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Bulgaria: Election Campaign Begins As Economy Wavers

Sofia, 24 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- With Bulgaria's presidential election a month away, official campaigning gets underway today as early public opinion polls show the candidate of the united opposition, Petar Stoyanov, leading the candidate of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), Ivan Marazov.

Reports say the campaign is expected to focus on Bulgaria's economic and banking crisis.

Effective today, Bulgaria's Central Bank has nearly triplied its annual lending rate to 300 percent from 108 percent to support the rapidly devaluing currency, the lev. Bulgarians have massed at the country's banks -- some of which are on the verge of collapse -- to exchange savings into hard currency.

As the International Monetary Fund(IMF)/World Bank open meetings in Washington this week, officials are expected to discuss the Bulgarian crisis. The IMF has delayed disbursing a vital loan, citing the slow pace of economic restructuring and the fragility of Bulgaria's banks.

The IMF has also criticized the pace of Bulgaria's privatization program, and Sofia announced yesterday the planned sale of 15 major state-owned firms.

Reports say that next week -- in an attempt to restore consumer confidence and restrain speculation -- Bulgaria's government will introduce price controls for bread, milk, cheese and oil. Also, prices for electricity and heating are expected to rise 14 percent next week.