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Human Rights Developments

      Despite a consolidation of many human rights achievements, Bulgaria experienced continuing political tensions. As minorities faced important obstacles to the enjoyment of equal rights, legal reforms did not sufficiently address minority concerns, and bills in Parliament to extend human rights to minorities received little support.

      The National Assembly approved a new Constitution on July 12, which provides broad protection of fundamental liberties. The Constitution significantly curtails the powers of the executive and establishes a Constitutional Court to interpret the Constitution and rescind laws determined to be unconstitutional. However, many Bulgarians view the Constitution as far from perfect, and the final vote was marked by heated debate and protests, especially regarding its provisions on minorities.

      Among the Constitution's deficiencies is its ban on registering political parties organized along ethnic, racial or religious lines. Both as drafted and as applied, this prohibition violates the right of peaceful association. For example, on August 7, the largely ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) organized a parallel political party, which was denied registration by the Sofia City Court. The court claimed that the Rights and Freedoms Party was unconstitutional because it would "pursue a political division of the citizens of this country into communities on an ethnic, religious and language basis." The Supreme Court upheld the City Court's decision on August 28.

      The Constitution also bans associations or religious societies that have political aims or engage in political activity. Again, such a narrow view of freedom of association has no place in a democratic society. Although the MRF ran in the June 1990 elections as a "movement," fears were expressed that this constitutional provision could be interpreted to prevent it from running in future elections. Rejecting the complaint filed by fifty-four members of parliament opposing the participation of the MRF in the October 1991 elections, the Supreme Court approved MRF's registration on September 20. However, organizations representing the concerns of Macedonians and Gypsies were not allowed to participate in the elections.

      The Macedonian organizations Ilinden and Ilinden Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO)-Independent, both named after the Ilinden uprising of August 12, 1903, have been denied registration because the Supreme court determined that they are separatist organizations that threaten the security of Bulgaria. The decision restricted their ability to gather petition signatures and precluded them from participating in the October 13 elections. However, these organizations specifically disavow the use of violence and state that they respect the territorial integrity of Bulgaria. Helsinki Watch takes the position that organizations cannot be prohibited from advocating territorial autonomy for ethnic or national minorities, unless these organizations use or incite violence to achieve their purpose.

Although the Bulgarian Constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to study their mother tongue, the Turkish minority's demand that Turkish be taught in public schools was adamantly contested by nationalist groups. Blockades and hunger strikes occurred after the Minister of Education announced that experimental Turkish classes would start in March. The National Assembly backed away from its initial schedule and, on March 8, voted to postpone Turkish language classes until September. On October 1, the National Assembly passed a law prohibiting the teaching of minority languages in Bulgarian schools. Alternative legislation to make Turkish classes optional was rejected.

      Shortly after the October 13 elections, Bulgaria's departing coalition government lifted the ban on Turkish language education. This step was taken in an effort to reduce ethnic tensions in areas with a large Turkish minority where many Turkish children had been boycotting classes since the beginning of the school year on September 15. On November 21, the newly elected government issued a decree that minority students in the third through eighth grades may receive minority language instruction as an optional subject four hours a week.

      In 1989, at the height of the campaign in Bulgaria to assimilate ethnic Turks, thousands of ethnic Turks fled to Turkey to escape persecution. Many of these Bulgarian citizens are now returning, but their property has been sold by the government to ethnic Bulgarians, and their jobs are no longer available. In July, the government announced that it will provide financial compensation in the amount of approximately 170-180,000,000 leva ($9,000 to $10,000) to ethnic Turks who have returned to Bulgaria and taken up permanent residence.

      A "Bill Against Ethnic Discrimination," introduced by the environmental group EcoGlasnost in January 1991, has not been adopted and is unlikely to be passed by the current Parliament. The bill includes provisions which track international human rights law.

      Gypsies continue to be the targets of discrimination in contemporary Bulgaria, as they have been throughout the country's history. Most Gypsies attend segregated schools where they are denied an equal opportunity to learn the Bulgarian language and, in turn, to advance through the university system. Gypsies also suffer from discrimination in employment, housing and public services, and from the prohibition on political parties formed along ethnic lines.

      By and large, Bulgarians enjoy freedom of the press. A wide range of newspapers and journals flourish without governmental censorship. However, the Bulgarian Socialist Party has been accused repeatedly of using its influence to limit access to newsprint by the opposition press.

      A Parliamentary Committee for Radio and Television was organized in early 1991 to draft new legislation for restructuring and regulating the national broadcast media. The committee has been deadlocked over such issues as whether a parliamentary committee or the government itself should have ultimate control over radio and television. In July, the committee announced that it would listen to all radio broadcasts that month to evaluate journalists' competency "to work in the national mass media." Independent journalists viewed this step as an effort to intimidate the press and restrict its freedom.

      No member of the former government of Todor Zhivkov was tried during 1991 for serious human rights violations under Zhivkov's rule. Instead, former high-level officials were tried for their abuse of power and accumulation of wealth. In June, for example, Stoyan Ovcharov, former minister of the economy, was convicted of illegally arranging university study in Switzerland for Zhivkov's grandson, and was sentenced to two years in prison. Meanwhile, those responsible for serious violations of human rights, such as the forced assimilation of ethnic Turks during 1984 and 1985, and the government's violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations by ethnic Turks in 1989, are not being prosecuted.

      The trial of Zhivkov, the former communist dictator, began on February 26 and soon revealed that the Bulgarian government was not committed to investigate and prosecute crimes of serious human rights abuse. Rather than being charged, for example, with crimes related to the harsh imprisonment of dissidents in concentration camps in the late 1950s or to the forced assimilation of ethnic Turks, Zhivkov was charged with misappropriating state funds and abusing state power by granting favors to friends and relatives. The testimony of the many witnesses called during the first two months of the trial focused on the standard of living of top officials in the Zhivkov government. The trial was postponed in April due to Zhivkov's poor health, and was resumed only on October 23.

      In May, the Bulgarian Socialist Party refused to hand over documents from its archives relating to the period between 1944 and 1948, when thousands of Bulgarians were killed for their opposition to the Communist Party. The files would also be likely to shed light on the identity of bodies found in mass graves in the country and the circumstances surrounding their death. There is no public indication that the prosecutor's office has sought a subpoena or other judicial means to obtain these documents for an investigation into these mass murders.

      Some Bulgarians were troubled by a section of the new Constitution which provides that the only crimes for which there is no statute of limitations are crimes against "peace and humanity." This provision was interpreted as making the prosecution of lesser abuses more difficult.

      On October 13, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), which had been the strongest opposition party in Parliament after the June 1990 elections, won 34.8 percent of the vote. The Socialists won 32.9 percent and the Turkish minority Movement for Rights and Freedoms won 6.9 percent. The UDF selected as premier Felip Dimitrov, a thirty-six-year-old lawyer who favors radical economic reform and is a champion of strengthening democratic institutions. He formed the first Bulgarian government since World War II that is free of Communists.

      The elections were monitored by many foreign and Bulgarian monitors who reported that they were fair and free, and that minor irregularities provided no basis for questioning their validity. However, two U.S.-based monitoring organizations, the National Democratic and Republican Institutes, reported from Bulgaria that some attempts had been made to prevent Bulgarian Turks from voting.

The Right to Monitor

      Human rights organizations that were not ethnically based were able to operate freely in Bulgaria in 1991. Bulgarian and international monitoring organizations were able to conduct fact-finding investigations without government interference. Helsinki Watch is unaware of any human rights monitor who was threatened or prevented from carrying out his or her activities. However, as noted above, organizations such as Ilinden, which are organized to promote the rights of specific ethnic minorities, continue to face considerable obstacles.

U.S. Policy

      Relations between Bulgaria and the United States grew warmer during 1991. There were numerous high-level contacts as the two countries established closer trade relations, and Bulgaria was granted Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status on June 25. Still, the Bush Administration continued to pay close attention to human rights, noting improvements and demonstrating occasional concern.

      Vice President Dan Quayle visited Bulgaria in June to assess the democratic reforms in the country and to discuss closer economic relations. On July 22, the vice president received the Bulgarian deputy prime minister in Washington for further discussions of economic ties. The next day, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher described U.S. policy toward Bulgaria:

The United States welcomes the progress that the Republic of Bulgaria has made in establishing a democratic system of government and a free market-oriented economy. Bulgaria has left behind its totalitarian past; it has shown that it is committed to genuine reform, including respect for pluralism, the rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms....The United States encourages Bulgaria to continue working to build strong, democratic institutions in order to safeguard the progress it has made and will strongly support those efforts.

      The United States announced the establishment of the Bulgarian-American Agriculture/Agribusiness Enterprise Fund, with an initial allocation of $5 million, to promote development of Bulgaria's private sector. In September, during a visit to Washington by Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev, Vice President Quayle also announced additional assistance for Bulgaria in the areas of health care and training of government officials.

      Despite these warming relations, the Bush Administration publicly indicated its disapproval of the law prohibiting political parties organized along ethnic lines. Ambassador Max M. Kampelman, head of the U.S. delegation to the Moscow meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, stated on September 16:

There is strong evidence that the Bulgarian Government is determined to complete the difficult journey toward a firmly anchored democracy. At the same time, we join those who have noted with concern Bulgaria's new constitutional provision prohibiting ethnic or religiously based political movements.

      Bush Administration officials also expressed interest and concern that the October 13 elections be conducted in a free and open atmosphere. The United States sent a delegation of election monitors, which concluded that the elections had been a success with only a few irregularities, and emphasized the dramatic positive changes that have occurred in Bulgaria since the earlier elections of June 1990.

The Work of Helsinki Watch

      Helsinki Watch continued to focus its efforts on protecting minority rights. In January, Helsinki Watch investigated the treatment of Macedonians in Bulgaria and issued a newsletter entitled Destroying Ethnic Identity: Selective Persecution of Macedonians in Bulgaria. The newsletter concluded that the changes wrought by the revolution of 1989 have been largely illusory for Macedonians, whose rights _ particularly their freedom of association _ continue to be repressed by the Bulgarian government. Helsinki Watch urged the adoption of a law that explicitly allows groups to engage in activities without registering if they so choose; the purpose of registration should be limited to such matters as according special legal status to a group for the purpose of opening a bank account.

      Helsinki Watch conducted fact-finding missions to Bulgaria in October 1990-January 1991 and March-April 1991 to examine the treatment of Gypsies. Helsinki Watch representatives conducted several hundred interviews with Bulgarian Gypsies, and met with a wide range of governmental leaders, Gypsy representatives, mayors and local councils, teachers and police officers. The investigations culminated in a report, published in June, entitled Destroying Ethnic Identity: The Gypsies of Bulgaria, which concluded that Gypsies continue to be the targets of disparate treatment in housing, education and employment. Most Gypsies attend segregated schools where they receive an inferior education and are typically channeled into technical training with little opportunity to advance to university studies.

      Helsinki Watch also sent a mission to Bulgaria in February to observe the first week of the Zhivkov trial. The observer concluded that there was little commitment to a thorough investigation and prosecution of serious human rights under the previous regime. Instead, Zhivkov and a few close colleagues were being charged with minor financial crimes.

      A Helsinki Watch staff person maintained an office in Sofia during the first half of 1991, enabling Helsinki Watch to monitor human rights developments closely. Helsinki Watch representatives maintained contact with Bulgarian human rights groups, minority rights groups, and organizations and individuals involved in legal reform and constitutional drafting. Helsinki Watch reports on Bulgaria were translated and published in the Bulgarian press, and interviews with Helsinki Watch staff appeared in Bulgarian publications.

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