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Bulgaria

Executive Summary

Bulgaria is seen by many investors as an attractive low-cost investment destination, with government incentives for new investment. The country offers some of the least expensive labor in the European Union (EU) and low and flat corporate and income taxes. However, Bulgaria has the lowest labor productivity rate in the EU, and a rapidly shrinking population could exacerbate the trend.

In 2021 Bulgaria continued to suffer from the COVID-19 pandemic and related shutdowns, although the impact on the economy was less severe than in many other European countries. In 2021 the government updated the budget to include more public funding of COVID-related measures, such as increased pensions. Tourism, logistics, the service industries, and the automotive sector were particularly hard hit by the pandemic. The Bulgarian economy declined 4.4 percent in 2020, rebounded to 4.2 percent growth in 2021, and is projected to grow by 4.8 percent in 2022. This recovery is being driven by higher consumption and public investment funds. The war in Ukraine and rising energy and food prices, however, threaten these growth expectations.

Bulgaria is expected to receive EUR 6.2 billion over a six-year period (2021-2026) from the EU’s post-COVID recovery grant funds to improve its economy in areas such as green energy, digitalization, and private sector development.

The government expects to adopt the Euro in early 2024, after having joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM II) in July 2020 and the EU’s Banking Union in October 2020. The adoption of the euro will eliminate currency risk and help reduce transaction costs with some of the country’s key European trading partners.

There are no legal limits on foreign ownership or control of firms. With some exceptions, foreign entities are given the same treatment as national firms and their investments are not screened or otherwise restricted. There is strong growth in software development, technical support, and business process outsourcing. The Information Technology (IT) and back-office outsourcing sectors have attracted a number of U.S. and European companies to Bulgaria, and many have established global and regional service centers in the country. The automotive sector has also attracted U.S. and foreign investors in recent years.

Foreign investors remain concerned about rule of law in Bulgaria. Along with endemic corruption, investors cite other problems impeding investment including difficulty obtaining needed permits, unpredictability due to frequent regulatory and legislative changes, sporadic attempts to negate long-term government contracts, and an inefficient judicial system. The new government coalition which came to power in December 2021 cited rule of law reform as its highest priority.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2021 78 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
Global Innovation Index 2021 35 of 132 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2021 USD 608 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2020 USD 9,630 https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment 

3. Legal Regime 

4. Industrial Policies 

5. Protection of Property Rights 

6. Financial Sector 

7. State-Owned Enterprises 

Upon EU accession, Bulgaria was recognized as a market economy, in which the majority of the companies are private. Significant state-owned enterprises (SOEs) remain, however, such as railways and the postal service. SOEs also predominate in the healthcare, infrastructure, and energy sectors; many of these are collectively managed by holding companies, which are also SOEs. Some of the SOEs receive annual government subsidies for current and capital expenditures, regardless of their actual performance. SOEs’ budgets and audit reports are posted on the website of the Agency for Public Enterprises and Control. The list of all SOEs can be found here: reports.appk.government.bg/public/pubic/organizations . According to the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute (NSI), there is a sizeable state-owned sector consisting of approximately 350 SOEs held by the central government and 580 by subnational governments. In 2020, SOEs accounted for 10.6 percent of the overall economy.

Cross-subsidization is common within some government holding companies. In the energy sector, for example, the debts of some energy producers are covered by more lucrative entities within the holding structure.

In 2019 Parliament approved the State Enterprise Act, introducing updated corporate standards and management practices. The law lists timeline and criteria for SOE senior management approval. SOEs are typically run by government elected boards. Public and private sector companies are in theory equally treated vis-à-vis bidding on concessions, taxation, or other government-controlled processes.  Bulgaria became party to the WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) upon its entry into the EU in 2007.

8. Responsible Business Conduct 

In 2007 the government adopted a National Corporate Governance Code to encourage companies to adhere to the principles of responsible business conduct (RBC).  In 2019, the government approved a Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy for the period until 2023. The non-governmental Bulgarian Network for Social and Corporate Responsibility (CSR – csr.bg)  promotes CSR among Bulgarian companies and highlights good business practices.

There is a growing awareness of RBC standards and business’ obligation to proactively conduct due diligence to ensure they are doing no harm, with larger international firms generally further along than smaller domestic companies. Bulgarian companies are more frequently building RBC awareness through events organized in partnership with employer associations.

Bulgarian NGOs continued to report the exploitation of children in certain industries, particularly small family-owned shops, textile production, restaurants, construction businesses, and periodical sales. Children living in vulnerable situations, particularly Roma children, were exposed to harmful and exploitative work in the informal economy, mainly in agriculture, construction, and the service sector.

Bulgaria is not a member of either the OECD or the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

9. Corruption

Corruption remains a significant issue in Bulgaria. Bulgaria ranks 78th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for 2021, the worst in the EU.  Human trafficking, and narcotics and contraband smuggling all contribute to corruption.  With the gradual introduction of technologies in public administration, including e-filing and the electronic issuance of certificates, some progress has been made in addressing petty corruption.  However, high-level corruption, particularly in public procurement, remains a serious concern.  The high-profile prosecutions that do take place are often seen as selective or politically motivated and typically end in acquittals after a lengthy judicial process.  The lack of serious convictions against senior officials and the need for reforms in the criminal justice sector remained high on the public agenda throughout 2021 when it took three elections to finally form a government. While the new governing coalition has demonstrated political will to undertake serious reforms, including to reorganize the Anti-Corruption Commission and increase its powers, it is yet to pass new laws and build capacity to secure final convictions for public corruption.

The Anti-Corruption Commission, established in 2018 on the foundations of several previously independent bodies for asset recovery and conflict of interest prevention, has been marred by leadership scandals and an insignificant anti-corruption record. The Anti-Corruption Fund (acf.bg), a civic organization created in 2017, conducts its own investigation of cases suspected either of corruption or conflict of interest among Bulgarian senior politicians and policy makers.

Bulgaria has ratified the Anti-Bribery Convention and is a participating member of the OECD Working Group on Bribery. Bulgaria has also ratified the Council of Europe’s Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure, and Confiscation of Proceeds of Crime (1994) and Civil Convention on Corruption (1999). Bulgaria has signed and ratified the UN Convention against Corruption (2003); the Additional Protocol to the Council of Europe’s Criminal Law Convention on Corruption; and the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.  In 2018, the Bulgarian Parliament adopted the Anti-Money Laundering Act, which transposes the 2015 EU Directive on the prevention of the use of the financial system for the purposes of money laundering and terrorist financing.  The new law required registered business groups to declare by May 2019 their beneficial owners. Some companies continue to avoid ownership publication by registering shell entities in tax heavens and offshore zones. Local capacity to detect suspicious and potentially illicit money flows remains low as evidenced by a 2019 case involving millions in money transfers from a Venezuelan state-run oil company through the Bulgarian banking system.

Conflict of interest is legally defined in the Law on Combatting Corruption and Illegal Asset Forfeiture, Article 52: “Conflict of interest exists when the contracting authority, its employees or employees outside its structure who are involved in the preparation or award of the contract or who may influence the outcome of the contract have an interest, which may lead to a benefit and which could be considered to affect their impartiality and independence in connection with the award of the public contract.” Article 81 also defines conflict of interest as “receiving a material benefit” by senior public officials and related persons. In 2021 authorities levied fines on individuals in 22 conflict of interest cases.

Bribery is a criminal act under Bulgarian law both for the giver and for the receiver. Individuals who mediate and facilitate a bribe are also held accountable, but according to observers, enforcement of this provision has been arbitrary as prosecutors have de facto discretion not to charge individuals who opt to cooperate as witnesses.

10. Political and Security Environment 

Daily anti-government protests that took place throughout the summer of 2020 in Sofia generated sporadic reports of excessive force by protestors and police, but otherwise there has been no significant political violence in recent years.

11. Labor Policies and Practices 

The Bulgarian Constitution recognizes workers’ rights to join trade unions and to organize. The National Council for Tripartite Cooperation (NCTC) provides a forum for dialogue among the government, employer organizations, and trade unions on issues such as cost-of-living adjustments and social security contributions. Currently, there are five nationally recognized employer organizations, based on membership thresholds. Bulgaria has two large trade union confederations represented at the national level, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria (CITUB) and the Confederation of Labor Podkrepa (Support). CITUB, the larger of the two, has an estimated membership of about 300,000. Podkrepa has a large share of unionized labor in education.

There are very few restrictions on trade union activity, but employees in smaller private firms are often not represented.  Unionized labor is most commonly seen in the highly subsidized railway and postal sectors.  Under the Bulgarian Labor Code, employer-employee relations are regulated by employment contracts. Collective labor contracts can be concluded at the sectoral level, enterprise level, regional, and municipal levels. The Labor Code addresses worker occupational safety and health issues and mandates a minimum wage (set by the Council of Ministers).  The minimum wage in 2022 is BGN 710 (USD 405) per month.  The Bulgarian Labor Code provides for benefits for departing employees depending on the reason for termination of the employment contract and on whose initiative the termination was enacted.  In cases of forcible termination, the employee is normally entitled to compensation from the employer, generally up to one month of gross salary.

Disputes between labor and management can be referred to the courts, but resolution is often slow.  The National Institute for Conciliation and Arbitration (NICA) has developed a framework for collective labor dispute mediation and arbitration. However, NICA-sponsored collective labor dispute resolutions remain few.

The Bulgarian labor market continues to be rigid in classifying different forms of employment (part-time, per-hour, etc.). Driven by business disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020 the Bulgarian Labor Code was amended to allow businesses to reclassify full-time workers as part-time while the state of emergency is in force. The Bulgarian Labor Code limits overtime work to 300 hours per calendar year. Undeclared work is the most common informal labor market practice. The share of the informal economy has decreased from 36.7 percent in 2010 to 22.5 percent in 2020.

An EU “Blue Card” work permit can be obtained by high-skilled foreigners who have a visa or a long-term residence permit in Bulgaria. The long-term residence permit and the “Blue Card” are issued for a period of up to four years. As of March 2022, Ukrainians and members of their families with the right to temporary protection under Art. 1a, para. 3 of the Asylum and Refugees Act have the right to work in Bulgaria without a labor permit. Persons with temporary protection status can register as jobseekers with the Labor Office Directorate at their permanent or current address. Additional information about the procedure for obtaining temporary protection can be found here: (www.aref.government.bg/bg/node/499) . Ukrainian citizens have the right to seasonal work of up to 90 days in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, hotels and restaurants in Bulgaria without interruption for 12 months. For this purpose, registration with the Employment Agency is required based on a declaration submitted by the employer. As of March 2022, Bulgarian business have estimated they have the capacity to employ up to 200,000 new workers, including for eligible Ukrainians, mostly in the IT, textile, and construction sectors.

Bulgarians’ literacy rate (aged 15 and older) is 98.4 percent, have an average 14.4 years of schooling, and have strong backgrounds in engineering, medicine, economics, and the sciences, but there is a shortage of professionals with management skills as well as of skilled workers. Foreign and local investors have also complained of a mismatch between the educational system and the labor market’s demands. Employers have also been slow to offer training. Emigration, particularly among young skilled professionals, has exacerbated the shortages. Bulgaria slipped two places to 56th in the UN Human Development Index for 2020, the lowest score among EU countries.

The Roma community makes up an estimated 10 percent of the total population and a higher percentage of the labor force. These numbers are increasing as a result of demographic trends. The Roma community is subject to discrimination and is socially marginalized, with lower levels of educational attainment. Consequently, Roma are overrepresented among unskilled workers and in the grey economy. Large numbers of Roma also seek unskilled, seasonal employment in other EU member states.

14. Contact for More Information 

Liam Sullivan (Senior Economic Officer)
Embassy Sofia
SullivanLL@state.gov

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