Government Accountability

Bulgaria Amends Constitution, Removing Soviet-Era Remnants in Judiciary

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Imagine spending years of your life and untold amounts of money to build a small business and pursue your dreams only to have it all torn down through an “investigation” launched by an unelected and unaccountable government official.

Imagine your local government, or another independent government body, suddenly begins suffering institutional harassment and disruption by the same official. For almost a century, this has been the reality for millions of Bulgarians, even after they broke the chains of one-party communist rule in 1989.

From 1947 until 2023, Prosecutor Generals in Bulgaria operated as “watchdogs,” above the rule of law and immune to discipline or criminal liability. The country’s first prosecutor general in the period immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union summarized his power by boasting: “Only God is above me.”

Entrepreneurs in the country faced constant uncertainty about what might happen if they were at the mercy of unscrupulous prosecutors dispatched by this office, earning Bulgaria a widespread reputation for corruption among European Union countries.

For years, the Institute for Market Economics (IME), an Atlas Network partner based in the nation’s capital of Sofia, demanded accountability and oversight for Bulgaria’s judicial officials. IME worked with Bulgarian policymakers on this dysfunctional vestige of their formerly socialist system, proposing solutions that would ensure a role for prosecutors that was limited only to criminal issues, taking away their unrestricted ability to meddle in the lives and businesses of law-abiding citizens.

IME’s campaign bore fruit in December 2023, when the Bulgarian National Assembly voted to amend the constitution to curtail the powers of the prosecutor general, and reduce the length of their term from seven years to five. IME’s proposal, first introduced in 2019, laid the groundwork for ending unchecked corruption in the judicial system, limiting the power of unelected officials, and creating a stable economic environment for entrepreneurs and investors.

For their outstanding efforts and success, IME was named the winner of Atlas Network's 2024 Europe Liberty Award.

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Ivan Bregov, head of IME's legal program, with Zdravka Kalaidzieva, former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, during the Constitutional consultations with the president of Bulgaria. Photo source: БГНЕС

Ivan Bregov, the head of IME’s legal program, said this reform is just the beginning of the organization’s efforts to ensure Bulgaria’s justice system has a strong commitment to the rule of law. IME has also been formally invited by the Bulgarian Ministry of Justice to participate in a newly formed working group to consult on legislative amendments needed to bring the country’s laws in line with the constitutional change.

“The constitutional reform is a key milestone in the development of justice in our country, but our endeavors did not commence, nor will end with it,” he said. “Our consistent efforts over time have yielded results that surpass personal satisfaction. I am proud that our personal efforts feel socially significant.”

“None of this would have been possible without the steadfast support of Atlas Network,” IME Executive Director Svetla Kostadinova said.

“Two grants in 2018 and 2020 empowered the IME Legal Program to work independently, systematically, and effectively. These grants, coupled with small donations from Bulgarian supporters, played a pivotal role in shaping the first proposals for constitutional reform in 2019. Atlas Network believed in our efforts, backed us when few others did, and played an instrumental role in reshaping a nation's Constitution. The support was not just financial; it was a beacon of hope and possibility when many doubted change.”