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Bulgaria: Socialists Backtrack Over Penal Reform

Under pressure from Brussels, BSP approves controversial new legislation - but now appears to have serious doubts about the move.
By Albena Shkodrova

Members of the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, this week unleashed stinging criticism of the new penal code, raising doubts over their readiness to implement legislation necessary for European integration.


After the legislation - which is key Bulgaria’s EU membership aspirations - was passed by parliament on October 13, socialist deputies and ministers expressed their disapproval of some of its principal elements.


At the same time, BSP members of government suggested that the EU would be highly critical of the approved draft.


Slow progress in tackling judicial reform, organised crime and political corruption are threatening to delay Bulgarian accession, which is scheduled for January 1, 2007.


One of Brussels’ main demands was the revision of the penal code in order to improve the efficiency of the courts, but the lack of a political consensus over a number of controversial issues has held up approval of the amended legislation.


It was only passed after the BSP, which won a majority of seats in recent parliamentary elections, agreed last month to drop its pre-election pledge to hold a national debate over the proposed reform.


The new penal code, drafted by the previous ruling coalition between the National Movement Simeon The Second, NDSV, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, DPS, was finally adopted in a dramatic parliamentary session, just 20 minutes before EU Enlargement Commissioner Oli Rehn was due to visit the assembly.


Deputies were eager to complete the vote in time to have it included in the next EU evaluation report, scheduled for release on October 25, as previous deadlines have always been missed.


The newly adopted penal code aims to ensure a speedier procession of criminal cases, for instance shortening the time permitted for investigations from six to two months and enabling prosecutors to take part in them.


It also streamlines authority over enquiries, which was previously divided between three autonomous bodies: the state prosecutor’s office, police and a separate team of investigating magistrates, called National Investigating Service. The police will now deal with the bulk of cases the NIS was probing, while the latter will in future confine itself to serious crimes like terrorism and offences committed by senior state officials.


Rehn - and later representatives of EU embassies in Bulgaria - congratulated parliament after it adopted the new penal code, but the reform had barely been approved before BSP deputies, and subsequently ministerial members of the party, began laying into it. Particularly vocal critics were socialist legal experts Mihail Mikov and Lyuben Kornezov, who returned to their pre-election anti-reform rhetoric.


“This is the end of the National Investigating Service,” declared Kornezov, citing concerns that many magistrates may quit the NIS if much of its workload is transferred to the police. He also questioned whether ordinary law enforcement officers would be skillful enough to probe crimes such as complicated murder cases or complex forgeries.


Mikov, meanwhile, asserted that there hadn’t been sufficient time to properly consider the legislation, suggesting that it might contain serious flaws that could in future embarrass the government.


BSP members of the government, however, were even more trenchant in their criticism of the new legislation. Interior Minister Rumen Petkov and his deputy Boyko Kotzev called for amendments, complaining that police work may otherwise be severely hampered.


They pointed out that officers are unable to gather evidence for the court unless a detective is present, warning that there may not be enough of the latter.


Moreover, BSP interior ministry officials predicted that the EU evaluation report would in any case identify such flaws and require that amendments be introduced


Analysts suggest that the BSP outbursts are little more than posturing, and that the new legislation is unlikely to be changed.


“I think no one seriously expects the spirit of the penal code to be amended,” Rashko Dorosiev, of the Bulgarian think-tank Center for Liberal Strategies, told Balkan Crisis Report, BCR. “But the BSP is now finding it hard to ‘swallow’ the new law, which was drafted by NDSV and contradicts this party’s policy.”


Dorosiev says deputies were under substantial European pressure to adopt the revised penal code, which required the BSP to abandon some of its key pre-election positions, such as to maintain the role of the NIS.


However, the analyst believes that the party has exaggerated its criticisms of the new legislation, suggesting that problems they have with it do not require amendments but could be resolved through ministerial interventions.


Albena Shkodrova is Bulgaria director of BIRN, a localised IWPR project.


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