NEW SETBACKS FOR BULGARIA'S DEMOCRACY

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Entering new phase, from 'fragile' to 'ostensible'

The Bulgarian parliament approved a draft counterterrorism bill meant to give wide-ranging powers to law enforcement. The bill will empower the army to be able to make arrests and assume policing functions. It would also grant the police rights to detain citizens, impound vehicles, destruct property, tap communications, impose surveillance on emails, listen in on phone calls and so on and so forth, acting only on suspicion and without any evidence.
Mihail Ekimdzhiev, a human rights lawyer, commented that the new bill essentially means that "some people in the Interior Ministry or the DANS, possibly with the cooperation of the state prosecution service, will try to deprive, by law, citizens of their Constitutional rights."

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the human rights watchdog, was also highly critical because the new bill empowers the authorities to act on "suspicion" and without having any evidence. Citizens not under suspicion but who have presumably been in contact with suspects will also be affected. To put it in another way, you might end up getting arrested if you chance upon an old schoolmate in the street whom the authorities have deemed related to terrorism.

Furthermore, the bill does not envisage any guarantee for the suspects' rights.

All of this, the Helsinki Committee said in a statement, is being done by an interested party, the police, rather than by the nominally independent judiciary. This opens the door to unlimited abuse.

The bill only envisages compensation for damages inflicted by the authorities such as the destruction of property, but not for any non-material damages, for example severe stress suffered during Bulgarian police detention.

Strict counterterrorism legislation exists elsewhere in Europe – and in the face of the stepped-up threats of terrorism it is getting tougher by the day. Obviously, that's the way it should be. However, there are some significant differences between the enforcement of such legislation in the developed democracies, such as the UK, France, Germany, Spain and so on – and Bulgaria. Being what it is – a country where civil society has not matured, opposition parties are weak, the media are at the rock bottom in terms of speech freedoms and there is a general climate of xenophobic hysteria, the Bulgarian system not only has few or no efficient checks and balances but also has a history, particularly in recent years, of using law enforcement arbitrarily for either PR or for its own political purposes. The result so far: at least seven International Court of Human Rights rulings against the state of Bulgaria. The damages, worth hundreds of thousands of euros, will not be paid by those responsible for the actual decisions and orders, but by the Bulgarian taxpayers.

Nikolay Hadzhigenov, another human rights lawyer and civil rights activist, summed it up: "What the GERB failed to achieve through their rejected Interior Ministry Bill during their previous term in office, they now try to push through under the pretext of counterterrorism."

At about the same time, parliament made some final changes to the Elections Act, ahead of the upcoming presidential ballot in the autumn. They were designed to significantly limit the number of polling stations in Turkey, according to one of the strong proponents of the act, the nationalist VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation. To understand the implications of this, one needs a bit of background.

Under the Bulgarian Constitution, any Bulgarian citizens regardless of their place of abode is entitled to vote in national elections. Statistics are not very reliable, but there is an estimated 2 million Bulgarian citizen living outside of Bulgaria at the moment. At least 350,000 of them live in Turkey south of the border, because they (or their parents) were forced to leave Bulgaria in 1989, the final result of the so-called Revival Process. Those people have full voting rights. Under the previous procedure, the Bulgarian state was obliged to open and administer as many polling stations as practical to serve whoever wanted to exercise their Constitutional right. The new act, however, limits the number of ballot stations abroad to 35 per country. Whilst the rights of Bulgarian citizens in London or Chicago will not be affected, the rights of citizens in Turkey will. In fact, to do that has been one of the main political demands by the VMRO and its senior partner, the NFSB, or National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria. Both parties are in the current government.

The Bulgarian courts have a reputation of being neither particularly fast, nor particularly efficient, which explains why for many years now the need for a radical reform of the judiciary has topped the EU's thesaurus of demands to Bulgaria. A recent episode, however, brought some fresh smells into the Bulgarian legal system. A judge in Sofia decided to refuse the registration of Dost, a new political party led by Lyutvi Mestan, the former leader of Turkish-dominated DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Mestan was ejected from the DPS last Christmas by his former mate, Ahmed Dogan, who had said he was retiring but who remained an "honorary chairman" of the DPS. The main reason given by the court was that the word "Dost" meant something in a foreign language. It actually means "friend" in Turkish.

Mestan appeals and in all likelihood the party will be registered by a higher court. However, some linguists as well as ordinary citizens have expressed concerns that from now any party whose name includes "democracy" may be outlawed because democracy, as we all know, is a Greek word.

Last but not least, Vezhdi Rashidov, GERB's notorious culture minister, made what some Bulgarians still not touched by the July sun considered at least a blunder. He wrote a letter to a TV journalist, threatening him not to bite the hand that was feeding him. The journalist in question, Georges Anguélov, is the moderator of a BNT, or Bulgarian National Television, morning show focusing mainly on culture. His sin? He had invited outspoken critics of Rashidov and his policies of actively destroying Bulgaria's historical heritage by erecting faux castles, fortification walls and other "new ruins," which is being done mainly with EU money. Rashidov used his right-of-reply. He sent a letter to the BNT in which he threatened, in written, the moderator.

Some intellectuals in Sofia immediately reached for their pens, and a flurry of accusations, counteraccusations and so on ensued. Half-heartedly, Rashidov apologised, and the affair was quickly forgotten because of the coup attempt in Turkey. The sad truth, however, is that notwithstanding the severity of the Anguélov episode this type of attitude to the media, by senior government figures, is a daily occurrence. The main difference now is that Rashidov did it quite bluntly – and in written. Otherwise, it is business as usual. Bulgaria's inchoate democracy knows little better.

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