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Bulgaria: Opposition Looks For Salvation In The Streets

By Lisa McAdams and Ivo Indzhev

Prague, 9 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - The political opposition in Bulgaria, much like that of its Balkan neighbor Serbia, is looking for salvation in the streets.

Tens of thousands of opponents of Bulgaria's ruling Socialists (BSP) -- former Communists -- braved snow and chilly winds yesterday to demand that the Socialists give up power and that early parliamentary elections be called. Similar rallies were held in at least two other cities and are planned to continue today and tomorrow. The opposition, which won the presidential election two months ago and whose candidate assumes the post this month, argues that the Socialists have lost public confidence.

The main opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) last week began a campaign of daily rallies against the Socialists, apparently modeled after the seven weeks of daily protests against President Slobodan Milosevic and his Socialists in neighboring Serbia.

Sofia's protesters, throwing eggs, snowballs and stale bread loaves, assembled in front of Socialist Party headquarters Wednesday, chanting "Red Mafia" and "Elections now." A crucifix made of animal bones was waved in front of the party building as a symbol of hunger and poverty. Under the last two years of Socialist rule, Bulgaria has gone virtually bankrupt.

RFE/RL correspondent in Bulgaria reports that initially the protests were staged in opposition strongholds, but are spreading in increasing number and intensity to smaller towns, regarded until now under Socialist Party control. For example, RFE/RL's Sofia correspondent says actions are planned for today in the cities of Yambol, Haskovo, and Razgrad to name a few.

RFE/RL correspondent also reports plans for an opposition march through Dimitrovgrad -- an industrial center and symbol of socialist planning, named after the Bulgarian Communist Party hero, Georgy Dimitrov. Dimitrovgrad is the only Bulgarian town where the orthodox communists managed to preserve their authority in competition with the renamed Socialists.

Yesterday's protests followed the BSP's nomination of Interior Minister Nikolai Dobrev to replace Zhan Videnov, who resigned as prime minister on December 28, after having been blamed for the country's dire economic situation.

Outgoing President Zhelyu Zhelev is expected to formerly ask Dobrev on Saturday to form a new government, with the support of the BSP and its two coalition partners, the Ecoglasnost ecology party and the Agrarian party. Dobrev, whose candidacy is virtually assured since the coalition holds a parliamentary majority, would then have a week to present his cabinet for approval by Parliament.

The parliament, where Socialists hold 125 of the 240 seats, is expected to approve the new Cabinet, despite opposition calls for new elections. These are currently scheduled for 1998.

Dobrev said after being chosen that the demonstrators were "right to protest" because he said Videnov's government was "partly to blame for the difficult situation." He said he would take no action against the demonstrators unless, in his words, "they became violent." Dobrev also immediately vowed to push ahead with radical economic reform.

Bulgaria is undergoing its worst economic crisis since the collapse of communism in 1989. Inflation last year reached about 300 percent, the national currency (the leva) is in a tailspin, average monthly salaries equal about $30, and the average pension half of that.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) which has frozen a nearly $600 million loan, has urged Bulgaria to introduce a currency board to instill financial discipline. Without IMF lending, the country is threatened by default on its foreign debt and hyperinflation. Bulgaria's foreign debt totals about $10 billion, and some $1.3 billion is due to be paid this year.

Dobrev emerged as an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Videnov at last month's Party Congress, where he attacked the cabinet's record in handling the country's economic and social crisis and raised the previously taboo issue of government corruption.

A mining engineer by training, Dobrev has been organizational secretary in the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) for the past several years. He has also chaired Parliament's National Security Committee and is perceived as one of the party's strongmen, due to the great access to information provided by his posts.

Critics of Dobrev's candidacy say he lacks the economic background and international contacts necessary to win the approval of Bulgaria's foreign partners.

The leader of the opposition UDF, Ivan Kostov, told reporters,"it is clear that by electing the Interior Minister to head the government, the BSP seeks to solve the problems of the street and not the problems of the country."