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Bulgaria: Threats Of Street Violence Test Democracy

Sofia, 4 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Democracy in Bulgaria now faces its most serious test since the end of totalitarianism in 1989. For hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, the next 48 hours will determine whether it is possible to change what they consider "bad government" without resorting to violence.

Reflecting the high tension in the country, President Petar Stoyanov today reportedly refused to approve a proposed Socialist cabinet to replace outgoing Socialist Prime Minister Zhan Videnov's administration.

With street demonstrators now calling for a complete ban on the Socialist Party (BSP), the president has called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council before passing the cabinet proposal on to parliament for approval.

RFE/RL correspondents in Sofia report that Stoyanov is required by the constitution to approve the Socialist list before midnight tonight. The Socialist-dominated parliament would then be expected to vote as soon as tomorrow.

But street demonstrators are outraged by the reported composition of that proposed cabinet. Most key posts -- including the foreign minister, finance minister and agriculture minister -- are said to be filled by the same individuals who formed Videnov's discredited government.

The Socialist Party's own surveys indicate that more than 80 percent of Bulgarians oppose any new Socialist government. But the Socialists control a majority in the parliament and have the legal right to appoint the next cabinet.

Meanwhile, leaders of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) are telling anti-Socialist demonstrators that they must not express their anger through violence.

UDF deputy leader Nedejda Mikhailova yesterday telephoned RFE/RL's Sofia bureau and said that demonstrators might expect provocations tomorrow from Interior Ministry security forces. She said that protesters would try "do everything possible to avoid giving in to provocations."

Mikhailova said violence could allow Prime Minister-designate Nikolai Dobrev to justify severe crackdowns on nationwide strikes and other demonstrations against the Socialists.

Dobrev, the powerful interior minister in Videnov's cabinet, also is warning against violence.

"Peaceful protests are understandable but civil disobedience is outside the law, especially in a country with hyper-inflation," he said.

Asked whether he would use force if there was a repeat of last month's siege of parliament by angry demonstrators, Dobrev said: "I would have no choice." But Dobrev added that he is not "a blood-thirsty vampire."

Meanwhile, RFE/RL correspondents in Sofia say press reports about a UDF plan to surround the parliament tomorrow may not be true. Though it is not being ruled out that demonstrators might spontaneously gather around the parliament, No UDF member has made such a call. Last month's violence came after a UDF-organized rally completely surrounded the parliament.

Several callers on an RFE/RL phone-in program in Sofia yesterday suggested that Socialist deputies should be blocked from entering the building. But the guest on that program, opposition rally coordinator Evgeni Bakardzhiev, was evasive about the idea and refused to endorse such measures.

Meanwhile, signs of heightened tension are apparent across the country today as the national currency, the lev, continues its freefall. The lev was trading at 2,800 to the dollar today compared to 2,000 on Friday and 450 to the dollar at the start of the year. At the current rate, pensioners now receive less than two dollars a month -- barely enough to buy six loaves of bread. Most state employees now earn less than ten dollars a month, and incomes continue to be devaluated on an hourly basis by hyper-inflation.

Kilometer-long queues are being reported today at the few bakeries in central Sofia that are still producing bread. Villagers in the southern Rhodopi mountain region yesterday reportedly broke into state cooperative potato storage bins and looted the reserves there.

Most of the main roads and rails to neighboring Greece, Turkey, Romania, Serbia and Macedonia are now blocked by demonstrators. Public transport in major cities is no longer working and students have thrown up barricades at key intersections in Sofia and the second-largest city, Plovdiv, to prevent cars and trucks from passing. Several students in Sofia were injured in brawls with drivers yesterday.

Union of Democratic Forces Chairman Ivan Kostov said the protests will continue until early elections are called. Strike organizers said Sofia public transport would go on an indefinite strike if the parliament approves a new Socialist government.

Among the new names in the proposed Socialist cabinet are two military figures. General Sava Zhendov would become the interior minister and General Luben Petrov would become defense minister. But experts in Sofia say the military is not expected to side with the Socialist Party if widespread civil disturbances occur.

Ognian Minchev, a political scientist at Sofia University, says the Bulgarian army is "absolutely passive in terms of real participation in politics." Minchev explains that former Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov had been intimidated by a history of attempted coups in 1923, 1934 and 1944. Minchev said the top army officers have remained isolated from politics since Zhivkov depoliticized the army after an abortive 1967 coup attempt by Maoist-influenced officers.

Some analysts say the Socialists may still split their vote in parliament as a "face saving" way to get out of the current crisis. But out of 125 Socialist deputies in 240-seat parliament, only three have publicly announced that they will vote against a new Socialist government.