Bulgarian government struggling for answers to protests

By bne IntelliNews July 2, 2013

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Protesters in Bulgaria continued to fill the streets on July 1, cold shouldering the recently-appointed government's measures to bring down power prices. Instead the anger on the streets has widened and is now directed at the entire political culture. That leaves the government with little to offer as it resists calls to resign.

July 1 saw the 18th straight day of protests following a busy weekend for police, with the air filled with booing and chants for Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski to dissolve the Socialist Party led government elected on May 12 in snap protests. That early vote followed the fall of the right-leaning GERB government, after huge demonstrations sparked by rising electricity bills.

However, similar to the huge protests seen throughout June in neighboring Turkey - which swelled from a tough repression of a small environmental protest in Istanbul to become nationwide - the crowds in Sofia and other major Bulgarian cities have been whipped up by reports of nepotistic official appointments and a general anger against perceived widespread corruption in the country's political establishment. In particular, the appointment of Delyan Peevski - long seen as a representative of state capture by the country's oligarchs - as head of the main office for fighting corruption, sparked outrage.

That leaves both the ruling Socialists and GERB with few concessions to offer as the tension rises, and police authorities appear unsure of how to respond. Brussels Boulevard in Sofia and the Trakia Highway near Plovdiv were blocked on June 30. Events are now threatening to disrupt economic life in a country already struggling.

The same day, the cabinet was forced to deny once again that it is considering giving up the ghost and resigning. "The issue is not on our agenda at all. We have never discussed it," Defense Minister Anguel Naydenov told bTV. "We have strong support from people in the whole country. So there is no cause to be disturbed by the fact that several thousand protesters are demanding our resignation. We have no intention to resign now or in May. We have lots to offer in terms of social and other measures."

However, the cabinet appears to be feeling increasingly helpless; Oresharski told Nova TV on July 1: "This is a situation that one cannot get used to. I knew my term in office would be very hard. People started asking for my resignation on the third day after I was sworn in office - this was the first raised flag. Our mistake in the appointment of the national security chief escalated the protests and the situation is now tense. This reflects quite negatively on the entire country, but I hope a solution will be found and things will come back to normal."

The former finance minister appears stumped. While the crowds demand election code reform and new brooms to clean up Bulgaria's political house, the PM appears to hope that vague economic promises can sweep things under the carpet. However, he has little to offer even in those terms. He suggested on July 1 that his cabinet will propose a budget update in the next fortnight, but it has little room for maneuver.

Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, the country's energy companies responded angrily to the legislation rushed through on June 28, with industry associations - apparently without irony - accusing parliament of burdening companies in order buy off the protestors. "Conducting such hasty and untransparent politics will kill the energy sector and ruin the industry," the associations said on June 27, according to AFP. The statement went on to press President Rosen Plevneliev to veto the changes to the law, which the government hopes will lead to a 5% cut in electricity bills for households.

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