Paul Shakeshaft, 3L
Advocates Europe, Bulgaria
Background to Bulgaria
‘‘The bent neck escapes the sword’’.
All cultures develop pithy phrases over time, distilling wisdom accumulated through the ages. ‘‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise’’ is a famous American one. Despite its inexact description of all successful people, and its unfortunately gimcrack rhyme, Dr Franklin’s maxim expresses an enthusiasm emblematic of the American outlook.
Bulgaria’s history is different, and wisdom focused on survival emerged with the years.
In order to explain my work here in Bulgaria, perhaps the country deserves a bit of description. Not many Americans (including myself) know much about Bulgaria until they come here.
Leaving the impressive ancient history of Bulgaria aside (Emperor Constantine referred to the capitol as ‘‘my Rome’’), the country’s modern history includes invasion by the Ottoman Empire in 1396, an occupation which lasted ostensibly until 1878. A nearly 500 year-long period popularised by the title of his novel, ‘‘Under the Yoke’’, Ivan Vazov notes the oppression of Bulgarian cultural identity, including Bulgarian Orthodox identity, during Ottoman rule. Sadly, the pluralism notable of the late Ottoman Empire only began as Bulgaria finally achieved its desired independence.
Independence did I say? Many Bulgarians describe this part of their history with dismay. For, even as the Ottomans left, the Great Powers decided (in their characteristic humility and respect for sovereignty) to divide Bulgaria into fragments even as it achieved autonomy. Wars ensued, alliances formed. And Bulgaria, like all small European countries during the Great Wars of the 20th century, threw her destiny behind one of the major alliances it thought had the best success of weathering a continent in convulsion. Regrettably, Bulgaria joined the Central Powers in the Great War, and the Axis powers during WWII. In 1944, a left-wing uprising abolished the monarchy, and in 1946 Bulgaria entered the Soviet sphere of influence.
Communism wrought effects still evident in the capitol of Sofia. Interrupting beautiful neoclassical architecture inspired by Austrian and French styles of the 19th century, cement block buildings yawn intentional gloom, producing their architects’ desired effect. Surely mothers taught their children ‘‘the bent head evades the secret police.’’
But in 1989 communism fell. Since then, Bulgaria has been on an uncertain road to recovery.
Out of these historical circumstances come significant challenges. For example, an Anti-Corruption Report by the European Commission in March of this year reported that 84% of Bulgarian respondents say that corruption is widespread in Bulgaria.
And corruption does not cease at courthouse gates. ‘‘In modern Bulgaria corruption is one of the significant concerns plaguing the current legal system. With historical roots in the Ottoman Empire and the Communist regime, Bulgaria faces challenges in sustaining a strong judicial system that holds its members accountable. Since the transition from communism to democracy in 1989, Bulgaria’s biggest challenge has been reforming its judicial system to combat corruption.’’
Advocates Europe was registered in the UK in 2001 and re-registered in Bulgaria in 2009. It has over 400 members with contacts in 35 countries around Europe. AE focuses mainly on combating corruption and human trafficking, but also promotes human rights and equal justice for the poor, the sanctity of human life, religious freedom, the rule of law, peace and reconciliation, the family & community.
My internship is with the President of Advocates Europe, Latchezar Popov. As President of AE he is the administrator of the network of attorneys involved with AE across Europe. As an attorney, he is dedicated to helping rebuild Bulgaria through the rule of law. He is also the founder of the Rule of Law Institute which concentrates on issues particular to Bulgaria.
During my internship here I have drafted an application to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. The case involves a church which has been denied registration as a legal institution. Of course, the case is more complicated than what can be summarised here. In essence, the church has climbed the appeals process in Bulgaria and at every level been denied due process. Besides facing the corruption of the courts, we’re concerned that the courts may be adopting an antagonistic disposition to religious plurality in Bulgaria. Religious freedom, including the freedom of institutional association, is protected by the Constitution; however, the courts have found illegitimate ways around this protection. In April of 2014, the Supreme Cassational Court rejected the church’s final appeal.
If the level of appeal ended in Bulgaria this would, obviously, be the end of the road. However, Bulgaria is a member of the European Convention of Human Rights. As a result, we are appealing the case to the European Court. Legally speaking, the case is evidently strong. And yet the applicants (the members of the church) aren't holding their breath, even though AE has a strong track record with the Court. They are demoralised by the corruption experienced in the Bulgarian court system. It is our hope that a correction from the Court will not only secure the applicants’ rights but will send a message to the courts that Bulgaria must continue to reduce corruption.
I've also helped draft a supplemental memorandum to the European Court involving a case that has sat in its dock for five years (there’s some explanation for this I won’t get into here). The applicant in this case is a radio broadcaster who has tried to secure a frequency to produce a Christian radio program. To date, Bulgaria has never granted a radio frequency to a Christian radio program. In 2001, the State granted this applicant a license, but has consistently prevented the applicant from attaining a frequency. This month, a branch of the Alliance Defending Freedom in Vienna joined the litigation. Again, it is hoped the European Court will strike a balance.
Applying to the European Court is an interesting experience for me. As a conservative, I am skeptical of para-national courts’ abilities to support inter-national stability, rather than usurp inter-national sovereignty. But perhaps this comes from my perspective as an American steeped in the common law of America and Britain, with its 1,000 year history. For post-communist countries in the East, the tremendous flux of government and law leaves them without long, accumulated legal history. At least in the short term, I see the direct net benefit of the European Court providing justice to those who without it might never see justice. ‘‘I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD In the land of the living.’’ (Psalm 27:13).
Smaller projects here include drafting contracts between the Rule of Law Institute and the government of Ukraine and various NGOs working within that precarious country.
Pray for the work of AE and the RLI, that attorneys in Bulgaria and Europe would continue to integrate Christian ethics into their legal practise, and have the wisdom and prudence needed to represent those without money or power in the interests of ordered freedom.
http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/organized-crime-and-human-trafficking/corruption/anti-corruption-report/docs/2014_acr_bulgaria_chapter_en.pdf. See also http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/bulgaria/3463957/Inside-Europes-corruption-capital-how-Bulgarias-crime-mafia-plunders-EU-grant-money.html. However, the Report also noted that the European average is 76%.