Saxe-Coburg Gotha

Prime Minister of Bulgaria

Speech made to the Assembly

Thursday, 3 April 2003

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honour for me, as Prime Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria, to be able, at last, to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, an organisation that stands for democracy and respect for human rights, where economic development is reconciled with social progress and where tolerance and respect for minorities prevail.

Without wishing to be pompous, I would say that it is here that our common future, that of twenty-first century Europe, is being forged. By Europe, I mean much more than the continent’s geographical contours: I am talking about a development model and the influence of a civilisation.

In today’s difficult international context, these values are threatened once again. We must, as Europeans, rise to the new challenges thrown up both by globalisation and by the growing threat of international terrorism. The new Europe is being forged by dint of determination, and this shared resolve will enable us to meet these new challenges. Let it not be forgotten that our differences are our strength, as long as we acknowledge that we have a common objective.

In this context, Bulgaria endorses the idea of a third summit, which would consider the Council of Europe’s role and contribution among the new institutions of our continent. Bulgaria also supports the reform of the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr President, the most important value bringing us all here together at the Council of Europe is that of human life. Indeed, it is this that determines our attitude towards the alarming threat of terrorism. It is for this reason that my country welcomes the “Guidelines on human rights and the fight against terrorism” which the Council has adopted.

Indeed, it is this approach which likewise explains our attitude towards the Iraqi crisis. As a country that is not a permanent member of the Security Council, we have given priority to finding a peaceful solution at all costs. I deeply regret the fact that the diplomatic efforts of the international community to disarm Iraq without a war did not produce the desired results. Now that the die is cast, it will be necessary, once armed intervention is over, to make every effort to set up democratic institutions and preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq. It is this process that will make it possible to lift sanctions against this country, which has been so sorely tried, and restore normal political, economic and living conditions for the Iraqi people, who are long-standing friends of Bulgaria.

As you know, Bulgaria is part of European civilisation in both historical and cultural terms.

One of the Bulgarian Government’s key concerns is to continue with reforms and consolidate the rule of law, in accordance with European principles and standards, through work in such areas as the reform of the judiciary and government departments, combating corruption, and the liberalisation of the private sector, in a favourable competitive environment.

Substantial changes have been made to our legislation and the electronic media have been partially liberalised in order to ensure their independence. A new law on religion, which Bulgarian society had been awaiting for over ten years, was passed in December. Among other things, it guarantees equal treatment and the protection of freedom of worship and encourages social and educational activities within the various faiths. A law on the ombudsman – an institution by which I set great store – is in the process of being passed, and a special law on the prevention of discrimination is also on the agenda.

Mr President, Bulgaria’s history shows that the spirit of tolerance is the root of the well-being and security of society as a whole. Recently – in March – we commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews from the death camps, while paying tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. Bulgarian schools devoted an hour’s lesson time to civics, the spirit of inter-ethnic tolerance and democracy.

In this context, Bulgaria has suggested that 2005 be called European Year of Citizenship through Education. We consider that intercultural and interreligious dialogue in education fosters a spirit of tolerance among young people.

Both politicians and Bulgarian society in general consider that the Bulgarian ethnic model is an asset and an experience that we can share with others. The government’s priority is the full integration of Bulgarian nationals from other ethnic groups. Examples are the government’s work with Roma NGOs and the outline programme for the integration of Roma in Bulgarian society, signed in 1999.

Mr President, as a member state of the Council of Europe, Bulgaria is pursuing an active policy of upholding European values nationally and internationally. I am pleased to note that my country now contributes to stability and security in South-eastern Europe. Our policy is geared to close co-operation with the countries in the region, based on respect for democratic institutions and the rule of law.

I should like to take advantage of my presence here today to welcome the accession of Serbia and Montenegro as a fully-fledged member of the Council of Europe, and I am delighted at the idea of co-operating with it in this Organisation, which is the melting pot of twenty- first century Europe.

In conclusion, I should like to repeat that I set great store by the blueprint for Europe, this grand design that draws us together. I am convinced that the debate on the future of our continent will enshrine and extend the role of the Council of Europe as the guarantor of democratic values, so as to make human rights, security and prosperity the lot of every European citizen.


Thank you very much, Prime Minister, for your most interesting address. Members of the Assembly have expressed a wish to put questions to you. I remind them that questions must be limited to thirty seconds and no more. Colleagues should be asking questions and not making speeches.

I will allow supplementary questions only at the end and only if time permits.

The first question is from Mr Atkinson.

Mr ATKINSON (United Kingdom)

Three years ago, it was a pleasure for me and my co-rapporteur on Bulgaria to recommend to this Assembly that your country had reached our standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Since then, however, we have received complaints from minority religions in your country of discrimination against them, and you just referred to the new law on religion – the Confessions Act – which legitimises that discrimination, contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. Will you respond to those concerns?


Thank you. Mr Prime Minister, you may reply. However, the thirty seconds do not apply to you. You may take as long as you need.

Mr Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Prime Minister of Bulgaria

It is difficult to put it in a nutshell, but I shall try to explain the essence of the law. It aims to guarantee the equality of all faiths in our country. A slight reference to the Eastern Orthodox faith does not mean that it has a preference over any other faith. It means simply that it is a symbol of our national identity, which has to do with our history. However, it has no priority over other faiths. In fact we have witnessed, as have many foreign friends of Bulgaria, the tolerance that exists and the co-operation of other faiths with the Orthodox Church. Of course, we recently witnessed the difficulties that can arise from inter-faith issues. In Bulgaria, a political coalition makes up most of our government, and that is proof of the active role of our Muslim community. In addition, people of very different faiths have arrived in our country as refugees throughout time. They have settled in Bulgaria and have always felt comfortable there.

I realise that that answer is quite detailed, but in some Anglo-Saxon countries, including the United States, it must seem strange that we regulate a faith. That is not the case, however. We want to secure equal rights for it before any authorities or courts. I have tried to answer that question to the best of my abilities.

Ms KOSA-KOVACS (Hungary)

Prime Minister, according to recent research, most Roma in Bulgaria live in discriminatory conditions. Twice as many Roma as non-Roma live in extreme poverty.

Prime Minister, what plans do you have to improve the situation of the poor among this ethnic minority? What assistance do you expect from the European Community?

Mr Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Prime Minister of Bulgaria (translation)

I should like to begin by saying that I am very impressed by the active role Hungary and its authorities are playing with respect to questions concerning Roma minorities in Europe. I hope to have the pleasure of going to Budapest this year to take part in a conference on the subject.

With regard to the Roma community, which is quite large, you speak of its greater poverty. This is not quite true. It is far from being a question of racism. It is more a socio-economic issue. Unfortunately, you have to take into account the very high unemployment rate in Bulgaria, for example, in the north-west of the country where many Roma live. Because of this, they have an abnormally high unemployment rate.

Social problems or problems of poverty, to call things by their proper name, have to be taken into account without discriminating against or favouring any one social or ethnic group when there are, I regret to say, non-Roma Bulgarians in the same situation. If too much emphasis were placed on the Roma’s problems it might produce a backlash among non-Roma Bulgarians, so we have to keep a balance

Fortunately, we receive assistance from a number of non-governmental organisations. They work extremely hard and are very helpful to us in combating the scourge, if I may put it that way, of lack of resources and unemployment within a community which – and this is a view I share with a great many Bulgarians – gives us an additional culture. It is a very ancient culture. The Roma are present throughout Europe. We should accept them as they are and try to alleviate their problems or, sometimes, take account of the fact that they are not completely integrated, although we do have a number of programmes involving the public and private sector.

We do not practise positive discrimination, but I should like to inform you that we have two Roma members of parliament.

Ms PETROVA-MITEVSKA (The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia)

Distinguished Prime Minister, you plan to visit the Republic of Macedonia in the near future. What is your opinion concerning bilateral relations between our two nations and two states in the economic, political and cultural spheres?

Mr Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Prime Minister of Bulgaria

I will be going soon to “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. May I begin on a personal note by saying that I look forward enormously to that visit? For the benefit of the distinguished audience before me, I might also mention that the Republic of Bulgaria was the first country to acknowledge and recognise “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”.

We are neighbours, as Ms Petrova-Mitevska rightly mentioned, and we have much common history, which means that we have many common goals. We are already trying to achieve economic co-operation, and there is much common ground between two neighbouring countries on sharing a common perspective that will improve our relations and our economic interrelationship.

At certain times, it has been insinuated that there is a national minority of Macedonians in Bulgaria. The fact of minorities and the condition of minorities are acknowledged in the constitution of Bulgaria. What we do not have is a legal terminology to cover national minorities. In the 2001 census, which was extremely thorough, some 5 071 citizens defined themselves as Bulgarians of Macedonian origin or as Macedonians, and more than 3 000 said that Macedonian was their mother tongue. I mention those figures simply to point out that we have the very best understanding of that situation. More visits by Macedonian authorities to my country and vice versa, as well as joint diplomatic efforts by our administrations, will help to foster good relations. That will also help to consolidate South-eastern Europe into a normal European area, rather than a geographical entity that has, sometimes unfairly, been branded a conflict zone.

Mr AGRAMUNT (Spain) (interpretation)

asked Mr Saxe-Coburg Gotha what Bulgaria was doing to address the problem of corruption.

Mr Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Prime Minister of Bulgaria (interpretation)

said that Bulgaria was addressing this problem not only at national level but at institutional level. In the transitional years, there had been a period that had enabled corruption to take root. Bulgaria was reducing its high numbers of bureaucratic processes; however, it would be wrong to say that corruption had completely taken over the country.

Mr SFYRIOU (Greece) (translation)

Prime Minister, during its January part-session, our Assembly took a clear stance in favour of the peaceful application of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 on the Iraq crisis. Could you clarify the very prominent position you adopted in favour of the Anglo-American military operations?

Mr Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Prime Minister of Bulgaria (translation)

I believe there is to be a debate here today on this very subject. Consequently, anything I might say could not be more interesting than what will be said during that discussion.

To return to what I was saying earlier, I should like to point out that as a non-permanent member of the Security Council Bulgaria worked extremely hard to avert war. We worked right up to the last moment, so much so that we backed Mr Blair’s last attempt, with the six points leading to a second resolution, as the last hope and in order to exert further pressure on the Iraqi regime to try to avoid the worst.

Of course, when we realised there was no possibility of reaching a consensus or of preserving peace, we expressed our support, in pectore, for the second resolution. Thus Bulgaria is, along with some forty other countries, in the camp of those that have offered a degree of co-operation, such as the right for mid-air refuelling tankers to use our airspace and land at a base in Bulgaria. In addition, a small contingent of some hundred men from chemical, bacteriological and nuclear protection units are to be moved, probably next week, to a country neighbouring Iraq. We do not want our soldiers to be committed on the ground, even for humanitarian reasons.

Rather than talking about what has been done, it would be better if all of us looked to the future so as to decide how we can come to the aid of the Iraqi people and how a democratic system can be supported and introduced. Not only do they deserve it, but the international community wants to see a democratic Iraq that is part of that community and can in this way help to find a peaceful settlement in the Middle East.


Thank you. The next question is by Mr Toshev, who is from your own country.

Mr TOSHEV (Bulgaria)

Mr Prime Minister, I am glad to welcome you to our Assembly today. My question refers to Resolution 1211, of 2000, and item 4.ii. This Assembly has launched an appeal to the Bulgarian authorities to take greater account of European standards and of the opinion of Council of Europe experts on the draft laws that they examine. What is your commitment on this issue, and could you approach your parliamentary faction in this respect?

Mr Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Prime Minister of Bulgaria

You, Mr Toshev, I and everyone else in Bulgaria know that, as with all new candidate countries, we are being monitored to ensure that we abide by this position. There are obviously some points that can be improved and measures that could be implemented more quickly. However, we also know that, in evolving from the previous totalitarian system to the current one, many difficulties have to be overcome. This point may be valid in relation to our laws and religious freedoms – indeed, you are the president of our parliament’s committee on religious affairs – which we have already mentioned.

There are also other important subjects such as the ombudsman, which I mentioned in my opening speech. That is another element that will help our society in being listened to by the government more directly. There are a number of other reforms and initiatives to which not only our party but our government is paying particular attention. I need not tell you, Mr Toshev, but I should it point out for the benefit of this distinguished Assembly – to which I also spoke in Spanish a moment ago – that we have received many reports on, and criticisms about, the issue of corruption. In considering our priorities, we are very determined certainly to diminish that problem, if not to eradicate it.

Mr BINDIG (Germany)

Mr President, I had prepared a question about the social discrimination of the Roma, but as the Prime Minister has answered a similar question I shall withdraw mine.

Mr LLOYD (United Kingdom)

The Prime Minister referred to the consolidation of South-eastern Europe as a normal European area and not a war zone. You will recall, Mr Prime Minister, the promise from the European Union and the United States that the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe would be part of the process of normalisation. Is your government happy with the levels of resources and the political will put into the Stability Pact process?

Mr Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Prime Minister of Bulgaria

Thank you, Mr Lloyd. The Stability Pact is a project or intention that we in the Bulgarian Government support. For some years, it has been a little less active than we would have liked. We are aware of the size of the commitment and the importance of fostering infrastructure projects vital to the development of South-eastern Europe. The corridors that could be supported by the Stability Pact are a way to accelerate our integration and a way for western Europe to feel more comfortable when it comes towards us. The Stability Pact needs at this stage some serious financial investors and the participation of some of the larger international construction companies, as well as assistance from countries in the rest of Europe. It is a fine statement and I hope that many of the other countries in South-eastern Europe share my view. I was in Albania recently and I was satisfied to see how interested they were in our work. With our Romanian neighbours, we are working on the vital second bridge across the Danube. That will affect transport to Greece and will be of great importance to other regions and countries. Any support and encouragement for the work of the Stability Pact would be most welcome.

Mr ELO (Finland)

In an earlier answer, Mr Prime Minister, you said that Bulgaria had tried to do everything possible to avoid the military action in Iraq. However, three months ago, Bulgaria expressed the view at the United Nations Security Council that Resolution 1441 gave sufficient grounds to start a military operation against Iraq. How will that contribute to solving the crisis?

Mr Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Prime Minister of Bulgaria

The statement to which you refer came from someone who was not specifically a recognised spokesperson. The delegation at the United Nations supports this view. Delving into this unfortunate crisis, one can mention Resolutions 678 and 687. However, without juggling figures and becoming pedantic and tedious, Resolution 1472 is the most important. As I have said, it concerns what can be done for Iraq and its people the day after the military action is terminated.

Mr JARAB (Czech Republic)

Mr Prime Minister, it is a great honour to have you here in this Chamber. At a meeting of the Sub-Committee on Media of the Committee on Culture, Science and Education this week, a reference was made to the crisis at the Bulgarian news agency, BTA, and criticisms were voiced of a new draft law on radio and television. My question ensues from what we have heard about that draft media law. Is the law as drafted something that you would like to see enforced if your party were not in government but in opposition?

Mr Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Prime Minister of Bulgaria

Thank you. If I may start with your last question, I would say emphatically yes.

To go back to the beginning of your question, on our news or telegraph agency, the gentleman who headed it unfortunately decided to hand in his resignation because he was unable, if I may say that, to run this old, established agency, of which we are proud. The three candidates who are now being considered are professional journalists, which I think will help solve the crisis, as you put it. With regard to our law on the media, it has been, for many people, too long a process, and I must take the blame for having prolonged the preparatory period because, having seen the enormous interest, debate and criticisms that the new law was provoking, I asked for a special panel of journalists and NGOs to help me and to voice their views. We eventually found a common date, and we had a huge round table of some eighty professional journalists and representatives of NGOs and a two and a half hour discussion, which I found enriching and informative. The law is approaching its implementation and adoption in parliament and debates are still going on.

To go deeper into your question, without wanting to be too meticulous, I could add that, within the journalistic profession, a keen interest exists in a new, better law. People in the profession feel that it is not proper for the general manager or director of state television or radio to be a person who is not subject to control and who can decide about everything in his department without being accountable. We also want those two state companies to become more like public institutions and less like state or government ones. There was an interesting document in which some parliamentarians mentioned that our government, over which I have the pleasure to preside, is the first that has not at any moment exerted pressure on those two vital media or sources of information. It is a complex process but, with a professional approach and with good will on behalf of all interested parties, we can come out with a respectable, working law that has a long future and is not biased towards one or other political party.

Mr HEGYI (Hungary)

My question is similar but it is important to raise the issue once more. In the Sub-Committee on the Media, we heard many complaints about the situation of the media in Bulgaria. Do you agree that the public media should be independent of both governing and opposition parties? How can you envisage such new, independent public media being set up in your country?

Mr Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Prime Minister of Bulgaria

Thank you for your question. In general terms, I tried to explain to your colleague what our views were. I am able only to emphasise my personal belief that these institutions should be public in nature – in the interests of the public, everyone, any party and all parties – and should not approach the days when government radio or television were simply propaganda instruments.

Mr RIESTER (Germany) (translation)

Two questions have already been asked concerning anti-corruption measures in your country. You know that this is vital for your own economic development and also, of course, for foreign direct investment. The Council of Europe has itself made recommendations on this subject, so I can withdraw my question. Thank you.

Baroness HOOPER (United Kingdom)

In thanking the Prime Minister for his presentation this afternoon, may I ask him to expand on his government’s programme for giving equal opportunities to women? For example, could he talk about the participation of women in his administration at both local and national levels?

Mr Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Prime Minister of Bulgaria

I would not like to sound in any way discriminatory by dividing the so-called “weaker” sex from the male functionaries or employees in our administration. As you bring it up, however, about 30% of employees in the administration, also comprising the municipal administration, are women. In parliament, in a house of 240 members, there are 64 women, and our party has some 40 or more of those, so we are very lucky and particularly well endowed with female MPs. Women therefore make up 26% of the 240 MPs.

I should add that this is not some kind of token, or something that we are trying to implement because it is expected or trendy. It is simply that in Bulgaria over the years women have participated independently in many areas of life. We have three women ministers in our Cabinet. The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Labour and Social Affairs is one of them, the Minister for the Environment and Ecology is another, and the Minister for European Integration, whom I suppose many of you have seen here, is the third.

On the whole I would say that Bulgaria is doing well. However, this is a matter of merit; women should not be given better chances than men. In a normal society, it is a matter of equality in every way.


We must now conclude the questions to the Prime Minister. On behalf of the Assembly, I thank him most warmly for his statement and for the answers that he has given to the questions.