Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Overview: Bulgaria is a parliamentary democracy in which the prime minister occupies the most powerful executive position. The locus of government power is the central government, on which local authorities depend heavily and which names the governors of Bulgaria’s regions. The current constitution was ratified in 1991. After a period of deep instability in the mid- and late 1990s, governance in Bulgaria was stabilized in 2001 by the selection of Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, son of Tsar Boris III, as prime minister. Although Simeon’s government had lost popularity and party alignments had shifted at the time of the June 2005 parliamentary elections, during the previous four years economic, political, and geopolitical conditions had improved greatly, and a constructive balance had been established between the legislative and executive branches. The broad coalition government of Sergey Stanishev, who replaced Saxe-Coburg-Gotha after the elections of 2005, maintained that balance. European authorities consider the judiciary in need of substantial reform for Bulgaria to qualify for membership in the European Union (EU). Meanwhile, corruption in all branches of government remains a serious problem. In 2006 the President Georgi Purvanov proposed formation of an independent anticorruption service in response to ongoing criticism of government corruption levels by the EU. A parliamentary anticorruption committee, established in 2002, remained in existence in 2006.

Executive Branch: The president, who is chief of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, has limited domestic powers. The president and vice president are elected every five years by direct popular vote and can be reelected once. The president cannot initiate legislation but may return a bill to parliament for further discussion. Parliament, in turn, can overturn such a veto by a simple majority vote. The president appoints the chairmen of the top two national courts, the Supreme Court of Cassation and the Supreme Administrative Court, as well as the state’s top legal representative, the chief prosecutor. The prime minister, who is head of government, is nominally selected by the president and approved by the National Assembly (Narodno Sŭbraniye, parliament). Normally, the selectee as prime minister is the leader of the party receiving the most votes in parliamentary elections. The prime minister nominates a Council of Ministers (cabinet), which must be approved by a majority of the National Assembly. In 2006 Bulgaria’s Council of Ministers included 17 ministers, three deputy prime ministers, and the chairman of the Bulgarian National Bank. The council is responsible for managing the state budget, carrying out state policy, and maintaining law and order. Council members usually come from the majority or plurality party in parliament. In 2006 three ministers were ethnic Turks, and three were women.

Legislative Branch: The unicameral National Assembly (Narodno Sŭbraniye) includes 240 seats, to which members are elected for four-year terms by direct popular vote. Party representation is proportional to votes gained, but a party must gain at least 4 percent of the popular vote to achieve representation. Until 2005 no more than five parties had been represented in the National Assembly, but seven parties hold seats in the current parliament. The assembly enacts laws, schedules presidential elections, approves prime ministers and cabinet members, ratifies international treaties and agreements, and declares war. A president’s refusal to sign legislation can be overcome by a simple majority vote. In the 2005 elections, 53 women were elected members of the National Assembly.

Judicial Branch: After becoming a separate branch in 1991, Bulgaria’s judiciary has reformed slowly. The first major reform was the 1994 Judicial Powers Act, which defined the powers of the branch. Further refinements came in a series of constitutional amendments in 2003. The Supreme Administrative Court and Supreme Court of Cassation, the highest courts of appeal, rule on the application of laws in lower courts. The Supreme Judicial Council manages the system and appoints judges. The 25 members of that council serve five-year terms. Members are ex-officio government officials selected by the National Assembly and members of the judicial system. The Constitutional Court of 12 judges serving nine-year terms interprets the constitutionality of laws and treaties. It can rescind laws that it judges unconstitutional. Members of that court, which is separate from the rest of the judicial system, are selected in equal numbers by the president, the National Assembly, and members of the supreme courts.

Administrative Divisions: Bulgaria is divided into 28 regions (oblasti) and the region surrounding the capital city, which is a separate jurisdiction. At the local level, there are 262 municipalities.

Provincial and Local Government: Regional governors are named by the national Council of Ministers, providing for a highly centralized state. Municipalities are run by mayors, who are elected to four-year terms, and by municipal councils, which are directly elected legislative bodies. Subnational jurisdictions are heavily dependent on the central government for funding; plans call for decentralization, which would expand the power of those jurisdictions.

Judicial and Legal System: The judicial system below the national level includes regional, district, and appellate courts; military courts also exist, separate from the military, at the district and appellate levels. Court cases may have as many as three stages: first instance, appeal, and cassation. The legal system, which guarantees public trial and legal representation, has suffered from backlogs that abridge the rights of some accused individuals. A new code of criminal procedure, adopted in October 2005, redistributed the responsibilities of police and investigatory agencies and simplified the judicial system. This was the latest in a series of judicial reforms aimed at meeting European Union requirements. The prosecutors’ offices are in a centralized hierarchy, parallel to the court structure and run by the chief prosecutor, who is appointed by the president. In 2006 the judiciary retained its long-standing reputation for corruption.

Electoral System: Bulgaria has universal suffrage for citizens 18 years of age and older. Elections are supervised by an independent Central Election Commission that includes members from all major political parties. Parties must register with the commission prior to participating in a national election. Parliamentary elections were held in June 2005, and the next presidential election is scheduled for October 2006. Both of those dates comply with the term stipulations of four years for members of parliament and five years for the president and vice president. New, standardized election procedures were introduced for the June 2005 elections. Local elections are held every four years; those held in 2003 were widely considered free and fair. The parliamentary elections of 2005 yielded an unusual fragmentation of votes in which no party gained more than 31 percent, and seven parties gained at least 5 percent. The minimum for a party to seat delegates in parliament is 4 percent.

Politics and Political Parties: The parties and coalitions that appeared in postcommunist Bulgaria remained relatively consistent through the first 15 years of that period, although coalitions and alliances changed frequently. In the 2001 parliamentary elections, four parties gained 85.5 percent of the votes. The parties that retained dominant positions from the 1990s were the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP, as the Bulgarian Communist Party renamed itself in 1990), the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF, a coalition formed in 1989 as the chief opposition to the communist government), and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF, founded in 1990 to represent the Muslim minority). Since the 2001 parliamentary elections, the BSP has been the largest faction in a leftist grouping called the Coalition for Bulgaria, which won 49 seats in those elections and 82 seats in the 2005 elections. The UDF, which during the 1990s was the major opposition to the BSP and won several national elections, won 51 seats in the 2001 elections, but it fragmented badly after 2001 and gained only 20 seats in the 2005 elections. The Simeon II National Movement (SNM), which former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha founded on his return to Bulgaria in 2001, won exactly half of the 240 seats of parliament in the 2001 elections and gained a majority by forming a coalition with the MRF. However, the SNM’s public approval dropped dramatically in its four years of rule; it did not perform well in the 2003 local elections, and some of its representatives left the party in the early 2000s. In 2005 the SNM showed significant rifts among coalition members, and in the 2005 elections the coalition lost 67 seats and its dominant position.

Some 33 parties and coalitions registered to participate in the parliamentary elections of June 2005, and seven exceeded the 4 percent minimum. Among them was the newly formed nationalist Ataka (Attack) coalition, whose antiminority platform gained 21 seats. Also entering parliament in 2005 was the Bulgarian People’s Union, an agrarian movement founded in 2001 that gained 13 seats. The new parliament was dominated by a coalition of the three largest parties—the Coalition for Bulgaria, SNM, and MRF—which together held 167 seats and were united on the fundamental issue of Bulgarian accession to the European Union.

Mass Media: In 2006 Bulgaria’s print and broadcast media generally were considered unbiased, although the government dominated broadcasting through the state-owned Bulgarian National Television (BNT) and Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) and print news dissemination through the largest press agency, the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency. Several other domestic press agencies were in operation in 2006. Opposition views and minority programming appear frequently in the broadcast media, particularly radio, and newspapers offer a wide variety of positions on political and other issues. Bulgaria has a high ratio of television and radio stations to population; in 2003 some 89 radio stations and 91 television stations were in operation. BNT operates two national television networks; two private companies, Balkan Television (bTV, owned by Rupert Murdoch) and Nova Television (NTV), began broadcasting in the early 2000s. Cable television has spread rapidly; in 2005 some 155 cable operators were in business, and an estimated 55 percent of the population received cable broadcasts. BNR operates two national radio networks, Radio Christo Botev and Radio Horizont, and a number of regional stations. Darik, the first national private radio station, began broadcasting in 2000.

The daily newspapers with the widest circulation are 24 Chasa, Novinar, Standart News, Monitor, Noshten Trud, Sega, and Trud. All of those titles are published in Sofia. The two papers with the largest circulation, 24 Chasa and Trud, are owned by the German media group Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. Many political and single-issue organizations publish their own daily or weekly newspapers. Most European news agencies have offices in Sofia, as do agencies from China, Cuba, Turkey, and the United States.

Foreign Relations: Beginning in the mid-1990s, Bulgaria has improved its relations with most neighboring countries. A water-rights dispute with Greece was resolved in 1997, and relations improved with the initial agreement on terms for the Burgas-Alexandroupolis gas pipeline in 2005. A number of bilateral agreements with Macedonia followed resolution of a linguistic dispute in 1999. Traditionally hostile relations with Turkey have warmed steadily since the end of the Cold War and establishment of full rights for Bulgaria’s substantial Turkish minority. Relations with Russia, Bulgaria’s staunchest ally in the communist era, cooled in the 1990s, but their improvement in the early 2000s survived Bulgaria’s admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004. Tension increased in 2005, however, over the routing of natural gas pipelines. In the early 2000s, a series of major joint projects heralded a great improvement in relations with Romania, a neighbor with a long tradition of territorial and ethnic disagreements with Bulgaria. Between 1998 and 2004, cross-border trade with Romania increased sevenfold. In the late 1990s, Bulgaria had cool relations with Serbia and Montenegro during the regime of the Serb Slobodan Milošević, and some tension remains over Bulgaria’s pro-Western position on Kosovo and resurgent nationalism in Serbia.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Bulgaria’s primary goal has been integration into the institutions of Western Europe. All major political parties back membership in the European Union (EU) as a necessary follow-up to the NATO membership gained in 2004. In April 2005, the National Assembly’s passage of legislation for accession to the EU was considered a major event. Bulgaria’s trade with EU countries continued to grow in the early 2000s; that group accounted for approximately half of both imports and exports by 2002. If Bulgaria achieves EU membership on schedule in 2007, substantial economic disruption is expected as Bulgarian enterprises face international competition. Bulgaria’s active support of the United States-led Operation Iraqi Freedom caused temporary tension with EU member countries not backing that campaign, but its participation also improved relations with the United States.

Membership in International Organizations: Bulgaria is a member of the following international organizations: Agency for Cultural and Technical Cooperation, Australia Group, Bank for International Settlements, Black Sea Economic Cooperation Pact, Council of Europe, Central European Initiative, Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, International Criminal Police Organization, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Finance Corporation, International Labour Organization, International Maritime Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Oceanographic Commission, International Organization for Migration, International Telecommunication Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Nuclear Energy Agency, Nuclear Suppliers Group, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization for Black Sea Economic Co-operation, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Pollution Control Agency, United Nations, United Nations Committee on Trade and Development, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Universal Postal Union, World Confederation of Labor, Western European Union (associate affiliate), World Customs Organization, World Federation of Trade Unions, World Health Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, World Tourism Organization, and World Trade Organization. In 2005 Bulgaria was an applicant for membership to the European Union, with possible membership in 2007.

Major International Treaties: Bulgaria is a signatory to the following international agreements: the Antarctic Treaty and its protocols on environmental protection and marine living resources; Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal; Biological Weapons Convention; Central European Initiative; Chemical Weapons Convention; Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; Convention on Biological Diversity; Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna; Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution and its protocols on nitrogen oxides, sulfur, and volatile organic compounds; Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques; Energy Charter Treaty; European Convention on Extradition; European Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters; Geneva Conventions; International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships; Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer; Ramsar Convention on Wetlands; Southeast European Cooperative Initiative; Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe; Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification; and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol.


Armed Forces Overview: The president is commander in chief of the armed forces. Each of the three military branches has a separate headquarters and command structure. As a new member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Bulgaria’s chief military goal in the mid-2000s is conformity with the equipment and practices of its NATO allies. This goal is to be attained in a gradual modernization plan extending through 2015. This objective includes replacement of a large amount of Soviet-made heavy equipment such as main battle tanks and artillery. In 2005 Bulgaria had 51,000 active-duty military personnel, including about 25,000 in the army, 13,100 in the air force, 4,370 in the navy, and 8,530 on the central staff. The eventual active-duty personnel goal is 45,000. In 2006 about one-third of ground forces and navy personnel were conscripts. In 2005 some 303,000 individuals were serving in the army, navy, and air force reserves.

Foreign Military Relations: Since 2004 the dominant aspect of foreign military relations has been Bulgaria’s activity in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 1994 Bulgaria became a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, participating in joint military exercises and generally supporting NATO missions in the former Yugoslavia. Bulgaria also has had bilateral military agreements with a number of NATO member states. Since its acceptance into NATO, Bulgaria has a military cooperation agreement with Turkey, which includes joint training exercises.

External Threat: In 2005 Bulgaria faced no threat of conventional armed attack.

Defense Budget: In 2004 the defense budget was US$550 million. In 2005 the budget increased to US$633 million. The estimated budget for 2006 was US$705 million.

Major Military Units: In 2005 Bulgaria’s army included three military districts, each with a corps headquarters. One district had an armored brigade, four regiments of the Reserve and Territorial Command, and two reserve brigades. The second district had one artillery and two mechanized brigades. The third district had one armored, one light infantry, and two artillery brigades; three regiments of the Reserve and Territorial Command; and four reserve brigades. There also were one armored reconnaissance brigade; one rocket brigade; two brigades and one regiment of engineers; and two regiments of nuclear, biological, and chemical troops. The air force was divided into two commands, the Air Defense Command at Sofia and the Tactical Air Command at Plovdiv. The former had two air defense squadrons and three surface-to-air missile brigades. The latter had two fighter-bomber squadrons, one antitank/assault squadron, and two transport squadrons. The central navy command ran naval bases at Varna and Burgas and had one brigade of armed personnel.

Major Military Equipment: In 2005 the army had 1,474 main battle tanks, 214 infantry fighting vehicles, 1,643 armored personnel carriers, 692 self-propelled howitzers, 359 mortars, 393 field guns, 222 multiple rocket launchers, 400 antiaircraft guns, and 67 surface-to-air missiles. The air force had 110 surface-to-air missiles, 35 fighters, 94 ground-attack fighters, 30 assault and 26 support helicopters, 15 transport aircraft, and 26 training aircraft. The navy had one submarine, one frigate, seven corvettes, six missile craft, 20 mine countermeasure vessels, two amphibious craft, 10 inshore patrol boats, 10 armed helicopters, and 16 miscellaneous craft.

Military Service: Bulgarian males are eligible for conscription or for voluntary service between ages 18 and 30. The normal term of service obligation for conscripts is nine months, reduced to six months for university graduates. Reserve eligibility extends to age 55. Plans call for conscription of naval and air force personnel to end in 2006 and conscription into the ground forces to end as of January 1, 2008.

Paramilitary Forces: In 2005 Bulgaria had a total of 34,000 paramilitary personnel—12,000 in the country’s border guard regiments, 4,000 in the security police, and 18,000 railroad and construction troops.

Foreign Military Forces: In 2006 no foreign troops were stationed in Bulgaria. However, as part of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership, Bulgaria has negotiated terms for joint training with a small contingent of U.S. troops at three Bulgarian bases in the future.

Military Forces Abroad: In 2005 Bulgaria withdrew all of the 466 troops that had supported Operation Iraqi Freedom, but it sent a 150-member humanitarian group to Iraq in early 2006. Elsewhere, in 2005 Bulgaria had 250 troops with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, about 500 troops with the United Nations (UN) Kosovo Peacekeeping Force (KFOR) in Serbia, and observers with UN forces in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India and Pakistan, and the Middle East. In 2006 the government announced plans to gradually expand Bulgaria’s peacekeeping activities abroad, assigning as many as 1,800 troops by 2014.

Police: The Ministry of Interior oversees several domestic law enforcement organizations. The National Police Service, whose capabilities have been compromised by low wages, is responsible for combating general crime, maintaining social order, and supporting the operations of other law enforcement agencies such as the National Investigative Service and the National Service for Combating Organized Crime. The National Police Service has criminal and financial sections and national and local offices. The National Service for Combating Organized Crime, also under the Ministry of Interior, collects information about national and international crimes involving criminal organizations, mainly trafficking, financial crimes, and domestic and international terrorism. The service also is a coordinating body for other police agencies. The National Investigative Service, which is under the Ministry of Justice, is the national investigative agency for serious crimes, responsible for preparing supporting evidence in criminal cases. In 2005 a new penal code shifted some of that service’s caseload to the National Police Service. The Ministry of Interior also heads the Border Police Service and the National Gendarmerie, a specialized branch for antiterrorist activity, crisis management, and riot control. In 2005 the Border Police Service, which underwent large-scale reform under European Union supervision in the early 2000s, had 12,000 personnel.

Internal Threat: In the early 2000s, Bulgarian and international authorities recognized organized crime and corruption as grave ongoing problems exacerbated by Bulgaria’s geographic location along major international smuggling routes. In 2003 Bulgaria adopted a National Drugs Strategy for the period 2003–8, modeled on the European Union strategy. In 2005 and 2006, an outbreak of bombings and shootings in public areas of Sofia was attributed to turf wars among organized crime groups. Prosecution of organized crime figures, who are known to operate sophisticated networks in Bulgaria, has been rare. Domestic violence against women and organized trafficking in women are considered serious problems. However, between 2001 and 2005 the overall crime rate decreased.

Terrorism: Acts of terrorism have been extremely rare in Bulgaria. Rare occurrences of bombings and assassinations have been linked with criminal rather than ideological groups. Opposition groups have not used acts of violence against the government or private organizations. Internationally, Bulgaria has given strong military and political support to the war on terrorism that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001. This support has included the participation of Bulgarian troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Human Rights: In the early 2000s, Bulgaria generally has been rated highly on the issue of human rights. However, some exceptions exist. Although the media have a record of unbiased reporting, Bulgaria’s lack of specific legislation protecting the media from state interference is a theoretical weakness. The Office of the Chief Prosecutor, which is the locus of national prosecutorial power, has received substantial criticism for its unchecked power and for its poor record in solving major crimes. The European Union (EU) and domestic critics have called for large-scale reform of the judiciary to eliminate well-documented corruption. Conditions in Bulgaria’s 12 aging and overcrowded prisons generally are poor. A reform program initiated in 2005 aimed at relieving prison overcrowding. The police have been accused of abusing prisoners and using illegal investigative methods, and institutional incentives discourage full reporting and investigation of many crimes. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but local governments have attempted to enforce special registration requirements on some groups not specifically designated for protection. Besides the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the faiths so designated are Jewish, Muslim, and Roman Catholic. Court backlogs and weak court administration make constitutional protection of defendants’ rights problematic in some instances. In 2005 and 2006, potential EU membership has promoted human rights reforms.

Index for Bulgaria:
Overview | Government


Country profiles index | What's new | Rainforests | Madagascar