Freedom in the World 2003

Ratings Change: 

Bulgaria's civil liberties rating improved from 3 to 2 due to continued efforts to bring the country's political, economic, and social environment in line with European standards, improved tolerance towards ethnic minorities, and more openness towards nontraditional religious groups.


In 2002, Bulgaria continued to make slow progress towards its main foreign policy goal of joining European political, economic, and security structures, while debate over proposed amendments to the constitution dominated public discourse in the latter half of the year.

Throughout the Cold War, Bulgaria was regarded as the Soviet Union's most loyal satellite. After the Red Army swept through Bulgaria in 1944, a Communist-led government was established, and from 1954 to 1989 Communist Party leader Todor Zhivkov ruled the country. Zhivkov was forced to resign in 1989 in the wake of a mass pro-democracy rally in Sofia inspired by the broader political changes then sweeping across Eastern Europe.

Throughout the post-Communist period, the Bulgarian political spectrum has revolved around two main political groupings: the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). With the exception of a short-lived, UDF-led government elected in 1991, the BSP dominated Bulgaria's parliament from 1989 to 1997.

In November 1996, a deepening economic crisis and growing crime and corruption rates sparked a week of mass street demonstrations and succeeded in forcing the BSP to agree to early parliamentary elections the following year. In the April 1997 vote for the National Assembly, the UDF and its allied factions won 52 percent of the vote and 137 of the 240 seats. UDF leader Ivan Kostov was named prime minister.

Despite various economic and political problems, the UDF's tenure in office from 1997 to 2001 represented the first government in Bulgaria's post-Communist history to serve a full four-year term in office. It was credited with success in privatizing and restructuring most of the state economy as well as winning an invitation for EU membership talks.

In 2001, a new factor entered the Bulgarian political scene in the form of the country's former king, Simeon II, who returned from his European exile and formed the National Movement for Simeon II (NDSV). Promising quicker integration into Europe, Simeon attracted a large segment of Bulgaria's electorate, and in the 2001 parliamentary elections, the NDSV won 120 of the 240 seats; the UDF, 51; the Coalition for Bulgaria (which includes the BSP), 48; and the Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), 21. The NDSV formed a coalition with the MRF after failing to gain an outright majority. In November 2001, Georgi Parvanov of the BSP was elected president of Bulgaria, winning 53 percent and defeating the incumbent, Petar Stoyanov.

In July 2002, two different proposals for improving the constitutional and governmental system in order to increase the country's chances for joining the European Union were put forth, one by the opposition and one by the government. The proposals ranged from reforming parliament and the judiciary to strengthening the presidency and local and regional governments. Given the complexity of the proposed constitutional changes, little action had been taken by the end of the year. Bulgaria is making slow progress towards further integration into European political, economic, and security structures. In June, Bulgarian officials announced that they had "closed" talks on 20 of the 30 chapters of legislation needed to join the European Union (and by October, 2 more were reported closed), although EU officials claimed much of the work reportedly accomplished was superficial. NATO invited Bulgaria to join the organization in November 2002.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 1999 local and the 2001 parliamentary and presidential elections were regarded as free and fair by the OSCE.

The constitution guarantees freedom of the press. A controversy, however, has emerged regarding amendments to Bulgaria's Media Law; specifically, appointments to the Electronic Media Council (EMC), which monitors compliance with the Media Law. Under the new amendments, the president and parliament can recall and elect members to the EMC, which critics claim is a limitation on freedom of the press. Despite such complaints, in March the Bulgarian Constitutional Court rejected a petition by 50 members of parliament to repeal the amendments.

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. The constitution does, however, forbid the formation of political parties along religious, ethnic, or racial lines.

Freedom of religion is on the whole respected in Bulgaria, although the government has in recent years made it difficult for "nontraditional" religious groups to obtain registration permits allowing them to be active. (Those groups considered "traditional" in Bulgaria are the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Islamic, and Jewish communities.) In May 2002, Pope John Paul II visited Bulgaria. His was the first-ever papal visit to the country, and was considered a watershed event in Orthodox-Catholic relations in Bulgaria

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. An example of the extent to which corruption afflicts official institutions was the August arrest of six leading members of the Barrets, a security unit charged with protecting the president, cabinet ministers, and foreign dignitaries. The six were implicated in a drug-smuggling operation.

Excessive physical force and discrimination by law enforcement officials towards the Roma (Gypsy) population continue to remain serious problems. Nevertheless, there are indications that Bulgarian officials are becoming more sensitive to the need to improve the country's treatment of ethnic minorities. The involvement of the ethnic Turkish MRF in the ruling coalition indicates that many Bulgarians have accepted a multiethnic government, a positive development considering the problems between these two ethnic communities in the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, government officials, including Prime Minister Georgi Parvanov, have declared that the country must do more to improve the situation of the Roma minority in the country, especially in improving educational opportunities for Roma children.

Women now hold 63 of the 240 seats in parliament, having doubled their membership since the last general elections. Trafficking of women for prostitution remains a serious problem.

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)