Freedom in the World 2004


Bulgaria continued to make steady progress in 2003 toward its goal of gaining European Union (EU) membership, and the country remains on schedule to join the union in 2007. In July, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued a positive report about Bulgaria's reform record.

A Communist government was established in Bulgaria after the Soviet Red Army swept through the country toward the end of 1944. From 1954 to 1989, Communist Party leader Todor Zhivkov ruled the country, but his 35-year reign ended when a massive pro-democracy rally in Sofia was inspired by the broader political changes then sweeping across Eastern Europe.

Throughout the post-Communist period, the main political actors in the country have been 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 parliament from 1989 to 1997.

In November 1996, early parliamentary elections sparked by a deepening economic crisis and growing crime and corruption rates brought the UDF into office. 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.

The UDF's tenure in office from 1997 to 2001 made it the first government in Bulgaria's post-Communist history to serve a full four-year term in office. Moreover, according to most observers, the UDF had been the most successful reformist government southeastern Europe had known until then. It was credited with significant success in privatizing and restructuring most of the state economy as well as winning an invitation for EU membership talks.

In 2001, Bulgaria's former king, Simeon II, 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 the electorate. In the 2001 elections to Bulgaria's unicameral parliament, 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.

By 2003, however, there were signs that the public's infatuation with Simeon had worn off. In local elections held over two rounds in October and November, Simeon's party won only 7 percent of the votes cast (down from 40 percent it had won in 2001). Of the other major parties, the BSP won 23 percent of the vote, the UDF gained 14 percent, and the MRF gained 9. The remaining 47 percent of the votes went to a variety of minor parties and to independents. Despite the weak showing of the NSDV, however, the relatively poor showing of the other established parties means that Simeon's government is likely to carry out its term until the next regularly scheduled elections in 2005.

Despite the weakness of the government, Bulgaria has made substantial progress towards joining the EU. In July, the IMF issued a report calling Bulgaria's reform record "excellent" and predicting continuing strong economic growth for the next five years. Bulgaria appears on track to join the EU on schedule in 2007, although if its partner in EU accession that year, Romania, lags behind, there is doubt as to whether the EU will accept Bulgaria by itself.

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 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) deemed the 1999 local and the 2001 parliamentary and presidential elections to be free and fair.

The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, although international observers believe that the government still exerts undue influence over the media, and many journalists complain of feeling harassed about their reporting. The Council of Europe issued a statement during the course of the year criticizing the government's attempts to control public media outlets, as well as criticizing a new media draft law. There were no reports of the government restricting access to the Internet.

Freedom of religion is generally 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 December 2002, the government passed the "Confessions Act"--essentially a law on religion--which some observers claim unduly favors the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The constitution forbids the formation of political parties along religious, ethnic, or racial lines. There were no reports of the government restricting academic freedom.

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights. However, there have been reports that the government has denied ethnic Macedonians the right to hold public gatherings. The government also prohibits the formation of groups that propagate ethnic, religious, or racial hatred, or that advocate achieving their goals through the use of violence.

The judiciary is legally guaranteed independence and equal status with the executive and legislative branches of government. However, the judicial system continues to suffer from a variety of problems, including corruption, inadequate staffing, low salaries for magistrates, and a perceived unwillingness to prosecute crimes against ethnic minorities. In September, the parliament passed amendments to the constitution designed to limit magistrates' immunity and to increase their accountability. Law enforcement officials' use of excessive physical force and discrimination against the Roma (Gypsy) population remain serious problems.

Women now hold 63 of the 240 seats in parliament, having doubled their membership since the last general elections. Trafficking of women for purposes of prostitution remains a serious problem, as does domestic violence against women. One local nongovernmental organization published a survey showing that one in five Bulgarian women is the victim of some form of spousal abuse. A survey conducted in 2002 showed that 40 percent of women in the country had complained of harassment in the workplace.

2004 Scores



Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)