After Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, public expectations of institutional reforms and democratic consolidation were initially high but have since proved disappointing. The key principles and indicators of good governance – namely the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, transparent, accountable and inclusive institutions, active civil society, civic participation and engagement, and a free and independent media have not reached the levels typical for developed and consolidated democracies.
Moreover, in the key indicators of independence of the judiciary, independence of the media and levels of corruption, there has been a significant and worrying decline over the 10-year period.
Freedom House reports
Compared to some Central European countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Baltic states) Bulgaria lags in its democratic development. According to the comparative studies, much of the CEE countries are defined as “consolidated democracies”, while Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia are still considered “semi-consolidated democracies”. It is also remarkable that in the last years there is decline with respect to democratic standards in Hungary and Poland, once being considered exemplary models of democratic and pro-market reforms. Consecutive Freedom House comparative reports highlight the systematic weakness and fragility of the democracies in the CEE/ SEE region, which remain exposed to the threats of populism, corruption, state capture and foreign influence (Nations in Transit 2017).
In the last 10 years, notwithstanding the EU membership of Bulgaria, data present a consecutive negative trend with respect to all key indicators: national democratic governance, electoral process, judicial framework and independence, independent media, corruption, civil society, which leads to declining democracy score (3,29). This indicates stagnation of democratic development (Bulgaria Nations in Transit 2017).
Transparency International reports
Levels of corruption in CEE and SEE countries also differ significantly. According to the Corruption Perception Index 2016 Bulgaria is ranked 75th among 176 countries, thus performing worse than the rest of the countries in the region (Romania is 57th, Greece – 59th, Serbia – 72, Montenegro – 64th, Czech Republic – 47th, Poland – 29th и Slovakia – 54th).
Rule of Law Index
Institutional safeguards for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are of key importance for democratic consolidation. The comparative survey Rule of Law Index (World Justice Project), presents data with regards to the efficiency of the limited government mechanisms, open government, safeguards of the fundamental rights and freedoms, maintaining public order and security, independent, just and effective civil and criminal justice. According to the Rule of Law Index 2016, countries from the Southeastern Europe receive lower results compared to the Central European countries. Bulgaria is ranked 53 among 113 studied countries, with the lowest position among the EU countries. Romania, which implemented far-reaching measures in the fight against corruption and in strengthening the independence of the judiciary, is ranked 32 globally. Hungary, due to the illiberal populist policies of the Orban government in the last years lowers its position to the 49 globally. Slovenia (27), Czech Republic (17), Estonia (14) receive significantly better results, while Croatia is 39, Bosna and Herzegovina is 50, Serbia – 74, Macedonia – 54.
Cooperation and Verification Mechanism
Following Bulgaria’s EU membership, some steps have been implemented in conforming with the European standards guaranteeing the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. The ongoing reforms of the judiciary include institutional, regulatory and organizational measures. Progress is assessed annually in the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism reports delivered by the European Commission. Notwithstanding the constitutional and legislative reforms in 2015 and 2016 the major problems hampering the independence, efficiency and accountability of the judicial branch remain. High-level political corruption continues to erode the legitimacy and efficiency of key public institutions, investigations are ineffective, the number of criminal convictions and final sentences is very low compared to the available data on corruption activities and public perception of political corruption. In this context, the public prosecutors’ office, mainly responsible for prosecuting political and administrative corruption, has successfully evaded reform measures and remains inefficient and totally unaccountable for its actions.
The CVM 2017 report, assessing Bulgaria’s progress over the last 10 years in overhauling its anti-corruption polices and regulatory framework concludes that “The overall institutional set-up to fight corruption in Bulgaria remains fragmented and therefore largely ineffective. As a consequence, generalised problems of corruption at lower levels in the public administration also remain a challenge.”
Additionally, the report critically assesses the specific problems related to the lack of accountability and insufficient functional capacity of the Prosecution Office: “This lack of distinction between its functions and the executive tends to exacerbate suspicions of undue influence and criticisms of a lack of overall accountability of the prosecution. In addition to the heated debate over what is seen by critics as an overly powerful prosecution service, the prosecution is also at the centre of the debate over Bulgaria’s continued lack of a convincing track record of convictions in cases concerning high-level corruption or serious organized crime… Bulgaria has a very limited track record of concrete cases leading to final convictions in court regarding high-level corruption, the clearest way to show that the fight against corruption is a genuine priority. Bulgaria continues to rank among the EU Member States with the highest perceived level of corruption, and corruption is still considered as an important problem by citizens and business.”
According to the independent analysis of the structure, functions and the organizational capacity of the Bulgarian Public Prosecution Office, undertaken with the support of the EU Structural Reforms Support Service, there are systematic problems with the investigation capacity of the Prosecution Office with respect to the money laundering activities conducted by persons occupying high-level political and administrative offices, including cases in which such activities have been reported by the State Agency for National Security (SRSS Independent Analysis of the Bulgarian Public Prosecution Office 2016).
Corruption Perception Index 2016, Transparency International, http://www.transparency.org/news/feature/corruption_perceptions_index_2016
Freedom House Nations in Transit 2017 Report: https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/nations-transit-2017
Freedom House Nations in Transit 2017 Report, Bulgaria: https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2017/bulgaria
Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on Progress in Bulgaria under the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism, Brussels, 25.1.2017, COM(2017) 43 final.
SRSS Independent Analysis of the Bulgarian Public Prosecution Office, December 2016: http://www.mjs.bg/Files/Executive%20Summary%20Final%20Report%20BG%2020122016%20in%20BG.pdf
World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2016: http://data.worldjusticeproject.org/