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The Bulgarian Round Table and its Contribution to the Constitution of 1991

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The paper examines the influence of the Bulgarian Round Table at the beginning of the democratic transition and its practical contribution to the formation of the frame of the Bulgarian political project for democracy. The first part of the paper looks at the role and the importance of the Bulgarian Round Table. This has neither been studied in depth in the national context (due to the short historical perspective and the still existing political controversies), nor amongst the international scientific community (due to the priority given to other Central and Eastern European Round Tables). The second part of the paper pays attention to the political conditions influencing a possible transition to democratic governance and formation of such a type of non-traditional institution, as the Round Table. The focus falls on the role which the Bulgarian Round Table played in the overall national political process. The third part of the paper analyses all agreements which the participants of the Round Table reached, and the extent to which they affected the texts of the Bulgarian Constitution of 1991.

Introduction

The Bulgarian Round Table sets the beginning of the democratic transition in our country. The meaning of this institution goes far beyond its time and space dimensions. The discussions at the Round Table reflect significantly on the entire process of democratization that followed, creating the framework for Bulgarian democracy. It is precisely in this respect that that Bulgarian Round Table has not been scientifically explored. The comparatively little investigative interest for this institution contrasts strongly with its importance for the establishing of democracy and the path of Bulgaria’s democratic development. The collision of points of view has an effect not only on the institutional architecture of Bulgarian democracy nowadays, but also on the political and ideological concept of an entire generation of Bulgarians. The live broadcasting on national television and radio of the discussions at the Round Table gave Bulgarians the chance to observe a large and important political discussion, which inevitably helped their spiritual liberation.

Ignoring at first sight the ideas of the different participants discussed at the Round Table for a Bulgarian political project of democracy, the question about the product, which this non-traditional institution creates, concerns the life and being of everyone of us in one way or another.

Because of the comparatively recent sessions at the Round Table in a historical perspective, the question about its role and importance is not yet fully formed. The considerable political and social polarization of the Bulgarian Round Table is one of the major factors for public opinion about it to be strongly divided. On the one hand it is reckoned to be “the most prosperous and fruitful period during which the transition is channeled and accelerated”, as “the most successful shape in Bulgarian conditions for the realization of the peaceful and civilized transition” and as “the most constructive and effective institution after November 10th”. (Prodanov et al. 2009, 113). On the other hand, it is also referred to as “a political circus” and “a deadly machine” (Prodanov et al. 2009, 113). Another factor, which casts a shadow over the role and the importance of the Round Table in the creation of a political project for democracy is the convention of a Great National Assembly, which in fact adopted the Constitution that is in effect in Bulgaria up to the present-day. But it should not be forgotten that it was at the Round Table that the decision for the convening of an institution to create a new fundamental law was taken and, secondly, many of the articles set in the Constitution in effect were previously passed by consensus by the participants at the Round Table. In this sense we need to pay deserved attention to the role of this institution in the creation of a Bulgarian political project for democracy.

The Bulgarian Round Table

The request for round table talks was first uttered in public by Zhelyu Zhelev. Yet there remain doubts that it was actually the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) who established this form of dialogue, hoping that in this way the opposition would not be able to influence the political crisis with civil protests. The first unofficial contacts in which the possibility of starting negotiations with the rulers is discussed are between Andrey Lukanov and leaders of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). Some of the participants in these events recall that the communist party leaders tried to prevent the creation of a united opposition in December, probably understanding the additional difficulties which it would bring to the regime (Peeva 1997, 45).

Preliminary discussions began only a week after the invocation of Zhelev. There are many different interpretations of the efficiency of the authorities: 1) there could have been secret meetings and negotiations between the leaders of the opposition and the regime on which the decision for a round table had been taken before the readiness of the opposition for a dialogue being publically expressed; 2) party leaders could have believed that some dialogue with the opposition was inevitable and they preferred using their tactical advantage in swiftly started discussions when the UDF was weakly organized and not capable of reaching common preliminary positions and strategies. The events of December in Romania and precisely the sentence by a special military tribunal and the following execution of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife evoked fears of a similar scenario in Bulgaria. Moreover, these events coincided with the nationalist euphoria that followed the decision of the Central Committee of the BCP to restore the names of Pomaks and Turks (29 December 1989). The growing political tension from the nationalist meetings organized in large parts of the country threatened not only the party elites but also the opposition, because the restoration of the names was one of the main aspects in the activities of human rights defenders. So both main political opponents faced the necessity to overcome a wave of nationalism. It was no coincidence that one of the first topics suggested in the agenda of the Round Table was the reaching of an agreement on the national issue (Peeva 1997, 46).

The Bulgarian Round Table sat from January 3rd to May 15th 1990. It presented two basic points of view – that of the rulers and that of the nascent opposition, although other organizations also participated in the sessions– the National Front (NF), the Trade Unions, nationalist and youth organizations invited by the BCP/BSP (the Bulgarian Communist Party / later the Bulgarian Socialist Party) in order to strengthen its positions (Kalinova and others 2006, 258). With the presence of similar formations the rulers tried to save them as support for the party and at the same time wanted to overcome the creation of two opposite blocks of rulers and opposition during the negotiations (Prodanov and others 2009, 108). Despite these attempts other organizations sat at the Round Table but as part of the ruling quota. The representatives of the opposition were not a homogeneous group either. There were two kinds of participants from the UDF: 1) representatives of the UDF as a coalition: Zhelyu Zhelev and Petko Simeonov; 2) representatives of the parties, which were part of the coalition – Petar Dertliev (the Bulgarian Socialist and Democratic Party – BSDP), Milan Drenchev (Bulgarian Agrarian National Union “Nikola Petkov”), Aleksandar Karakachanov (Green Party – GP) and others (Kolarova 1996, 196). Because of the coalitional character of the UDF at that time, its representatives often expressed their own opinions which had not been agreed upon with the official leaders. That is why we cannot judge that each speech by a member of the BCP/BBSP or the UDF delegation reflected the party’s position, because there were no preliminary consultations inside the formations for a common position on each problem.

The parties from the opposition understood full well that the Round Table would legitimize them. The very fact that they sat opposite the BCP gave them the acknowledgement that they were the political opposition. That is why the UDF was determined to resist the constant attempts of the rulers to turn the Round Table talks from two-sided into multi-sided by including different bureaucratic organizations as a third party. It is the same reason why the oppositional coalition insisted that the delegates on both sides should have a permanent staff, because of their concerns that during the Round Table the BCP would set third-class functionaries against them, with whom the leaders of the opposition would be humiliated (Simeonov 2005, 129–130).

The Round Table played a significant role in Bulgarian political life in several aspects. First, after 45 years, Bulgarians could hear for the very first time an opposition speaking thanks to live broadcasting on Bulgarian National Television (BNT) and Bulgarian National Radio (BNR). This allowed the leaders of the opposition to legitimize themselves in the eyes of society and in this way for the first time the media monopoly of the Communist Party was broken. Apart from the representatives of the opposition, the Round Table also legitimized as democrats the reformers inside the BCP/BSP. The leaders of the ruling party were in a completely different situation as they had entered into a dialogue, a state that Communists had not been in for decades. Practically the sessions at the Round Table demonstrated another kind of political life – a democratic one, in which the representatives of the BCP/BSP are a factor.

Second is the role of the Round Table as a factor in breaking the ice of fear and contributing to the people’s spiritual liberation. It is very important for Bulgaria, bearing in mind that protests like those of the workers in 1954 in Poznan and other cities in Poland did not take place, nor was there a national uprising as in Hungary in October 1956, nor a “Prague Spring” as in Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968, nor periodical riots as in Poland in 1956, 1970 or 1980, when the trade union “Solidarity” appeared. (Zhelev 2005:320).

Third, the Round Table has a specific institutional place in the Bulgarian political system. After the acceptance of its status the Round Table was defined as an organ which expressed the political will of Bulgarians and guaranteed the irreversibility of the democratic process. Despite not being the result of elections but of political agreements, it obtained the status of most important governmental body by the power of the imputed obligation of the participants in it “to use their presence in the legislative and executive bodies and their social influence in order to fulfill the terms of the agreements voted with consensus” (Prodanov and others 2009: 110). Also “no law or important political decision can be taken by the government and the National Assembly without the preliminary agreement on the Round Table” (Stenograph: 6). The political monopoly of the Bulgarian Communist Party was broken by these agreements.

The Round Table in Bulgaria should not be interpreted just as conversations and consultations between the rulers and the newly formed opposition. The pressure from the street had a significant influence on the decisions at the Round Table. Not once did the opposition leave the sessions of the newly formed institution, despite disagreement with some of the rulers’ demands and initiate protests for the acceptance of opposition’s claims. This shows that the scheme of the Round Table was not at all restricted by its own political geometry inside the hall. It continued outside, on the streets and squares (Zhelev 2005:319). In this sense the Round Table without the street support of the people would be nothing (Zhelev 2005:319).

Agreements at the Bulgarian Round Table and Their Impact on the Constitution of 1991

The negotiations at the Round Table came to a formal end on May 15th 1990 but its influence does not end there. As we can judge for ourselves, its meaning does not stop with the termination of the discussion around it but has an important contribution to make to the preparation of the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria of 1991.

To what extent are the settings of the agreements transferred to the Constitution of 1991?

The texts in Bulgarian Constitution of 1991 are not only the fruit of the work of the Great National Assembly. The political frame of the Bulgarian project for democracy was already set during the discussions and the accepted agreements between the two parties at the Round Table. Some of the settings in the final documents of the forum are implemented almost literarily in the fundamental law of 1991.

Even though some of the texts cannot be found as officially included in the political agreements, a large part of them had been discussed at the Round Table. In this sense the negotiations between rulers and opposition in the beginning of the changes had an important role for the creation of the basis of the Bulgarian project for democracy.

“The agreement on the political system” in its second part accepts “basic elements of the democratic and humane political system”. Even though today this seems absolutely logical, in the beginning of 1990 it was not clear at all. In this document the development of the Bulgarian political system as a democratic one is already established.

The frame of the democratic form of ruling is mentioned in the agreement exactly as a “national sovereignty, which is executed by a Parliament, elected by fair competitive elections.” The sovereignty can be organized directly and by a referendum in the cases and ways described in the law. “The reporting of the government before the Parliament” is almost literally set in the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria of 1991 and precisely in art. 1, sec. 1: “Bulgaria shall be a republic with a parliamentary form of government”.

In “The agreement on the political system” are included also “bodies for local self-government, formed by free elections, on which is guaranteed the full autonomy within the Constitution, the order, the legitimacy and the national independence and territorial integrity of the State”, set an year later in the fundamental law in art. 2, sec. 1: “The Republic of Bulgaria shall be an unitary State with local self-government” as well as additional guarantees for local democracy are extended in chapter 7 of the Constitution: “Local self-government and local administration”.

Entirely in the spirit of the European traditions is also the text of the agreement, which guarantees “division of the authorities in accordance with the commonly accepted standards of the parliamentary democracies and constitutional guarantees against the excessive concentration and abuse of power by individuals or institutions”, which is literarily transferred as art 8 of the Constitution: “The power of the State shall be divided between legislative, executive and judicial branches”.

A main aspect of the political democracy appears also to be “the multiparty system as an expression and guarantee of natural functioning of the democratic and pluralistic political system with free competition of different political ideas and movements...” which is also guaranteed by the Constitution in the fundamental law of 1991 in art. 11, sec. 1: “Political activity in the Republic of Bulgaria shall be founded on the principle of political pluralism”.

The text stating that “the political decisions shall be taken by the competent state bodies in accordance with the majority rule with a guarantee for the minority rights...” opens the way for the development of Bulgaria following the model of liberal democracy.

The topic of property does not remain untouched – “Guaranteed equality of all forms of property before the law as an obligatory prerequisite for the natural growth of economic relationships where is excluded the possibility of forced and any other illegal acquisition or change of the character of the property in the State...”. This text unambiguously declares that during the transition to democracy and market economy the private property will be equal to any other, which is guaranteed by the Constitution in art. 17, sec. 1: “The right to property and inheritance shall be guaranteed and protected by law”.

In “The agreement on the political system”, the main framework of the Bulgarian political project for democracy is described. Nevertheless, the texts, obvious for us, this base on which the constitutional model of Bulgarian democracy will be built, are not unimportant. At that moment of break-up the consensus reached on these topics between rulers and opposition is not insignificant.

“Agreement on basic ideas and principles of the law project for changing and amending the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria” is the greatest contribution among all documents voted on for the forming of the Bulgarian political project for democracy. In the first part, “Common principles of the political system”, 5 articles are already described, in the following order:

1. Definition of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria as a State of democracy, governed by the rule of law.
2. In the constitutional text as a basic beginning of the political system shall be included the principles of political pluralism, democracy and humanism.
3. In the constitutional text shall be proclaimed that the People’s Republic is united and inseparable as a State and it recognizes and contributes to the development of local self-government, which is defined by law.
4. There shall be implemented consistent and full de-ideologization of the constitutional texts.
5. The Bulgarian language shall be declared as official in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.

The texts written in the agreement are found almost word for word in the new fundamental law. Art.1 is included already in the preamble to the constitution of 1991, where only the word “social” is added in accordance with the model of old European democracies. Ar. 2 and 4 form the entire spirit of the constitutional order and art. 3 and 5 are set almost literally in art. 2, sec. 1 and in art. 3.

In the second part of the agreement, “On the economic system”, apart from establishing “free initiative and economic competition in all equal forms of property”, an accent is put on the social model which will serve the Bulgarian economic system through art. 2 stating that in “conditions of a market economy the State will protect the socially weak layers of the population and unemployment shall be established in a constitutional order as one of the main secured social risks”.

The third part of the document, “On the basic rights and freedoms of the citizens”, is of specific significance, because it guarantees that the rights and freedoms of the citizens are among the most important elements of any democratic system. Despite not being extensive and solid on this issue, this part of the agreement gives the basic guidelines and the spirit of the second chapter of the Constitution of 1991. The adopted international acts on this issue set in “The agreement on the political system” establish law mechanisms and create real conditions for the realization of the constitutional rights and freedoms of the citizens. In the part for “organization of the State authorities during the transition to parliamentary democracy”, together with texts defining the functions, tasks and time-frame of the Great National Assembly, also the powers, functions and the mandate of the Head of State are established, in the following texts:

––To personify the unity of the nation and to guarantee the sovereignty, territorial integrity, the defense and the national security of the State;
––To secure the functioning of the state organs according to the Constitution and the laws;
––To represent the State in the country and in international relations;
––To appoint a government after its program and cabinet receive the approval of the Parliament;
––To address the nation and the Parliament;
––To lead the defense and the national security of the State and to perform the functions of Commander of the Armed Forces;
––To appoint ambassadors, to accept letters of credence, to give awards and titles, as well as to grant pardons, to give citizenships and rights of shelter, to sign international contracts, to perform other representative functions;
––During the execution of his powers he/she issues decrees and decisions which do not have a legislative character;
––When the national security of the State and territorial integrity are threatened, in times of natural disasters and in cases when the functioning of the State organs is affected, in accordance with the Constitution and the laws there can be declared full or partial mobilization or a state of emergency as per a suggestion by the Council of Ministers, when the National Assembly does not sit. In these cases the National Assembly shall be gathered immediately in order to make a decision.
––May declare a state of war in the case of armed attack against the People’s Republic of Bulgaria or in the case of a necessity to execute an international obligation for mutual defense, if the National Assembly does not sit in session and cannot be gathered in order to debate on the decision;
––Cannot perform any other leading state, political, social and economic functions, cannot be a party leader and cannot be a deputy in the National Assembly.

Probably these texts seem quite familiar, because they are all set in the Bulgarian Constitution of 1991. Of course, there they are extended with many more details and with additional elements of his/her powers, but the frame for the functioning of the future Head of State is established exactly in the “Agreement on basic ideas and principles of the law project for changing and amending the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.”

 


Dimitar Ganev. Political scientist, graduated with a BA from Sofia University, majoring in “Political Science” and a Master’s degree in “Political Management” at the same university. Ganev is a former scholarship holder of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Since 2010 he has worked as a political analyst at the Ivan Hadzyiski Institute for Social Values and Structures. At the present time Dimitar Ganev is a PhD student at Sofia University and is exploring the problems of Bulgaria’s transition to democracy.

 

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This article has been published in the third issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the consequences and commemorations of 1989 in Central Europe .

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