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Bulgaria: ODS Faces Rough Road To Economic Reform

Prague, 21 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - A majority victory in Bulgaria's parliamentary election this weekend has put the anti-communist United Democratic Forces (ODS) in a strong position to implement economic reforms. To push these reforms, the ODS decided today on three key government appointments. Bulgaria�s next prime minister will be 47-year-old ODS leader Ivan Kostov. At least two members of Sofia's caretaker cabinet also will retain their posts -- Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev and Economic Affairs Minister Alexander Bozhkov.

Bulgaria�s economic situation remains critical. Loss-making state firms must be closed, a real start is needed on privatizing large state companies and currency reforms must be put in place. Reform of the collapsed banking sector also is desperately needed along with a new legal infrastructure to help attract foreign investment.

An important advisor to the ODS, Ivan Krastev, says Kostov�s government will have "a very short time" in office before popular support starts to sour. He says a "popular majority rather than a parliamentary majority" is now necessary to keep a government in power.

Krastev says the pressure will be greatest on Kostov after thousands of people have lost their state jobs in bankruptcy closures, but before the benefits of shock therapy reform are felt. That means renewed street demonstrations are possible within six months. But Krastev says support for reforms from trade unions and Euroleft, a group of Socialist Party defectors, could prevent a populist backlash.

The ODS alliance won 137 of Bulgaria's 240 parliamentary seats in Saturday's ballot. The Socialist Party (BSP) now becomes an opposition force with 57 seats, down from a 125-seat-majority in the last parliament.

Three smaller parties also made it into the new parliament by each winning at least four percent of the vote. They include an alliance of ethnic Turks and monarchists called the Union for National Salvation (20 seats); Euroleft (14 seats); and the populist Bulgarian Business Bloc (12 to 13 seats).

Krastev says support from Euroleft would demonstrate a clear political will for painful but necessary economic reforms. He says Euroleft's support also would show Western leaders that Sofia's desire to join NATO and the European Union has wide backing. The BSP opposes Bulgarian membership in NATO, but the former communists in Euroleft support membership so long as nuclear weapons are not placed on Bulgarian territory.

Euroleft is led by Alexander Tomov, a former Socialist deputy prime minister who broke away from the BSP in 1994 to form a more centrist group. In the 1994 elections, Tomov narrowly failed to break the four percent barrier. That loss now looks like a blessing. By sitting out of the last parliament, he has escaped blame for the economic collapse that began in 1995 under Socialist Prime Minister Zhan Videnov.

Tomov formed Euroleft this year as a refuge for other center-leaning Socialist defectors. The group�s ranks were swollen by a wave of BSP defections in the final days of Videnov's discredited cabinet. Analysts say more defections are possible in the future.

There seems little likelihood of cooperation between Kostov and Bulgarian Business Bloc leader George Ganchev. Kostov has been very critical of Ganchev since January when the Business Bloc leader failed to support the massive anti-Socialist street demonstrations that brought about Saturday's ballot.

The Union for National Salvation (ONS) is more likely to work with Kostov. That group is led by Ahmed Dogan�s mostly ethnic-Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). Neverthless, cooperation between Kostov and Dogan is a shaky proposition. The fall of former Prime Minister Philip Dimitrov�s anti-communist government in 1992 occurred precisely because Dogan had withdrawn the support of the MRF. Kostov had been finance minister in Dimitrov�s cabinet.

Importantly, when King Simeon II returned to Bulgaria for two days last week at the invitation of monarchists in Dogan's alliance, he urged allanti-communist reformers to unite under a "broad coalition." The popular anti-communist President Petar Stoyanov says he agrees with the idea.

Support from both Euroleft and the ONS would give Kostov the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to amend the constitution created by Bulgaria�s communists in 1990 -- a document used repeatedly during the last seven years by the BSP to stall market reforms.

Economic reformers in the ODS want to promote foreign investment by ending Bulgaria's constitutional ban against land ownership by foreigners. Some members of the ODS also want to expand the constitutional powers of President Stoyanov.