Bulgarian civil society can be summarised in two dimensions – a huge number of registered NGOs and their small size. The figures vary from 50 000 CSOs, according to the study of the Bulgarian Centre for Non-For-pProfit Law in 2010 (BCNL, 2009, p.1) to 14 600, according to the Open Society Institute in 2017 (Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p.10). Bulgaria continues to have more than 800 new public-benefit CSOs registered annually (Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p. 4). Two third of CSOs have annual costs of up to BGN 100 000 (EUR 51 130) (Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p. 4). The typical CSO has a very small team of employees, not very well-paid but usually highly skilled and motivated (Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p.43).
The aim of this research is to map the role of CSOs in policy-making in Bulgaria. The text is written in January 2020 – before the protests – and analyses the civil society in more peaceful times, not in the ones of street mobilizations and civic disobedience. The study is based on two main types of background information: desk research and five interviews. The author has a rich experience in studying citizens’ activism, which is beneficial for the understanding of CSOs developments (Krasteva, 2016, Krasteva et al, 2019, Siim, Krasteva, Saarinen, 2019).
The definition of civil society accepted by the Bulgarian civil sector is the one of P.C. Schmitter and A.H. Treschsel: ‘a system of self-organised intermediary groups that (…) are capable of deliberating about and taking collective actions (…)’ (Schmitter and Treschsel, 2004, pp. 34-35 quoted in Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p. 20). The research methodology of ECE uses the concept of CSOs, which is not explicitly defined but implicitly refers to a liberal understanding of civil society organisations as an actor and factor for democratisation. The most used concept with the same meaning in Bulgaria is NGOs. In recent years, negative trends have developed in Bulgaria, whose description requires new concepts. The Centre for the Study of Democracy introduces the concepts of CONGO, a government-controlled non-governmental organisation primarily focused on absorption of European funds, and PONGO – politically owned NGOs, in which politicians pour significant funding and often withdraw after their political careers (CSD, 2010, pp.36-37).
2 Legal framework for setting up and running a CSO
The legal framework is defined as ‘highly sustainable’ according to the CSOs Sustainability Index in Bulgaria. This value is higher than the overall sustainability and is the highest among all other indicators (BCNL et al, 2019, p.1). It retains the same value since 2015 (BCNL et al, 2019, p.2).
The legal framework for CSOs is provided by the Non-Profit Legal Persons Act (effective January 1, 2018). The Act governs the establishment, registration, organisation, activities and dissolution of non-profit legal persons. The major change in the legal framework in the last years is the registry reform. The Act introduced a simplified type of registration – a new Register of Non-profit Legal Entities (the „Register“). Non-profit legal entities are no longer registered with the district court of their seat, but in the Register maintained by the Registry Agency (Ministry of Justice). Non-profit legal entities already registered with the district courts are required to submit a reregistration application to the Registry Agency by 31 December 2020 (Rousinova, 2017). The registry reform has three main objectives:
- To reduce the administrative burden – faster procedures (registration in 3 days), possibility for e–registration;
- To ensure the transparency of CSOs activities. Anyone will be able to verify the existence or absence of registered information or a declared act in the Register and will be entitled to unrestricted and free access;
- To improve the accountability – financial and annual reports are submitted to the Registry Agency (BCNL, 2018, p.9).
All interviewees assess positively the spirit and direction of the registry reform.
The Act defines two types of non-profit legal persons – associations and foundations. The Association is a voluntary association of three or more persons for achieving non-profit purpose. The Foundation is a property that is dedicated and made available for non-profit purposes.
The main difference between the two types is in their functioning. At the core of the association is the opportunity for members to make personal efforts to achieve their non-profit goals. The Foundation, by its legal nature, does not include the requirement for the founders to carry out activities. It is enough for them to provide property to serve the objectives (BCNL, 2018).
63% of the CSOs in Bulgaria are registered as associations and 25% as foundations (Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p. 11).
The Non-Profit Legal Persons Act creates the general opportunity for the State to assist and promote non-profit organisations for public benefit activities through tax. Such tax reliefs have been enacted in the Personal Income Tax Act, the Local Taxes and Fees Act, the Corporate Income Tax Act, and the Value Added Tax Act (BCNL, 2018, p.16).
CSOs are exempt from income tax from non-profit sources, including donations, project grants and membership fees, but pay corporate tax on their market-like profits. Donors of public benefit organizations benefit from tax credits for donations made up to 5 percent of annual income for individuals and 10% of net profit for businesses (BCNL, 2019, p.3). The interviewees consider the tax incentives to donate money to CSOs rather weak (4.3).
The Social and Solidarity Economy Enterprises Act, passed in October 2018, provides benefits for social enterprises, but defines them in a way that can exclude smaller CSOs, since it requires a social enterprise to invest at least EUR 3 750 from making a profit back into the social activities or hiring at least three people from vulnerable groups (BCNL, 2019, p.3).
The market-like activities must meet the specific restrictive criteria of legality under the Law on Non-profit Organizations, which are: be additional, (i.e. it should not exceed the main non-economic activity); to be related to the goals of the organisation; profit-sharing is forbidden (BCNL, 2018, p.42). Both associations and foundations can carry out market-like activities (BCNL, 2018, p.20).
Most CSOs do not carry on market-like activities, but some have started developing small business projects. For example, the World of Mary Foundation offers catering and the Concordia Bulgaria Foundation produces candles. These efforts are still at an early stage (BCNL et al, 2019, p.6).
The 1991 Constitution explicitly distinguishes citizens’ associations from political parties. There is no legal obstacle for CSOs to engage in demonstrations, discussions, proposals for changes to legislation that are not part of a political election campaign. This involvement in political debate is also suggested by the goals of CSOs, including the development of civil society, civic participation and good governance, health, education, culture, support for children, people with disabilities or persons and communities at risk of social exclusion, protection human rights or the environment. Most of these goals imply political decisions at national or local level (BCNL, 2018, p.28).
The regulations differ not by the size of CSO, but by the type of statute – public or private benefit. Any association or foundation can pursue activities for the public or private benefit. These are not separate types of CSOs, but statutes (BCNL, 2018, pp.19-20). 94% of NGOs are registered as public-benefit organisations and 2% – as private-benefit organisations (Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p.10).
The different statute of an organization also determines the different scope of its legal rights and obligations. NGOs in public benefit can be supported by the state. Non-profit NGOs in private benefit do not receive special support from the state (BCNL, 2018, p.78).
3 Availability and stability of funding
The financial situation of CSOs is defined as ‘evolving sustainability’ and is rated 4.6 (BCNL et al, 2019, p.1) on the scale of the CSOs sustainability index (1 – sustainability enhanced and 7 – sustainability impeded). It can be summarized in two characteristics:
- Financial sustainability (4.6) is lower than the overall sustainability of CSOs (3.5). It has the lowest values among the other indicators of sustainability – legal environment (2.5), organisational capacity (4), advocacy (2.6), provision of services (3.1), infrastructure (3), public prestige (3.7) (BCNL et al, 2019, p.1).
- There is a negative trend of declining financial sustainability over the last years: 4.3 in 2015, 4.4 in 2016, 4.5 in 2017, 4.6 in 2018 (BCNL et al, 2019, p.5).
The interviewees consider the financial resources as scarce and think that many CSOs find it difficult to raise enough money for their activities. They are not optimistic about the future and think the financial situation will stay the same. The relatively low and declining financial sustainability is due to three major factors:
- Lack of major donors. An emblematic exception is America for Bulgaria Foundation which in 2018 provided almost USD 20 million – more than all other foundations in Bulgaria combined. More than half of this amount was made available to CSOs (BCNL et al, 2019, p.5).
- Unsustainable funding from other sources. The EU’s Good Governance Operational Programme has not opened calls for four years. In December 2018 it allocated approximately BGN 10 million (approximately EUR 5.1 million) to 118 CSOs. Only 20% of 270 social entrepreneurship projects under the EU Operational Programme Human Resources Development are for CSOs. The Operational Programme Environment did not support CSOs’ projects in 2017 and 2018, while in previous years it was a significant source of support for environmental organizations (BCNL et al, 2019, p.5).
- Donation is a relatively new phenomenon. According to the Bulgarian Donors Forum, companies donated approx. BGN 38 million (approximately EUR 19.4 million) in 2017 compared to BGN 34 million in 2016 and below the amount of BGN 46 million in 2015. There is no information what part of the donations was received by CSOs. Less than 1 percent of companies have announced donations to CS Individuals donated approximately BGN 9 million (approximately EUR 4.6 million) (BCNL et al, 2019, p.6).
There are good practices of cooperation between business and civil sector, though not numerous, e.g. Reach for Change and Nova TV jointly develop a program on social entrepreneurship; Lidl and the Civic Initiatives Foundation Workshop work together to provide grants to CSOs; and BCNL and Vivacom have partnered to carry out the Regional Grant program (Hristova and Andreeva, 2018, p.9).
- What is and what should be the role of the listed sources in financing NGOs in Bulgaria? (answers ‘rather big’ and ‘very big’)
||EEAS and Norway grants
||Individual foreign countries
||Bulgarian private donors
||Foreign Private donors
|What the role is
|What the role should be
Source of data: Quantitative survey among active NGOs in Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p. 26
The Open Society Institute survey provides data on both the actual and desired ratio between different sources of funding. The role of the state is very small. Interestingly, the expectations for the state are not very high either (Zahariev and Yordanov 2017, p.26). The interviewees prefer mostly a balanced approach combining different sources of funding.
Funding at local level could be summarized in two trends:
- In smaller municipalities, resources are rather limited.
- There are a few positive examples in the capital and other cities. In 2018, Sofia Municipality allocated more than BGN 280 000 (ca. EUR 143 000) under the ‘Europe’ programme and BGN 1.4 million (ca. EUR 720 000) under its ‘Culture’ programme, most, but not all, is for CSOs. In early 2019, the AGORA platform successfully advocated the creation of a small municipal fund to support local ccitizens’ initiatives in nine cities. The funds amount to BGN 157 000 (ca. EUR 80 000), with almost half of the funding coming from the municipal budget and the other half from AGORA (BCNL et al, 2019, p.6).
4 Analytical capabilities of CSOs
The analytical capacity of CSOs is an essential resource facilitating participation in the discussions on laws and policies. Paradoxically, the issue of analytical capacity is not a key topic in the analyses – it is not included in neither the sustainability index, nor in the questionnaire of this study, or the civil society studies in Bulgaria (CSD, 2010, Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, Hristova and Andreeva, 2018).
The analytical capacity will be analysed in four directions: its uneven distribution in the civil sector; the forms of its promotion; the forms of amplifying the analytical voice of CSOs; the analytical self-reflexivity of CSOs.
The analytical potential is unevenly distributed among CSOs: 4% of active CSOs in Bulgaria identify themselves as analytical centers or think tanks (Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p. 13). The vast array of CSOs do not have enough human resources to develop significant analytical capacity (Hristova and Andreeva, 2018, p. 8).
Analytical capacity building is not subject to policies and systematic efforts by the State.
Among the forms by which the civil sector enhances its analytical capacity, I would point out three:
- The first is the ‘translation’ into accessible language of changes in legislation. Noteworthy is the work of the Bulgarian Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which was praised by all interviewees, as well as of the Access to Information Programme.
- The second form consists in consultation, information and training in a wide range of topics, including accounting, legal issues, how to work with social media, which coalitions such as the National Children’s Network, Civic Participation Forum and Bulgarian Donors Forum offer to their members (Hristova and Andreeva, 2018 p.9).
- The third form is an active exchange of information – according to an interviewee, once a new legislative change or regulation is adopted, civic activists inform each other.
Coalitions are an important form of amplification as a megaphone of the analytical potential of CSOs and of their impact on legislation and policies. A positive example is the Forum Citizen Participation which unites more than 100 CSOs from across the country and which has sent to the Deputy Prime Minister an opinion on a draft Regulation on the Organisation and Activities of the Civil Society Development Council.
The analytical self-reflectivity of the civil sector is expressed in two main forms. The first consists of studies in civic participation, identifying good practices, weaknesses, risks, and challenges (CSD, 2010). Among the main risks, the Centre for the Study of Democracy highlights the CSOs capture: patronage-client CSOs close to politicians at national and especially local level in order to absorb European funds. Evidence of this negative trend, according to Centre for the Study of Democracy, is the sharp increase in the number of CSOs: in the decade 2000-2010 they have increased 8-fold (CSD, 2010, pp.34-35). The Centre for the Study of Democracy identifies 25 publicly known ‘government-controlled non-governmental organisations’ that have absorbed significant funds in the absence of transparency and accountability (CSD, 2010, p.38). The study identifies two other types of organisations – CONGO and PONGO, which have absorbed significant public funds, both expressing the transition of the civil sector from a democratization factor in 1990-2000 to a means of absorbing funds after 2000 (CSD, 2010).
The second form of analytical self-reflectivity is the development of a strategic vision. In October 2018 Forum Citizen Participation, the Bulgarian Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, Red House Center for Culture and Debate, Information Portal, Bulgarian Donors Forum, AGORA Platform and National Network for Children organised the ‘Future Search Conference’ with the participation of more than 80 organisations from all over Bulgaria. As a result, a joint strategic plan was developed. A coalition of CSOs coordinated by the Forum Citizen Participation is responsible for the implementation of the plan (Hristova and Andreeva, 2018, pp.8-9).
5 National practices on consulting CSOs
Citizens’ involvement in policy-making and decision-making is a prerequisite for open, responsible and effective governance (BCNL et al, 2009, p.2). In the past three years there has been no change in the advocacy index – 2.6 (Hristova and Andreeva, 2018, p.6). Relations between government institutions and CSOs are still under development (Hristova and Andreeva, 2018, p.9). The civil sector actively protects and asserts the right to participate in the decision-making process, e.g. Forum Citizen Participation and the National Network for Children call for more CSOs’ involvement in the management and implementation of the structural funds. The result of these advocacy activities are positive: over the years CSOs representatives have been invited much more often by institutions to take part in working groups or consultations when strategies and bills are discussed (Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p.36). The interviewees evaluate positively (7.7) the legal requirements to consult CSOs on legislative proposals.
The most important good practice is the Public Consultation Portal, administered by the Council of Ministers. It provides an opportunity to express opinions on all legislative and strategic acts. Another good practice is the Public Council to the Parliamentary Committee for Interaction with CSOs and Citizen Complaints which facilitates the cooperation between CSOs and public institutions (BCNL et al, 2019, p.6). Representatives of CSOs actively participate in the discussions on and monitoring of operational programs. The sessions of the parliamentary commissions are open and CSOs representatives and citizens can make statements and proposals.
The dialogue between CSOs and institutions is not yet complete. The interviewees are not very satisfied (4.1) with the consultation process before passing a new law. Two groups of causes are at the heart of weaknesses and deficits. The first relates to institutions that apply different methods to minimize civic participation. One is the adoption of significant changes in laws between first and second reading, which are not subject to public consultation. Another is the formal existence of public councils to interact with citizens that do almost no activity, e.g. the Public Council of the Ministry of Youth and Sports only met once in 2018 (BCNL et al, 2019, p.6). Institutions do not have a unified approach to public consultation: a Roma representative interviewed stressed they are working well with the Ministry of Education, but the Roma CSOs have been subject of numerous attacks and insults by nationalist politicians in government.
The civil sector is also responsible for the relatively weak involvement in public consultations: according to a survey of CSOs representatives, 43% of them think the latter requires a lot of time and effort; 7% of them consider that civic participation does not make much sense, and 15% are discouraged by the lack of results and real impact of citizens’ initiatives (Hristova and Andreeva, 2018, p.8). Most of interviewees stressed that the ‘voice’ of the street is stronger than the one of consultation.
Participation in consultations is not perceived as an aim per se: according to an interviewee, their CSO sometimes withdraws from consultation because of incompatibility of values.
Some groups are underrepresented, especially people with disabilities and people from the rural areas. According to the Open Society Institute survey, 2/3 of CSOs believe that the most vulnerable groups in society do not succeed in protecting their interests (Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p.41).
The last years are marked by the increased voice and influence of very conservative, religious and nationalist organizations. They are an expression of a double paradox. First, they claim to express the values and interests of groups in civil society, but they are fierce opponents of the liberal, open and human rights civil society. Second, their influence on legislation is increasingly blocking, neutralizing and annihilating the impact of liberal civil society. The examples of the Istanbul Convention and the Strategy for the Child are emblematic. The Law on Social Services was adopted in 2019 after extensive consultation with CSOs, but was delayed by 6 months due to strong pressure from nationalist parties and the Orthodox Church, religious and parental organizations such as the National Association for the March for the Family. These negative trends have been emphasized by all interviewees.
6 Impact on policy making.
Civil society is an area where new forms of power emerge (Armstrong, 2011, p.15). The impact of CSOs in Bulgaria is the result of the dynamic correlation of two opposite trends: the capacity and determination to make a change of the civil sector, on the one hand, and the deteriorating political, media and social context, which undermines the conditions for functioning and influence of CSOs, on the other hand.
The impact is analysed in three perspectives – the participation of CSOs in policy making; the main spheres of influence, and four examples of successful ‘voices’. According to the study of Open Society Institute, the participation in policy setting is not fully satisfactory: the representatives of active CSOs estimate it at 30% at national level and 38% at local level (Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p.37).
- Is the civil society involved in decision making and policy making?
Source of data: Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p. 37.
The areas of influence vary considerably. Three groups of spheres could be distinguished according to CSOs’ influence – high, moderate or relatively low. The CSOs’ influence is strong in the areas of voluntary activity (43%); ecology and environment (37%), working with children and young people (34%). The influence of CSOs is moderate in the areas of charity (28%), human rights (28%), social services (28%), educational activities (22%). The CSOs’ influence is rather limited in the areas of sustainable development (6%), monitoring the work of institutions (8%), combatting human trafficking (9%), advocacy for good governance (11%), social justice (14%) and Roma integration (18%) (Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p.38).
The civil sector considers the impact of their activity as insufficient: only 9.5% believe that it makes a real difference, 80% report a slight change, and 10.5% report that there is no change (Hristova and Andreeva, 2018, p.17).
A good example of a successful impact on legislation is the Anti-Money Laundering Act (2019). According to the draft law, CSOs had to fulfill the same procedures and requirements as the banks and insurance companies. After successful advocacy actions, a law was adopted to facilitate the procedures for NGOs which are not obliged to register in the State agency for national security (BCNL, 2019). A second example is the proposal by CSOs, including with the participation of an interviewee, to ban segregated classes, which is enacted in the Pre-school and School Education Act (2018). The third example illustrates the power of street protests. An emblematic example is the protest of mothers of children with disabilities under the slogan ‘The System Kills Us’. As a result of this advocacy campaign, a new Law on Personal Assistance has been adopted, which allocates an additional BGN 150 million (approximately EUR 75 million) to provide social assistants to people with disabilities, including children (BCNL et al, 2019, p.7).
The fourth example is from the sphere of politics and expresses the solidarity of the civil sector against a political attack on a CSO. On September 30, 2019, the far-right VMRO Party sends a signal to the Attorney General asking for the closure of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (VMRO demands Tsatsarov to cease BHC activity, Lex news, 30.09.19). The motives are that the BHC „organizes free seminars to train judges, prosecutors and investigators. On the other hand, the BHC provides procedural protection to certain persons in cases presided over by the same magistrates to whom it has conducted training” (VMRO demands Tsatsarov to cease BHC activity due to… , vmro.bg, 30.09.19). BHC replies that „“ … the signal to the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office is based on the assumption that … it is illegal for a civic organization to cooperate with representatives of any of the three independent powers … Such a assumption … is not an attack only against the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. It is an attack on the work of dozens of non-governmental organizations across the country, assisting the legislature, the executive and the judiciary … “ (BHC. VMRO uses us for his election campaign, www.bghelsinki.org, 30.09.2019) On October 2, 2019 82 CSOs signed an Open letter to the medias : ”In view of the request submitted by the VMRO political party to the Prosecutor General’s Office for termination of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee on 30 September 2019, we find such public attacks unacceptable; they undermine public confidence in the non-governmental sector and are used for political goals that are not in the public interest“(Open letter 2.10.19). On 8 October 2019, the Prosecutor’s Office issued a formal statement that the Prosecutor General did not find grounds to request the court to terminate the BHC with the argument that “the allegations in the request for the termination of the activity of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee for exerted „direct and indirect … pressure and influence on the Bulgarian magistrates“ in violation of Art. 117, para. 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria, in view of the activities carried out in the form of organized free training seminars for magistrates and the provision of procedural protection to certain persons, as part of the legitimately stated goals in the association’s registration, do not indicate any activity prohibited by the Constitution and laws” (Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Bulgaria 8.10.19). The collective mobilization of dozens of CSOs testifies of the determination of the civil sector to resist the increasing political attacks.
7 Conclusions & recommendations
The civil sector in Bulgaria can be summarised by one positive and two negative trends. The positive trend is the relative sustainability, defined as ‘evolving sustainability’ by the Citizen Participation Index – and the impact on some policies and new laws. The two negative trends are related to strong attacks from outside and from inside – by nationalist parties and politicians, including those who form the government, and by conservative organisations and groups. These negative trends are not specific to Bulgaria and require a European approach to protect and promote liberal civil society.
A few recommendations for strengthening the CSOs’ ‘voice’ and impact:
- To adopt, every year, a Civil Society Development Strategy and a Civic Initiatives Fund.
- To increase the funds for long term projects at the expense of short terms projects.
- To introduce better tax incentives to donate money to CSOs.
- For enhancing the impact of public consultations, institutions should become pro-active and inform public opinion by a variety of channels and forms before the start of the consultation process. This approach would allow CSOs to better preparing their advocacy strategy.
- More funding to be allocated for enhancing the analytical capacity of the CSOs.
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 8% as chitalishte and 4% did not answer.
 6% did not answer (Zahariev and Yordanov, 2017, p. 11).
 The percentage represents the answer ‘strong influence’ to the question ‘How would you assess the influence of CSOs in Bulgaria in the following areas?’ (Zahariev and Yordanov 2017, p.38).