Strasbourg, 29 November 1996

Monitoring Report CG/BUR (3) 48

Preliminary Report on the situation of local and regional democracy in Bulgaria

Approved by the Bureau of the Congress on 24 November 1996

Rapporteur : Llibert CUATRECASAS (Spain)

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BACKGROUND

In December 1995, the Bureau of the CLRAE decided to send an exploratory mission to Bulgaria to restore contact between the Congress and the country's local authorities and gather information on progress towards local self-government and regionalisation. After a number of postponements, the mission eventually took place from 14 to 16 July 1996.

In the latest local elections, which were held in November 1995, several members of Bulgaria's national delegation to the Congress, including its former President and mayor of Sofia, Mr Yantchoulev, were not re-elected. In practice, the delegation was virtually dissolved. What is more, the government was somewhat tardy in appointing a new delegation and as a result, links between the CLRAE and the Bulgarian municipalities were severed. The CLRAE was also concerned about reports that the Turkish minority in certain parts of the country had made accusations of irregularities during the local elections. It should, however, be noted that these complaints have never been made officially to the CLRAE.

For all these reasons, the Bureau decided to send an exploratory mission to the country to take stock of the situation. In addition to the rapporteur, Mr Nicolas Levrat, Consultant, and Mr Grau Tanner, Secretariat of the CLRAE, took part in the mission.

In this document, the rapporteur would like to present his personal conclusions, which remain provisional, given the brevity of the visit.

Persons contacted

Thanks to the efficiency of the Foundation for Local Government Reform, directed by a former member of the CLRAE, Ms Ginka Kapitanova, a very active schedule for the visit was arranged. The complete list of meetings appears in the appendix, which is why the rapporteur will confine himself here to giving his overall opinion. During the three days in Sofia, the CLRAE mission met with local elected representatives, experts in the field and senior officials in the central government. Regrettably, an unfortunate accident that cost the lives of three members of the Bulgarian Parliament resulted in the cancellation of the meeting with the members of the Parliament's Committee on Local Government.

As to the minister responsible for local authorities, he was unable to receive us because he was also busy with preparations for the next presidential elections. The opinion of the Parliamentary committee and the Minister would have been of vital importance for a comprehensive view of the issues involved in local self-government. For this reason, the conclusions of this report are guarded.

The rapporteur also regrets that only one member of the Bulgarian delegation to the CLRAE, Mr Rossenov, attended the meeting scheduled with it on Tuesday 16 July.

Reform continues in a difficult context

Bulgaria's economy is going through a very difficult period. The national currency, the lev, fell steeply in May, and its decline accelerated sharply in the summer. Unemployment has reached 16 % nationally, but in areas where the big national industries were concentrated, it may attain 80 % of the working population. All in all, the context is a very difficult one for carrying through major political reform.

Moreover, political attention is increasingly focussed on the next presidential elections, scheduled for 27 October, and this may well lead to delays in drafting new legislation on the structure of the state.

But despite this situation, some progress has been made in the area of basic legislation on local self-government. First of all, it should be pointed out that the Bulgarian Constitution contains articles dealing with this question. A basic law on the local administration was approved 1991, ie before Bulgaria's accession to the Council of Europe, and was amended in several respects very recently. As to the fundamental legislative framework, the officials we spoke with were of the opinion that it is technically adequate but poorly applied, perhaps because of difficulties in adjustment which elected representatives and local government officials are experiencing. Needless to say, not everything has been done. A number of gaps remain, and it is conceivable that the reforms will continue on this path but that it will still take some time before they are completed.

Among the positive notes, the officials with whom we spoke stressed the fact that the European Charter of Local Self-Government is part of Bulgaria's domestic law and that Bulgaria may soon ratify the Outline Convention on Transfrontier Co-operation.

A new and promising phenomenon is the recourse to courts of justice to settle jurisdictional disputes between local authorities and the central government. Above all big cities such as Sofia have taken the initiative of instituting proceedings against the government in cases of disputes. Apparently the city of Sofia has already won one of the six cases that it has brought against the government.

In the context of legislative reform, it is worth noting that new legislation was also passed on property last July. It appears that the purpose of this legislation was to give local authorities greater latitude for managing their property assets, which for them could constitute important sources of income. At the time of our visit in July, the central government had still not published implementing regulations for this legislation, which are needed to enable the local authorities too to organise their real estate situation. At the same time, redistribution of property between the central government and the local authorities has been started. Of course, the task is not easy, because it is necessary to decide to whom the various assets will be allotted. It goes without saying that the local authorities will insist that the redistribution be completed as soon as possible. The rapporteur sees this as a very positive sign, especially as having the administration of certain real estate would enable the municipalities to enhance their influence over the daily life of citizens, who in turn might give greater importance to local politics.

One of the amendments to the 1991 legislation concerns the creation of a national association of local authorities, the first of its kind in Bulgaria. Intermunicipal activities are considerable, but municipalities often join together according to political or regional criteria. Work is under way to found a national association shortly. The most optimistic estimates would suggest that it might be operational by the end of the year. In any case, the government has made the validity of the association's creation conditional on two-thirds of Bulgaria's municipalities joining. The latter do not seem to be wasting any time, because they have started a recruitment drive and have even begun to work on a draft statute. According to the officials with whom we spoke, under this project it will be for each municipal council to decide, by majority vote, whether to join the association, membership of which will give the municipality the right to be represented in the General Assembly by two delegates. It should perhaps also be mentioned that membership of this association does not preclude membership of others.

One reform that has been less successful is the introduction of district councils in a number of big cities (Plovdiv, Varna and Sofia). Elected representatives are replacing former local government officers as district heads, the idea being to bring the administration closer to the people. But the rapporteur has heard considerable criticism of this system, much of it stemming from the imprecise definition of the tasks incumbent on the district mayor. One district mayor with whom the rapporteur spoke said that for the moment the system was an empty shell.

More generally, the rapporteur noted that the problem of local finances was a serious one, since the Bulgarian municipalities have been given very broad powers. In Bulgaria, as elsewhere, the municipalities are financed in part by their own resources and in part by state subsidies. The problem is that the current system, which apparently is poorly defined, penalises small municipalities, which are heavily dependent on state subsidies. The local officials whom the CLRAE delegation met were strongly in favour of legislation on public finances to identify more objective criteria for the apportionment of fiscal revenues between the two levels of administration. It was reported to us that the government intended to table a Bill in Parliament in the autumn; consequently, it will be necessary to see how this text develops to learn to what extent it can help improve the difficult financial situation of Bulgarian municipalities. As pointed out earlier, this is all the more essential as the municipalities have heavy responsibilities, such as the management of school buildings and hospitals.

Prospects for regionalisation

The persons whom the delegation met seem to agree that it would be desirable to create an intermediate administrative level at least some of whose bodies would be elected. At the current time, the territory of Bulgaria is divided into nine regions with, at its head, a governor appointed by the Council of Ministers. The question would therefore be whether or not to create a genuine regional administration with a council and perhaps even a governor elected by the people. The rapporteur spoke with experts from the National Centre for Regional Development, a consultative body of the Council of Ministers. For the moment, the official approach is very cautious on this matter and has not gone beyond the stage of a preliminary study. Most likely, a regionalisation Bill will not be submitted to the political decision-makers until 1998. If there are regional elections, they will most probably be held before the end of the century. The rapporteur would point out that these conclusions are very tentative, because owing to the rather low-key political reception of the CLRAE delegation, it was not possible to ascertain the real intentions of the Bulgarian executive in this area.

Follow-up

The delegation noted that the reforms were continuing, albeit slowly, and that there did not seem to be any serious conflicts between the local authorities and the government. The rapporteur preferred not to address accusations of irregularities during the last elections made by a number of persons belonging to the country's Turkish minority, because the matter has not been brought officially before the CLRAE.

Accordingly, the rapporteur does not consider it necessary for the time being to draft a political report of the CLRAE on the state of the reform, but recommends waiting until the national association of local authorities has been created and new legislation on local finances implemented. On the other hand, the Council of Europe might offer assistance and make its experience in these two areas available.

The rapporteur favours the holding of a Lode-Programme conference in Bulgaria to present several models of national associations of local authorities in order to provide local elected representatives in this country with useful examples. It would be important for the participants at this conference to discuss future relations between the national organisation to be created and the various regional associations that have been in existence for some time. This is particularly important because the draft statute of the national association allows a municipality to belong to several associations.

As to the new legislation on local finances, the drawing up of an expert opinion might be considered, taking into account not only various European models, but above all the great number of management responsibilities incumbent on Bulgarian local authorities. Consequently, the rapporteur asks the Bureau to take the initiative in this area by demonstrating to the Bulgarian authorities its readiness to help and giving thought to the composition of a possible joint delegation (one expert and one member of the Congress) to go to Bulgaria to assist with the draft legislation.

The rapporteur welcomes the initiative taken by the working group on "Regionalisation in central and eastern Europe" of holding a meeting in Bulgaria in the spring. He asks the group to report to the Bureau in due course on the progress made in the various projects cited.

Once the association has acquired some experience and the new financial framework is in place, the Congress might again review the situation of local democracy in Bulgaria and draw more definitive conclusions. In the meantime, it would be wise to monitor developments carefully, stay in close contact with the Bulgarian national delegation and be prepared to take action if the situation fails to develop as expected.

APPENDIX
NOTES ON THE BULGARIAN ACT

on local self-government and local administration

(No. 77/1991)

as amended in 1995 by SG (?) Nos. 24, 49 and 65

Nicolas Levrat,
Free University of Brussels
European Institute of the University of Geneva

Generally speaking, the amendments made to Act 77/91 in 1995 do not fundamentally affect the issues relating to the self-government of territorial authorities in Bulgaria. Section 7 in particular, which defines "regions", has not been amended and continues to consider them to be administrative units without an elected government. Thus, the Bulgarian local authorities have not been significantly strengthened by these amendments. Bulgaria displays a certain tendency towards a form of delegation which probably cannot be likened - even at municipal level - to decentralisation.

On the other hand, by repealing the provisions on the redrawing of local authority boundaries, notably the whole of Part 10 of the Act, the Bulgarian Government has indicated that the local authorities are no longer considered to be in a transitional phase, but that their situation has stabilised.

The progress made in defining the powers of the local authorities should enhance the various bodies' efficiency. For example, Section 21 clarifies the role of the Municipal Council with regard both to the Mayor and the district (or neighbourhood) councils. We note in this connection that the insertion of a Section 21 (a) on the powers of the district (neighbourhood) councils which, on paper, seems to constitute an improvement, in practice has created many difficulties in the city of Sofia, where the district councils are in open confrontation with the Municipal Council. Section 33 § 2 (new) is designed to improve relations between the Mayor and the Council. Lastly, again concerning the improvement of democratic machinery in the municipalities, we should point out the amendments to Section 17, which encourage greater use of direct democracy (referendum).

Finally, it can be said that the Government wishes to give the local authorities a more important role in the economic development of the country, as the amendments to Section 17 § 2 and Section 20 § 1 show.

Apart from these general comments, it is also worth mentioning that Section 22 introduces harsher - although not disproportionate - penalties but does not state with regard to whom (this may be a translation problem). As to Section 41 § 1, which cites as one of the causes of ineligibility for the office of Mayor the holding of a post in a major body of a political party, it is not clear what purpose this provision serves.



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