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Bulgaria: Protests Continue; President-Elect Supports Opposition

Sofia, 12 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Thousands of opposition demonstrators rallied in the Bulgarian capital Sofia today for a seventh day in a row as President-Elect Petar Stoyanov added his voice to the opposition's call for early legislative elections. Protesters massed outside the gold-domed Alexander Nevsky cathedral to press their demand for a new parliamentary poll. Earlier in the day, Stoyanov warned that "if the government does not accept early elections, Bulgarians will be in the streets every day." He said the country's deep economic crisis had made people "desperate."

The ruling Socialist Party (BSP) continues to refuse calls for early elections, which are currently not scheduled until the end of 1998.

Outgoing President Zhelyu Zhelev went on national television yesterday and said that the BSP -- made up mostly of former communists -- would have to give in and agree to elections this year. Zhelev has so far delayed giving a mandate to BSP Interior Minister Nikolai Dobrev, which would allow him to form a new government.

The Socialist government responded with a statement ruling out early voting. They said an early vote "would be fatal to the country" because it would interfere with the government's ability to pursue economic reforms aimed at ending Bulgaria's deep economic crisis.

The opposition accused the Socialist party of being ready to use any means -- including "shedding the blood of innocent citizens" -- to keep power.

In an interview, published yesteday in the Paris daily "Le monde" Zhelev said that the only way out of the current political crisis is the holding of early elections. Zhelev also warns that the conduct of the population, which is "famished and without hope" is unpredictable.

Yesterday more than 10,000 demonstrators gathered again in the center of Sofia in support of the opposition demand for early elections and to protest low wages, high inflation and rampant crime. Dock workers, miners and taxi drivers have announced they will join nationwide labor strikes tomorrow to support the opposition. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is holding special masses today for the nearly 200 people injured during clashes with police on Friday and yesterday.

The current political crisis heated up on Friday and early yesterday when opposition protestors clashed with police outside -- and briefly inside -- parliament. Some 200 were injured, including opposition deputy and former Prime Minister Filip Dimitrov. The protestors had turned out to support an opposition party motion calling for an early election. The BSP, which controls 125 of 240 seats in parliament, refused a vote.

Zhelev, who turns over the presidency to fellow anti-communist Petar Stoyanov later this month, has delayed giving a mandate to BSP Interior Minister Nikolai Dobrev to form a new government. Dobrev is backed by the BSP and its allies to succeed Zhan Videnov, who resigned as prime minister last month citing a lack of popular support.

Zhelev said yesterday that issuing the mandate might lead to further violence. The constitution requires the president to issue the mandate, but a spokesman for Zhelev says the constitution does not set a deadline.

Russia yesterday expressed concern over growing tensions in neighboring Bulgaria, which it described as a "friendly state" once seen as an "island of stability" in the troubled Balkans.

Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Moscow hopes the crisis in Bulgaria will be resolved as it puts it "through dialog within the constitution and democratic traditions."

Early Saturday morning, police swinging clubs and firing warning shots broke through the ranks of tens of thousands of protesters to free lawmakers trapped inside the Bulgarian Parliament building in Sofia. Dozens of people were reported injured.

The protesters had been blockading more than 100 legislators from Bulgaria's ruling Socialist Party since Friday. Yordan Sokolov, parliamentary floor leader of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces, said the demonstrators reflected "the anger of people who have nothing to lose."

The rampage started Friday when demonstrators broke through police cordons and into Parliament offices, where they smashed furniture and computers and set one office on fire.

At least 10 police officers, including one who suffered two broken legs, were hurt trying to stop them. State TV showed some protesters with head injuries and said they had been beaten by police, who also used tear gas.

Over the day, the crowd of demonstrators grew from 20,000 to more than 50,000. They said they would not let Socialists out of the building until they agreed to new elections.

Authorities sent in special anti-terrorist troops and the Cabinet said the Interior Ministry had been given power to put an end to what it called "illegal actions."

Early Saturday, four buses arrived at the building to rescue the lawmakers. When protesters tried to stop them, police fired warning shots and clubbed protesters.

Well into the morning, the crowd finally broke up. Police sealed off much of the downtown area.