4 May 1992

Doc. 6597

O P I N I O N

on the application of the Republic of Bulgaria

       for membership of the Council of Europe 1

(Rapporteur: Mr RATHBONE, United Kingdom, Conservative)


General Background

1.       Until late 1989 Bulgaria was dominated by the Communist Party. But the superficial picture of relatively stable politics and economic prosperity had begun to crack long before then. Bulgaria's alleged involvement in the death of Georgi Markov in 1978 and in the attempted assassination of the Pope in 1981, its support for terrorism and drug trafficking, the pervasive corruption and nepotism, and its human rights abuses had severely damaged its international reputation.

2.       Meanwhile, changes in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe were making President Zhivkov and his policies more and more of an anachronism, especially in the eyes of President Gorbachov. The catalyst for change was provided during a CSCE-sponsored Environmental Conference in Sofia in October 1989, when police beat up members of a small environmental pressure group, Ecoglasnost, in front of members of the international press and the diplomatic community. Zhivkov was removed in a palace coup on 10 November 1989.

3.       Over the following year the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) (that is the renamed Communists) was gradually eased out of its positions of power. After the first reasonably free and fair elections in June 1990, the Presidency went to Dr Zhelev, leader of the UDF, a non-Communist umbrella grouping. Although the BSP held on to the government for a further five months they failed to establish their authority, and collapsed on 29 November in the face of a wave of student and labour unrest. Subsequently, after much political in-fighting, a politically independent lawyer, Mr Dimitur Popov, formed a coalition government in December, embracing members of the BSP, UDF, the Agrarian Union (a peasant party), and independents; this was the first genuinely multi-party government in Bulgarian post war history. Seven government posts went to the BSP, four to the UDF, three to the Bulgarian Agrarian Party and five to the Independents. Dimitur Popov was selected to be a non-party Prime Minister.

4.       In January 1991 all the major political parties agreed on a programme of substantial economic and constitutional reform.

Bulgarian Parliament

5.       The Bulgarian Parliament consists of a single chamber (the National Assembly) of 240 members elected for a 4-year term.

Constitution

6.       A new constitution was adopted by the Grand National Assembly on 12 July 1991, with the BSP using its majority to secure acceptance. Much stress is laid in the new constitution on the role of the new Constitutional Court (which has the power to rule on the constitutionality of legislation passed by the National Assembly) and the independence of the Judiciary.

7.       Though the constitution marks a considerable advance on the previous one, it attracted some criticism, especially from the radical right wing of the UDF. The UDF objected that the constitution was a "communist" one which depended for its passage through parliament on the votes of the majority BSP. Others argue that the constitution was ill-suited to modern requirements because it reflected an outdated, paternalistic type of state; that excessive power was vested in parliament while the powers of the President were considerably restricted; and that the constitution ignored the natural rights of the individual and took into account only those rights which the state grants to the individual.

8.       In the light of various investigations into minority rights in Bulgaria by the Council of Europe over recent years (Resolution 846 in 1985, on the situation of ethnic and Moslem minorities in Bulgaria; Recommendation 1109 in 1989 on refugees of Bulgarian nationality in Turkey; Resolution 927 in 1989 on the situation of the ethnic and Moslem minority in Bulgaria), it will not be surprising for members of the Assembly that the absence of more positive provisions for collective minority rights and the continuing ban on religious and ethnically based parties (which later threatened to disenfranchise the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms) have also given cause for concern.

Parliamentary elections

9.       A new Electoral Law was passed on 22 August 1991 establishing a system of proportional representation for parliamentary elections. In September the MRF contested the legally questionable objection to its registration as a party. Council of Europe Ministers raised this with Bulgarian political leaders and authorities, and subsequently the MRF were allowed to participate in the elections held on 13 October 1991.

10.       The Bulgarian National Assembly, Government and Central Electoral Commission invited international observers from the Council of Europe and other national and international bodies. Your rapporteur was a member of our Assembly's Ad Hoc Committee. The full report is published in Doc. 6543 Addendum I. In common with other observer bodies, we concluded in summary that:

-       the elections were broadly free and fair, more so than the June 1990 elections, which themselves were largely accepted by both the Bulgarian people and the international community.

-       the elections were impressively organised. Their complexity was formidable, since they consisted of four simultaneous polls: national, local, council and mayor. Potential for confusion was great, but in the event observer teams found remarkably little.

-       there was no violence.

11.       Following the elections, the Union of Democratic Forces became the largest single party with 34.4% of the vote (110 seats). The Bulgarian Socialist Party gained 33.1% (106 seats). The Movement for Rights and Freedoms won 7% of the vote (24 seats). Other parties failed to clear the 4% threshold to win seats. The turnout was 83.87%.

12.       The Bulgarian Parliament held its first post-election meeting on 4 November and Philip Dimitrov formed the new UDF Government on

8 November. This did not include ministerial posts for MRF members, but the Government depends in parliament on MRF support.

Presidential elections

13.       Bulgaria's first-ever democratic elections for a directly-elected President and Vice-President took place in two rounds on 12 and 19 January 1992. The nominees of the ruling UDF party, the incumbent President Zhelyu Zhelev and his running mate, Mrs Blaga Dimitrova (poet and UDF MP) won - after being forced into a second round - with 53% of the vote. Turnout was around 76%.

The Constitutional Court

14.       As provided in the Constitution, this Court was established in September 1991. It is composed of 12 members, one-third elected by the National Assembly, one-third elected by the Judges of the Supreme Courts and one-third appointed by the President of the Republic. There have been some questions raised about membership of the Court, specifically due to some links to the previous communist regime. But by history and by clearly-stated intent, Bulgaria's commitment to an independent judiciary of the highest professional and moral integrity should mean that the Constitutional Court will operate as it should as the interpreter of the Constitution and the defender of proper constitutional practice.

15.       The Constitutional Court has an extremely important role in interpreting the constitutionality of laws and ruling on the compatibility between the Constitution and international legal instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights. Reassurances have been given that the Court would uphold the Convention's supremacy over the Constitution should one be found at variance with the other, at time of ratification.

16.       This is specially important in the light of the Court's present consideration of the legality of the MRF, accused of being a mainly ethnic Turkish movement by the BSP, the previous Communist party. This is based on Article 11.4 of the Constitution: "There shall be no political parties on ethnic, racial or religious lines, nor parties which seek the violent usurpation of state power" - unique in Europe, and in fact contrary to guarantees in some national constitutions, for example, Germany and Romania, and in the European Convention of Human Rights.

The Economy

17.       The disintegration of communist trading bloc arrangements has caused serious cutbacks in the supply of oil and other staple products, and has closed the main markets for the country's exports. A serious foreign currency debt crisis, precipatating a unilateral moratorium in 1990 on all servicing, led to cutbacks in trade with the West. With foreign trade virtually paralysed and tight monetary policies, industrial production has been dropping, GDP fell by 15% in 1991 and gross production by 29%. Much of Bulgarian industry is operating at a minimal level because of lack of raw materials, spare parts and fuel. Registered unemployment stands at 432,000 (12%) and is rising - the true figure is probably a lot higher. Retail prices rose by more than 500% in 1991 (mostly due to a leap at the time of price liberalisation): the current annual rate is about 60%. Price liberalisation has alleviated shortages of goods in shops and markets, but prices are high in relation to wages, obliging many Bulgarians to spend nearly all their disposable income on basic essentials.

Agriculture and Food Supply

18.       The agricultural sector faces severe problems. Uncertainty over land ownership has reduced sowing and contributed to under-investment in fertilisers. The problems have been aggravated by shortages of seed and agrochemicals, and mildew caused by late rain in 1991. Supplies of animal feed are expected to be sufficient to last until the spring because of a better than expected maize harvest and extensive slaughtering of livestock in 1990/91. High prices have reduced the demand for meat by 50%, which is consequently in ready supply. A shortage of mineral and vitamin feed additives is to be made up under EC's PHARE programme.

Humanitarian and Technical Assistance

19.       Bulgaria received humanitarian aid (food and medical from the European Community and others) in the winter of 1990/91. Aid has also come from the EC's PHARE programme of technical assistance (25 million ECU in 1991, mainly for agriculture), as well as national Know How Fund contributions. Following an IAEA inspection the EC is providing some 8 million for safety improvements at the Kozlodui nuclear power station (which provides up to 40% of Bulgaria's electricity). Technical failures at the plant have resulted in 50% electricity rationing.

IMF and Economic Reform

20.       Bulgaria joined the International Monetary Fund in October 1990 and in March 1991 agreed a 12-month Standby Agreement (SBA) for SDR 279 million. A successful IMF visit in November 1991 has opened the way to loans from the World Bank and other official lenders and to a re-scheduling of Bulgaria's government-to-government debts in the Paris Club. However most of Bulgaria's $11 billion debt is owed to commercial banks, with which re-scheduling is still under negotiation.

21.       IMF help is conditional on implementation of a far-reaching programme of economic reform and adjustment, including tax reforms, price liberalisation, limitation of the budget deficit, an incomes policy and limited internal currency convertibility.

22.       In 1991/92 important reform legislation has been or is being passed, notably on land ownership, foreign investment, (though it is now being revised), company law, and amendments to the existing law on privatisation. The land law has not yet had its hoped-for effect: only 10% of 2 million landowners had applied for restitution by October 1991, most preferring their holdings to remain within co-operatives. Prices have been liberalised, with the Government retaining powers to regulate the prices of some basic foods and utilities only. The privatisation of small businesses has taken off - 150,000 were registered by October 1991. Legislation on large-scale privatisation is expected very soon.

23.       These economic and financial aspects are mentioned in some detail because of the inter-relationship of democratic development and economic reform. Living standards fell with the start of economic reform a year ago. High prices forced Bulgarians to spend most of their income on increasingly difficult to find food, and on housing and heating. There seems to be a determination to succeed in continuing economic and political evolution. But it is accepted that it is neither easy, nor lacking risky elements.

CONCLUSION

24.       Though social upheaval is one primary risk, there seems to be determination among people and politicians to succeed. New freedoms of democratic choice, media and religion are valued and are being enjoyed.

25.       Even though the transition from communism has already taken two years, little has taken place in the way of economic reform - and Bulgaria's economic problems are daunting. But the economic collapse seems to be generally seen as being the reason for the end of the old regime. And there is acceptance that Bulgaria has taken the decisive steps, which means that irrevocable change has taken place with:

-       a multi-party political system;

-       a culture dominated by political pluralism;

-       re-established constitutional law;

-       free press;

-       freedom of movement and freedom to study one's own language;

-       right to strike;

-       depoliticisation of the army, the police, the courts and the civil service.

26.       The Bulgarian Government has disavowed the Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereignty and abandoned "socialist internationalism". It embraced the policy of good relations with neighbours and of expanding participation in the ongoing process of European integration - as vividly illustrated by its request for full membership of the Council of Europe and acceptance of the responsibilities that involves. This includes "adaptation as necessary of Bulgarian legislation and of the new Constitution to the requirements not only of the European Convention on Human Rights but also the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child" (President Zhelev speaking at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London on 20 February 1991).

27.       On this basis, as recognition of the existence now of a Bulgarian pluralist democracy (as required for membership of the Council of Europe), as encouragement for further political and economic improvement in Bulgaria, and as a crucial step in Bulgaria joining the developing community of European nations, I recommend that this Committee and the Assembly endorse acceptance of Bulgaria as a full member of the Council of Europe at the earliest possible opportunity.

Reporting committee: Political Affairs Committee

Committees for opinion: Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights and Committee on Relations with European Non-Member Countries

Budgetary implications for the Assembly: None

Reference to committee: Doc. 6396 and Reference No. 1724 of 11 March 1991

Opinion: Unanimously approved by the Committee on Relations with European Non-Member Countries on 4 May 1992.


1 1       See Doc. 6591.