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History, Politics, and the Constitution: Ethnic Conflict and Constitutional Adjudication in Postcommunist Bulgaria

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


Infamously, the 1991 Bulgarian Constitution contains a provision banning political parties “formed on an ethnic basis.” In the early 1990s, the neo-communist Bulgarian Socialist Party invoked this provision when it asked the country's Constitutional Court to declare unconstitutional the political party of the beleaguered Turkish minority. In this article, Venelin I. Ganev analyzes the conflicting arguments presented in the course of the constitutional trial that ensued and shows how the justices’ anxieties about the possible effects of politicized ethnicity were interwoven into broader debates about the scope of the constitutional normative shift that marked the end of the communist era, about the relevance of historical memory to constitutional reasoning, and about the nature of democratic politics in a multiethnic society. Ganev also argues that the constitutional interpretation articulated by the Court has become an essential component of Bulgaria's emerging political order. More broadly, he illuminates the complexity of some of the major issues that frame the study of ethnopolitics in postcommunist eastern Europe: the varied dimensions of the “politics of remembrance“; the ambiguities of transitional justice; the dilemmas inherent in the construction of a rights-centered legality; and the challenges involved in establishing a forward-looking, pluralist system of governance.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 2004

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This project was generously funded by grants from the American Council of Learned Societies and the College of Arts and Sciences at Miami University of Ohio. For helpful and encouraging comments and suggestions, I would like to thank Mila Ganeva, Iordan Ganev, Christian Takoff, Steven De Lue, and Sheila L. Croucher. My work also benefited from the critical remarks of two anonymous reviewers. My greatest intellectual debt is to Yonko Grozev, a sometimes skeptical but always unwaveringly supportive companion who journeyed widi me into this uncharted territory, Bulgarian constitutional jurisprudence.

1. According to article 21 of the Bulgarian Law on the Constitutional Court, the sessions of the Court are closed to the public (unless the justices themselves decide otherwise) and proceed without the participation of the parties.

2. Antonina, Zheljazkova, “The Bulgarian Ethnic Model,” East European Constitutional Review 10, no. 4(Fall 2001): 63 Google Scholar.

3. On Bulgarian constitutionalism, see Ganev, Venelin I., “Bulgaria: The (Ir) Relevance of Postcommunist Constitutionalism,”in Jan, Zielonka, ed., Democratic Consolidation in Eastern Europe, volume 1, Institutional Engineering(Oxford, 2001), 186-211 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4. Vesselin Dimitrov, “In Search of a Homogeneous Nation: The Assimilation of Bulgaria's Turkish Minority, 1984-1985, “Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe(December 2000): 1, available at A History of Russian Women's (last consulted 19 November 2003).

5. Cf. Zheljazkova, “The Bulgarian Ethnic Model,” 63.

6. Details about the military operations were made public for the first time in 2001, when Bulgarian National Television ran a documentary on the “revival process,” The Technology of Evil, written and directed by Tatiana Vaksberg. On the impact of this movie, see also Ralitza Peeva, “Tehnologija na zloto, ili kak izchezvat maltzinstvata” (Technology of evil, or how minorities disappear) Kapital, no. 2 (January 2001); and Ron Synovitz, “Bulgaria: Documentary on Assimilation of Ethnic Turks Stirs Debate,” Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty9 (January 2001).

7. For an excellent analysis of these events, see Peter, Stamatov, “The Making of a 'Bad’ Public: Ethnonational Mobilization in Postcommunist Bulgaria,” Theory and Society 29, no. 4(August 2000): 549-72Google Scholar.

8. On the Round Table Talks, see Rumyana, Kolarovaand Dimiter, Dimitrov, “The Round Table Talks in Bulgaria,”in Jon, Elster, ed., The Round Table Talks and the Breakdown of Communism(Chicago, 1996), 178-212,Google Scholarand especially Ralitza Peeva, “The Round Table Talks and the Bulgarian Transition to Democracy” (Ph.D. diss., Department of Sociology, New School of Social Research, 2000).

9. An excellent source of information on these events is Rumyana Kolarova, “Tacit Agreements in the Bulgarian Transition to Democracy: Minority Rights and Constitutionalism,“ University of Chicago Law School Roundtable(1993): 23-52.

10. Stephen, Holmes, Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy(Chicago, 1995), 204 Google Scholar.

11. Ivan Kristev and Ralitza Peeva, “Nevidimi konteksti, nevidimi barieri” (Invisible contexts, invisible barriers), Kultura(6 September 2002): 4 - 6 .

12. All agree on this point; see Kolarova, “Tacit Agreements,” 27, and Kristev and Peeva, “Nevidimi konteksti,” 5.

13. For a biographical sketch of Ahmed Dogan, see Ivan, Palchev, Ahmed Dogan: Opit za politicheskiportret(Ahmed Dogan: A political portrait) (Sofia, 2001)Google Scholar.

14. See, for example, The Minutes of the Bulgarian Great National Assembly, volumes 126, 249, 279, 349, 350 and 370.1 would like to thank the staff of the National Assembly for ensuring access to these archival materials.

15. Cass Sunstein, Cf., “Constitutionalism, Prosperity, Democracy: Transition in Eastern Europe,” Constitutional Political Economy 2, no. 3(Spring 1991)Google Scholar.

16. Hayden, Robert M., Blueprint for a House Divided: The Constitutional Logic of the Yugoslav Conflicts(Ann Arbor, 1999), 68 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17. This is the hypothesis defended, rather persuasively, by Kristev and Peeva, “Nevidimi konteksti,” 5.

18. Jon, Elster, “Ways of Constitution Making,”in Axel, Hadenius, ed., Democracy's Victory and Crisis(Cambridge, Eng., 1997), 135 Google Scholar.

19. As the judicial proceedings got under way, the twelve justices split into two groups. Six supported the petition and were therefore in favor of banning the MRF. Five opposed the petition and defended the view that the MRF is a constitutional party (one justice was sick and unable to participate in the sessions). According to article 151 of the Constitution, a petition for unconstitutionality may be affirmed only if supported by “more than half of all members of the Court,” that is by at least seven votes. That is why the decision affirming the MRF's constitutionality was ultimately written by five members of the Court, and six justices wrote a dissent (for a more detailed discussion of the legal technicalities surrounding the final decision—why a minority of the justices wrote the decision and the majority wrote the dissent—see Ganev, Venelin I., “The Rise of Constitutional Adjudication in Bulgaria,”in Wojciech, Sadurski, ed., Constitutional Justice, East and West: Democratic Legitimacy and Constitutional Courts in Post-Communist Europe in a Comparative Perspective[The Hague, 2002], 253)Google Scholar. For more information on the members of the Court, see die appendix.

20. Interview with Professor Neno Nenovski, member of the Constitutional Court (1991-1994), Sofia, 17 March 2001.

21. Teitel, Ruti G., Transitional Justice(Oxford, 2000), 6 Google Scholar.

22. The following conclusion is based on my research in the Court's archives, conducted in March 2001. I would like to thank the American Council of Learned Societies for providing generous funding for this research.

23. This brief has now been published in Konstitutzionni reshenija po pravata na chovekz. (Constitutional decision on human rights), vol. 4 (Sofia, 2000). The quote referring to Dogan's alleged terrorist activity appears on page 11.1 would like to thank Yonko Grozev for making a copy of this collection of documents available to me.

24. Konstitutzionni reshenija, 15.

25. Interview with Plamen Bogoev, legal adviser to President Zhelev (1990-1997), Sofia, 16 March 2001.

26. For more on these cases and German jurisprudence on the constitutionality of political parties more generally, see Kommers, Donald P., The Constitutional Jurisprudence of Federal Republic of Germany(Durham, 1989), chap. 5Google Scholar, and Otto, Kirchheimer, Political Justice: The Use of Legal Procedure for Political Ends(Princeton, 1961), chap. 4Google Scholar.

27. Rasma, Karklins, Ethnopolitics and Transition to Democracy: The Collapse of the USSR and Latvia(Washington, D.C., 1994), 4 Google Scholar.

28. See Velio, Pettai, “Estonia: Positive and Negative Constitutional Engineering,”in Zielonka, , ed., Democratic Consolidation, 111-38Google Scholar.

29. See “Update: Bosnia and Herzegovina,” East European Constitutional Review9, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 6.

30. On the Slovak case and the subsequent ruling of the Slovak Constitutional Court, see “Update: Slovakia,” EastEuropean Constitutional Review6, no. 4 (Fall 1997): 41.

31. Reshenija i opredelenija na Konstilutzionnija Sud, 1991-1992(Decisions and rulings of the Constitutional Court, 1991-1992), (Sofia, 1993), 84. All translations from Bulgarian are mine.

32. See Laszlo, Solyom, “Introduction to the Decisions of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Hungary,”in Laszlo, Solyomand Georg, Brunner, eds., Constitutional Judiciary in a New Democracy: The Hungarian Constitutional Court(Ann Arbor, 2000), 30-35 Google Scholar.

33. Gabor Halmai, Cf., “Establishing a State Governed by the Rule of Law in Hungary,” Review of Central and East European Law 22, no. 4(July 1996): 347-64CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34. Reshenija i opredelenija na Konstitutzionnija Sud, 1991-1992, 84.

35. Max Weber, Cf., Economy and Society(Berkeley, 1978), 2:884Google Scholar.

36. Reshenija i opredeknija na Konstitutzionnija Sud, 1991–1992, 72-73.

37. Ibid., 73.

38. Ibid., 72-73.

39. For a multifaceted discussion of the notion “politics of memory,” see Alexandra, Barahoma de, Brito, Carmen, González-Enríquez, and Paloma, Aguilar, eds., The Politics of Memory: Transitional Justice in Democratizing Societies(Oxford, 2001)Google Scholar.

40. W.James, Booth, “The Unforgotten: Memories ofJustice,” American Political Science Review 95, no. 4(December 2001): 778 Google Scholar.

41. On political trials in Albania, see Kathleen, Imholz, “Can Albania Break the Chain? The 1993-4 Trials of Former High Communist Officials,” East European Constitutional Review 4, no. 3(Summer 1995): 54-60 Google Scholar. On “the thick line” controversy in Poland, see Wiktor Osiatynski, “Decommunization and Recommunization in Poland,” East European Constitutional Review3, nos. 3 - 4 (Summer-Fall 1994): 36-41.

42. A.James, McAdams, Judging the Past in Unified Germany(Cambridge, Eng., 2001)Google Scholar.

43. Reshenija i opredelenija na Konstitutzionnija Sud, 1991-1992, 88.

44. Ibid., 89.

45. Ibid., 88.

46. Velko, Vulkanov, “Politikopravni problemi na politicheskite partii”(Political parties: Politico-legal problems), in Julian, Minkov, ed., Pluralism(Sofia, 1990), 149 Google Scholar.

47. Interview with Professor Neno Nenovski, Sofia, 17 March 2001.

48. On the difference between “moral” and “experiential” propositions, see Melvin Aron, Eisenberg, The Nature of the Common Law(Cambridge, Mass, 1988), 14-42 Google Scholar.

49. Reshenija i opredelenija na Konstitutzionnija Sud, 1991-1992, 76.

50. Ibid., 75.

51. For an illuminating discussion of how the idea of civil society is related to the “terms of mutuality,” see Seligman, Adam B., The Problem of Trust(Princeton, 1997), 106 Google Scholar.

52. Reshenija i opredelenija na Konstitutzionnija Sud, 1991-1992, 88.

53. Ibid.

54. Andras, Sajo, Limiting Government: An Introduction to Constitutionalism(Budapest, 1999), 2 Google Scholar.

55. The decision on the lawlessness of die communist regime may be found at consulted 19 November 2003), and the decision regarding the Beneš decrees at consulted 19 November 2003). On die Czech Constitutional Court more generally, see Jiri, Priban, Dissidents of Law(Hanover, N.H., 2002), chap. 4Google Scholar.

56. Reshenija i opredelenija na Konstitutzionnija Sud, 1991-1992, 74 and 88.

57. Ibid., 90. See article 2 of the program of MRF, available at site/bg/index_bg.htm (last consulted 19 November 2003).

58. Reshenija i opredelenija na Konstitutzionnija Sud, 1991-1992, 92 and 87.

59. Interview with Todor Todorov, member of the Constitutional Court, Sofia, 12 March 2001.

60. Interview with Professor Zhivko Stalev, chairman of the Constitutional Court (1997-2000), Sofia, 14 March 2001.

61. See Dominique, Schnapper, Community of Citizens: On the Modern Idea of Nationality(New Brunswick, 1998), 39-40 Google Scholar.

62. On the question whether the tension between minority rights and citizenship represents a “zero-sum game,” see Will, Kymlickaand Wayne, Norman, “Introduction,”in Will, Kymlickaand Wayne, Norman, eds., Citizenship in Diverse Societies(Oxford, 2000), 3 Google Scholar

63. Cf., for example, Amy, Gutmann, “Introduction,”in Amy, Gutmann, ed., Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition(Princeton, 1994), 3-4 Google Scholar.

64. On how the dichotomous categories “civic” and “ethnic” nationalism should be used in the context of postcommunist analysis, see Geneviève, Zubrzycki, ‘“We, the Polish Nation': Ethnic and Civic Visions of Nationhood in Post-Communist Constitutional Debates,” Theory and Society 30, no. 5(October 2001): 629-68Google Scholar.

65. On this extraordinary procedure for legitimating constitutional rules, see Bruce, Ackerman, We the People: Foundations(Cambridge, Mass, 1991)Google Scholar.

66. On the notion of “the substantive constitution” and how it was used in Weimar Germany, see Peter, Caldwell, “Legal Positivism and Weimar Democracy,” American Journal ojJurisprudence 39, no. 2(Fall 1994): 273-302 Google Scholar.

67. On the notion of “the invisible constitution” and how it shaped contemporary Hungarian constitutional jurisprudence, see Andras Sajo, “Reading the Invisible Constitution: Judicial Review in Hungary,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies15, no. 2 (1995): 253-67.

68. Judith, Shklar, Legalism: Law, Morals and Political Trials(Cambridge, Mass, 1964), 1 Google Scholar.

69. Cf. Kirchheimer, Political Justice, 419.

70. Interview with Professor Neno Nenovski, Sofia, 17 March 2001.

71. See Ruling no. 9, 19 December 1996, published in Reshenija i opredelenija na Konstitutzionnijat sud, 1996(Decisions and rulings of the Constitutional Court, 1996) (Sofia, 1997), 256.

72. See, for example, Elster, “Ways of Constitution Making,” 137, and the strikingly condescending pronouncements of Claus, Offe,Jon, Elster, and Ulrich, Preuss, Institutional Design in Post-Communist Societies: Rebuilding the Ship at Sea(Cambridge, Eng., 1998)Google Scholar.

73. See Maria, Todorova, Imagining the Balkans(Oxford, 1997)Google Scholar, esp. 18.

74. Kronman, Anthony T., “Alexander Bickel's Philosophy of Prudence,” Yak Law Journal, 94no. 7(June 1985): 1569Google Scholar.

75. On the difference between “motivational” and ‘justificational” considerations in discussions of nationalism, see Janos, Kis, “Beyond the Nation State,” Social Research 63, no. 1(Spring 1996): 202 Google Scholar.

76. Alexis de, Tocqueveille, Democracy in America(Garden City, N.Y, 1969), 110 Google Scholar.

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