BULGARIA: Bill on the registration of foreign agents undermines civic space

Analysis published by BCNL on 1/11/2022 and accessible here.

Submitted to the National Assembly on 27.10.2022. by a group of MPs from the political party Vazrazhdane the Bill on the registration of foreign agents is another example of the anti-democratic trend in recent years to use legislative initiatives to stigmatize civil society organizations in Bulgaria and attack the fundamental notions of the protection of civil rights – the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly of citizens.

This bill, like all previous ones, contains obvious contradictions with the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria, the European Convention on Human Rights and EU law. It is for this reason that previous attempts to date have been rejected or not considered at all by the Parliament and the parliamentary committees. However, each such bill has been actively used by the proposing party for political propaganda and smear campaigns against certain civil society organisations, media and specific individuals.

History repeats itself…

Back in March 2013 Yane Yanev and a group of MPs submitted a Bill to amend and add to the Law on publicity of the property of persons holding higher State offices, which proposed to introduce the requirement for members of the governing bodies of NGOs for public benefit and their immediate family to declare all their personal income and assets. The implicit aim of the proposal is to restrict, through disproportionate administrative burdens, the creation of new and the activities of existing civil society organisations, as well as to create legal opportunities for institutional pressure and repression on people involved in the management of organizations expressing opinions critical of the government. This proposal was dropped from the final bill passed by the National Assembly, but it has nevertheless spread the intended smear message – NGOs and their affiliates divert funds and carry out questionable activities.

In the same year 2013 Volen Siderov and a group of MPs submitted a Bill to amend and add to the Criminal Code, proposing the creation of a new Article 155c, which reads, “Whoever publicly manifests one’s or others’ homosexual orientation or affiliation by organizing or participating in rallies, marches and parades or through the mass media and the Internet shall be punished by imprisonment from one to five years and a fine from five thousand to ten thousand leva.” The proposal is clearly contrary to the right to expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and is a direct attack on the activities of certain civil society organisations working in the field of human rights.

At the end of January 2014, a new threat loomed over NGOs and citizens’ rights – the broad definition of treason and placing at the service of foreign organisations, included in the all-new draft of the Criminal Code. The document attracted a lot of criticism and the government then decided to hold a broad discussion, which never happened because of the fall from power of the Oresharski cabinet. The draft law is not being re-submitted to subsequent assemblies.

In 2019 the political parties VMRO and Ataka also tried to put the reins on the professional organisations of judges, prosecutors and investigators. With amendments to the Judiciary Act, Ataka demanded that the right to participate in professional and non-governmental organisations be abolished, while VMRO insisted that the funding of these organisations be limited to receipts from members and money from European programmes. When the bill was voted on in plenary in early 2020, the Minister of Justice Danail Kirilov asked that both points be rejected and no debate on them to be held at all.

Later in 2020 , and only two weeks after the EU Court of Justice declared the Hungarian Transparency Act discriminatory, a Bill to amend and add to the Non-Profit Legal Entities Act was introduced in the National Assembly, which introduced measures similar to those in Hungary:

  • Establishment of a Register of Non-Profit Entities financed from abroad at the Ministry of Finance – all non-profit entities (NPOs) for public benefit to declare any funding over BGN 1,000 within 7 days of receipt when the funds are from a foreign country, foreign legal entity or individual, except for funds from the European Union.
  • Powers of the Minister of Finance to initiate a financial inspection of NPOs, to impose financial penalties and to terminate NPOs for failure to file a declaration in case of receipt of foreign funding;
  • Obligation for the chairpersons and members of the management bodies of NGOs to declare their assets annually to the The Counter-Corruption And Unlawfully Acquired Assets Forfeiture Commission when the NGO receives funding from abroad (except EU). Currently, such an obligation is imposed on persons holding senior public positions.
  • Such obligations are not foreseen for NPOs (and persons holding management positions in them) receiving public or private funding originating in Bulgaria.

VMRO’s bill has not even been discussed by the parliamentary committees to which it has been allocated, but its very submission has provoked serious criticism. Thus, the European Commission’s 2020 Rule of Law Report highlights its negative effect: “The already limited civic space in Bulgaria could be further affected in view of the new bill submitted on 3 July 2020” and the need for any amendments actually aimed at ensuring transparency to be in line with EU acquis.

Bill on registration of foreign agents of PP Vazrazhdane – another attack on civil society and citizens’ rights

Foreign agent registration laws gained popularity after 2012, when such an act was adopted in the Russian Federation. Putin then defended the adoption of this repressive law with the now well-known in Bulgaria analogy to the rarely applied and highly criticised US Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938:

“I believe Russia could have a law similar to the one passed in the US in 1938. Why have they protected themselves in this way from outside influence and used this law for decades? Why can’t we do the same in Russia? 

Since 2012, a number of legislative initiatives have been launched in other countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, Slovakia and Israel following the model of the Russian legislation.

In Bulgaria, PP Vazrazhdane spoke about the need to introduce a law on foreign agents as early as 2015: “There should be a law like the American law for foreign-funded NGOs in Bulgaria.” The same party repeats this thesis as part of its election campaign in August 2022, claiming that its legal team has “translated, adapted to Bulgarian law and synchronised with European law, the US law on the registration of foreign agents.”

Therefore, it is no surprise that, in continuation of the already well-known practice of attacking civil society organisations and critical voices by submitting repressive documents to the Parliament, at the end of October 2022 Vazrazhdane has submitted to the 48th National Assembly the Bill on Registration of Foreign Agents.

What the Foreign Agents Registration Bill provides for

The bill on the registration of foreign agents, as submitted, is filled with internal contradictions and vague definitions that allow for a number of hypotheses that could affect not only civil organisations, but also every Bulgarian citizen. The text of the Bill also completely contradicts the repeated statement of the leader of Vazrazhdane – “We copied it almost completely from the American law of the same name” (more about the American law See here.)

In brief, the Bill:

  •  Defines as foreign agents all legal entities and individuals who have received funds over BGN 1,000 during one tax year from abroad, except for funds received under commercial transactions and gambling.
  • It defines “individuals associated with foreign agents” as “the founders, directors, participants or employees of organisations designated as foreign agents” , i.e. anyone with a connection to a particular civil society organisation (not just employees, but also members, donors and volunteers).
  • Establishment of a de facto blacklist of foreign agents maintained by the Ministry of Justice (a concept well known from the Hungarian Transparency Act declared contrary to EU law and the similar proposal of VMRO to amend the Non-Profit Legal Entities Act in 2020) and sanctions if the relevant persons, according to the vague definitions in the draft law, fail to declare their inclusion in it. The condition for a person to be removed from this list is that one does not receive funding from abroad for a period of 5 years.
  • Obligation for any “foreign-assisted entity” to indicate that it is a “foreign agent” on printed publications and other publications as well as on photographs, address cards, print samples, engravings, etc. (the list of forms of expression to which the rule applies is long and is contained in Article 12 of the Bill)
  • A number of prohibitions on foreign agents and their affiliates from exercising activities in schools, kindergartens, The Bulgarian Academy of Science, etc., as well as restrictions on political rights and access to state funding and participation in public procurement procedures. One of the many internal contradictions in the Bill is that under Art. 11, para. 3 prohibits foreign agents from “engaging in political activities,” and Article 7, para. 2. (3) requires them to file “a detailed declaration of any activity of a political nature that the declarant is carrying out or intends to carry out”

Beyond the fact that the proposed bill contradicts the Bulgarian Constitution and the civil rights and freedoms guaranteed by it, as well as a number of international legal instruments to which Bulgaria is a party and through which citizens can defend themselves against the state in case of human rights violations, and abstracting from the internal legal contradictions of the proposed texts, the first conclusions that can be drawn are:

  • political-party agitation based on a demand to limit the rights of citizens and to give the state exclusive power to monitor and sanction anyone – whether an individual or a legal entity, if they want to be active in the civil society, have an opinion, be able to gather and organize protests, etc. is increasing in Bulgaria,
  • for certain political actors their anti-European agenda goes through limiting the possibility for public and open debate of their proposals and behaviour by silencing and compromising independent civil society organisations and media.