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Bulgaria: Pressure on Videnov Increases Ahead of Socialist Congress

Sofia, 20 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Opponents of Bulgaria's Socialist Prime Minister Zhan Videnov are increasing pressure on the government ahead of this weekend's extraordinary Socialist Party (BSP) congress. Delegates at the congress are expected to decide on the embattled Prime Minister's future.

The congress also is expected to debate a strategy on a proposed fixed-exchange-rate mechanism for the country's plunging currency. The International Monetary Fund has frozen loan disbursements to Bulgaria until Sofia implements the so-called currency board. International financial analysts say it is the last hope for stabilizing the Bulgarian lev.

Videnov also supports the currency board. But a French-based international capital market research firm, Paribas, quotes public opinion surveys this week as giving Videnov a meager four percent approval rating.

Thousands of protesters in the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) gathered outside Sofia's parliament and government buildings yesterday. They burned a giant effigy of Videnov, demanding his immediate resignation along with new parliamentary elections.

The UDF is refusing to support the currency board unless early elections are called. UDF leaders say the plan will fail under Videnov. They also want a new central bank board appointed to implement the mechanism.

The BSP controls 125 of the 240 seats in Parliament. Nevertheless, Videnov's tenure could be threatened by divisions within the BSP.

That rift has intensified since the October 2 assassination of Andrei Lukanov, the former Communist Party Central Committee member who helped mastermind the Politiburo coup that ousted Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov in November, 1989. Among the former Communists in the renamed Socialist Party, Lukanov had been Videnov's most outspoken critic.

Despite elaborate promises that he would help improve living conditions for Bulgarians, Videnov's government has accomplished the opposite for all but an elite few.

Most Bulgarians are now faced with a standard of living not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many of the country's banks have collapsed, taking with them the life savings of average citizens. Even bread has become a scarce commodity in a nation that was once a grain exporter. Those few who have grown richer since 1989 are mostly connected to secretive nomenklatura groups that are being increasingly linked to both Videnov and other former Communists.

Interior Minister Nikolai Dobrev is at the center of the most recent corruption charges. Widely seen as the strong man in Videnov's cabinet, Dobrev is expected to play a crucial role at this weekend's congress. Yesterday, UDF leader Ivan Kostov demanded Dobrev's resignation in connection with the illegal bugging of UDF headquarters during the recent presidential campaign. Bulgarian National Radio reported that Bulgaria's military prosecutor had filed a suit against an unidentified state official for the wire taps.

By raising the case before military prosecutors, the UDF has underscored its charges that growing organized crime in the country is linked directly to the police and Videnov's cabinet.

Videnov's ministers have responded by asking anti-Communist President Zhelyu Zhelev to sack the national police chief. Zhelev said earlier this year that the BSP is too closely linked to Mafia groups to combat organized crime.

Meanwhile, the deputy head of Bulgaria's parliamentary commission against corruption asked Chief Prosecutor Ivan Tatarchev yesterday to investigate Videnov's business links for possible corruption, misuse of public funds and abuse of power. The commission member, UDF parliamentarian Edvin Sugarev, says that Videnov and six other top officials helped secretive firms in the "Orion Group" to emerge as a powerful economic force in the country.

In his letter to Tatarchev, Sugarev said: "Orion has caused significant losses to different state and private financial institutions." The letter continues: "Zhan Videnov has full information on the illegal activity of Orion and its bank, the Bulgarian Agricultural and Industrial Bank, and despite this he has done nothing to prevent the damage they cause the state, private individuals and agricultural corporations."

Orion was at the center of a political scandal last year after firms in the group profited by exporting large quantities of grain at high world prices, creating the bread shortages at home. Bulgarian farmers are forced to sell grain to a state purchasing board at prices far below the international level.

Videnov has denied in parliament that he has any "formal" links to Orion Group. He says his connections with the firms represent only "a friendly circle."

Pressure on Videnov also is coming from labor unions this week. Labor leaders have announced plans for a nationwide strike to protest rampant inflation and the bleak prospects for economic recovery. Dock workers today were planning to close Bulgaria's two main Black Sea ports of Varna and Burgas.

Analysts now suggest two possible outcomes from this weekend's congress. One is a cabinet reshuffle in which Videnov would retain his position as BSP leader and Prime Minister. Under this scenario, other key ministerial posts would go to former Communists who had been aligned with Lukanov. This could placate Videnov's Socialist adversaries as well as assure passage of the currency board proposal in Parliament.

Another possible result could be for a coalition "transition" government to emerge. This would link the Socialists with the anti-Communist and pro-free market UDF. The Wall Street Journal today calls this outcome "less likely."