Freedom in the World
Bulgaria’s ruling Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) suffered a surprisingly poor showing against the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) in October local elections, a result which many analysts attributed to factors including popular discontent with often painful economic reforms stipulated by international lending institutions. The outcome of the vote was watched closely as a midterm test for the center-right government and its Western-oriented policies before the country’s next general election in 2001. In mid-December, one of Prime Minister Ivan Kostov’s key policy goals was fulfilled when Bulgaria received an invitation from the European Union (EU) to begin membership talks.
Occupied by the Ottoman Empire from 1396 to 1878, Bulgaria achieved full independence only in 1908. Long-standing territorial ambitions led to Bulgaria’s alliance with Germany in both world wars before the Soviet invasion in 1944 and subsequent establishment of a Communist-led government. From 1954 until 1989, the country was ruled by Communist Party leader Todor Zhivkov, who resigned in the wake of a mass pro-democracy rally in Sophia and political changes sweeping Eastern Europe. In the October 1996 presidential election, the UDF’s Petar Stoyanov defeated BSP candidate Ivan Marazov in two rounds of voting. With the exception of a short-lived, UDF-led government elected in 1991, Bulgaria’s parliament continued to be dominated by former Communists until 1997.
Sparked by a deepening economic crisis and growing crime and corruption, a week of mass street demonstrations in November 1996 succeeded in forcing the ruling BSP to agree to early parliamentary elections the following year. One month later, Prime Minister and BSP head Zhan Videnov resigned. In the April 1997 vote for the national assembly, the UDF and its allied factions won 52 percent of the vote and 137 of 240 seats. The BSP captured 58 seats; the ethnic-Turkish-based Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), 15; the Euroleft, 14; and the Bulgarian Business Bloc, 12. UDF leader Ivan Kostov was named prime minister.
During 1999 local elections, low voter turnout in the first round of voting on October 16 forced a runoff ballot to be held seven days later. The UDF captured 101 out of the total 262 municipalities, including the first and second cities of Sophia and Plovdiv, followed closely by the BSP with 94. The MRF party took 14 municipalities; the small Euroleft party, 7; and independent candidates, 29. Although the results were a dramatic improvement for the UDF over its overwhelming defeat in the last local elections held in 1995, they represented a disappointment compared to the party’s landslide victory in the 1997 parliamentary vote. Analysts have blamed the UDF’s poor showing on voters’ discontent with painful economic reforms and government corruption, as well as their dissatisfaction with specific UDF candidates. However, the election’s outcome is likely to pose little immediate threat to the course of Bulgaria’s reform program, which has won praise from Western financial institutions.
In May, parliament approved a request by NATO to use Bulgaria’s airspace in its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The vote followed a heated political debate and public rallies for and against the decision. Opponents of the move, including the BSP, said that Bulgaria would be pushed indirectly into an illegal war threatening to destabilize the entire region, while supporters argued that the country would reap political benefits, including eventual EU and NATO membership.
In late November, Bulgaria agreed to an early shut-down of four reactors at the Kozloduy nuclear power plant, considered to be one of Europe’s most dangerous installations. The decision followed a one-day meeting with representatives of the European Union (EU), which had linked closing the Soviet-designed reactors with Bulgaria’s admission to the EU. In exchange for the closures of the reactors, which produce nearly half of the country’s electricity, the EU agreed to provide Bulgaria with financial compensation. In mid-December, Bulgaria was formally invited to begin membership talks with the EU.
Bulgaria’s ongoing economic reform program resulted in several positive developments throughout the year, including single-digit inflation, a fall in interest rates, and accelerated privatization in the second half of 1999. However, the lingering effects of the war in Kosovo, which disrupted Bulgaria’s trade routes to central and western Europe, and last year’s Russian crisis, contributed to a large trade deficit and one of the lowest levels of foreign investment in the region.
On December 19, Prime Minister Kostov announced a major cabinet reshuffle, the first since his UDF party won elections in April 1997. The formal reason given for the changes was to smooth membership talks with the EU. However, many analysts concluded that the reshuffle was intended to accelerate reforms and to boost public confidence by removing top officials facing allegations of corruption.
Bulgarians can change their government democratically. The president is elected for a five-year term, and the unicameral national assembly, composed of 240 members, is elected every four years. The 1996 presidential, 1997 parliamentary, and 1999 local votes were regarded as free and fair by international election observers.
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of the press, the country’s media suffer from economic hardships, pressure by government authorities and economic groups, and punitive libel and slander laws. State and local officials and businesses attempt to intimidate journalists into providing favorable coverage of their activities, and there have been numerous reports of police abuse of journalists. In June, Alexei Lazarov, a writer with the respected Kapital newspaper, was beaten and stabbed by three unknown assailants. The attack appeared to have been connected to Lazarov’s recent reports on alleged improprieties in the privatization of the Bulgarian Telecommunications Company. The major print media are privately owned, although most of the regional press depend on local government ownership or subsidies. More than 60 private radio stations, most of them local, operate throughout the country. While there are several privately owned regional television stations, there is no national independent television network.
While freedom of worship is generally respected, the government restricts this right for some non-Orthodox religious groups. Organizations whose activities have a religious element are required by law to register with the Council of Ministers. Some groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, have faced harassment and interference in their activities before or in the absence of registration.
The constitution permits the formation of trade unions, and the 1992 Labor Code recognizes the right to strike and bargain collectively. Bulgaria’s two largest unions are the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, a successor to the Communist-era union, and Podkrepa, an independent federation established in 1989. Estimates of the country’s unionized workforce range from 30 to 50 percent, although this number is decreasing as large enterprises lay off workers and many new positions are created in smaller, non-union businesses.
The judiciary is legally guaranteed independence and equal status with the executive and legislative branches of government. However, corruption, inadequate staffing, and low salaries continue to hamper the system. Security forces frequently mistreat prisoners and detainees, and ethnic Roma (Gypsies) are often targets of abuse by police and private citizens.
Freedom of movement within the country and emigration rights are generally respected. Private property rights are formally protected, although corruption, organized crime, and government control of significant sectors of the economy impede competition and equality of opportunity.
Women are underrepresented in government and politics, though several hold elective or appointive offices at high levels. Domestic violence and the trafficking of women for prostitution are serious problems.