Bulgarian civil society organisations as the immune system of democracy

Published: 28 July 2020

“There is no reason to think of civil society organisations as something independent from citizens. We exist to represent what people want. Within our coalition, we want to broaden the alliance between different organisations and to involve more and more citizens,” Nadia Shabani, Director of Bulgarian Center for Non-for-profit Law.

There have been some worrying developments in Bulgaria lately. A draft law proposes an amendment to the Non-profit Legal Entities Act in two parts – the part regarding the functioning of the Civil Society Development Council, as well as proposing the creation of a new legal framework on declaring and controlling the funding of NGOs received from a foreign country or from a foreign natural or legal person. In view of these developments, Civitates met the grantees from Citizen Participation Forum and the Bulgarian Center for Non-for-profit Law, Iva Taralezhkova and Nadia Shabani, to shed a light on the situation in Bulgaria and the work of the coalition.

Can you briefly explain the content of the draft law and how it will affect civil society organisations?

Nadia: Now we are faced with the difficult situation of the government proposing amendments to the legislation governing NGOs and restricting foreign funding. It is a very bold move considering that less than a month ago the European Court of Justice ruled the attempt of the Hungarian government to limit foreign funding for civil society organisations as breaking EU law. This decision clearly said that such restriction violates the free movement of capital and fundamental rights. I don’t believe the draft amendment will pass but it is here to further stigmatise our sector, implying that civil society organisations that receive foreign funding may be protecting foreign interest as opposed to Bulgarian ones.

I want to emphasise that even without the proposed changes the civil society sector is under scrutiny and reporting to different institutions with a clear overview of the donations received, as well as all expenditures and activities organised. Furthermore, the draft amendment suggests that NGOs should submit declarations to the anti-corruption committee which changes the focus from the state being transparent to the citizen to the citizen being transparent to the state.

Iva: Civil society organisations are the structures of critically thinking people and the people who ask inconvenient questions to the government – it is this critical thinking that is the true target of the proposed legislative changes. It is up to each society to show how stable its democratic immune system is. If we can find a better way to work together and mobilise the community, we will survive. If we can’t, nobody from abroad will come and rescue us – it is like the Covid-19 crisis, it’s all about the immune system.

Why is this law being proposed now? Are civil society organisations gaining momentum in Bulgaria?

Nadia: If anything, the Covid-19 crisis postponed the legislative changes because it was a big momentum for civil society organisations. Civil society organisations showed what they are capable of – they were working on the frontline with local municipalities showing solidarity and empathy, which enhanced the image of the civil sector.

Iva: I think this is part of a longer strategy and a bigger scenario, because we have experienced a series of attempts to discredit civil society organisations before linked to the process of establishing a Civil Society Support Council in Bulgaria. As a coalition, we were able to select and propose about 12 organisations out of the 14 in the Council. Now that the Council has been finally established, there was another attempt to discredit it. This came from a statement issued by the anti-corruption committee stating that the rules of establishment and working of the Council were not well regulated. The Council is, however, regulated by the Council of Ministers, so even within public institutions there are misunderstandings. Still, I believe that if we continue working unitedly, we will be able to resist and turn the negative into positive.

How are civil society organisations reacting and what is the coalition doing to counter the developments?

Nadia: One example of countering the developments is the work of the before-mentioned Council. Our coalition has further attracted large organisations and networks. We united our efforts and made a campaign for our candidates to enter the Council. This step was very important because there are anti- civil society organisations that are trying to enter the civic space and destroy it from within.

We tried to mobilise the sector, we drafted statements and received support from many organisations to communicate the issue to different communities and increase our resilience. I was really happy to see that in less than 10 days we managed to gain support from more than 300 organisations.

Iva: The lack of funding for civil society organisations also affects their communication. Civil society organisations in Bulgaria struggle to communicate effectively what they are doing and that is why our coalition is trying its best to show their work to the general public. To achieve this, the coalition made a film in the first months of the pandemic showing several organisations and how they were helping different groups of society. The message is that civil society organisations are an integral part of society, they are necessary and very helpful. We are trying to turn the narrative into a positive one.

What other work does Citizen Participation Forum and the coalition do?

Iva: As a coalition, we want to show what civil society organisations stand for and work towards. In the last couple of months, we focused on the role of civil society organisations in the pandemic because many organisations were in the frontline. They were helping, protecting people, collecting clothes and computers for the education of Roma children, for example, as well as working with a lot of volunteers, delivering food to old people and more. It was a moment to show that civil society organisations are extremely helpful and ready to react in a difficult situation even without any special financial support and that they are an important part of a healthy democracy.

Nadia: Another goal we have in the coalition is to involve more and more citizens and communities to support what we do which is a crucial path for civil society right now. There is no reason to think of civil society organisations as something independent from citizens. We exist to represent what people want. Within our coalition we want to broaden the alliance between different organisations and to involve more and more citizens.

If we could take one positive lesson from the situation, what would it be?

Iva: United we stand strong (the Bulgarian national slogan) – it may sound like a cliché, but it’s true. If we worked individually, we wouldn’t succeed in showing the importance of civil society organisations in Bulgaria. United, we try to find common causes and messages although we work in different spheres of life. We share many things that for me are democratic values. So, as long as we stay together and the more we develop as a coalition, network or an informal alliance, the stronger we are and so are our messages.

Nadia: One of the good lessons is that some of the organisations learnt that we have to change and be responsive to the needs of today. A positive consequence is that many NGOs have adopted this approach.

What would you like the future to look like?

Nadia: Our vision is to have an enabling framework where people can easily join and do things together. For me, this means that people enjoy the right of assembly and thus, to be able to make their voices as citizens stronger.

Iva: I would like to see 50% of all Bulgarians become members of different civil society organisations. This way, the public support and understanding of NGOs would increase and the government might realise the benefit of working with civil society organisations and support their activities

The coalition led by Citizen Participation Forum focuses on the sustainability of civil society actors, creates more vibrant partnerships between them, and nurtures an overall environment that allows for effective work with the national and local institutions. The coalition also encourages citizens to create, recognise, and participate actively in civil society activities.