Bulgaria’s premier quits amid austerity protests

Riot police clashed with demonstrators, angered at exorbitant power bills from foreign owned power companies. Picture: Reuters
Riot police clashed with demonstrators, angered at exorbitant power bills from foreign owned power companies. Picture: Reuters
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BULGARIA’S prime minister has ordered the dissolution of his government after more than a week of nationwide protests.

Premier Boyko Borisov, a centre-right politician, is the latest casualty in a series of European governments ousted by voters’ reaction to austerity measures. Bulgaria has suffered four years of a sovereign debt crisis.

Yesterday Mr Borisov, a former bodyguard and karate instructor, said: “We have dignity and honour. It was the people who have given us the power, and we give it back today.”

Mr Borisov and his cabinet are set to formally resign today.

The 53-year-old premier, who began his career guarding the Black Sea state’s communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, said he refused to lead a country where the police beat up people. In the capital, Sofia, 25 demonstrators were reportedly taken to hospital after rioting late on Tuesday.

Mr Borisov has cultivated a “can-do” image, akin to that of Russian president Vladimir Putin, since he entered politics as Sofia mayor in 2005. A typical stunt would see him showing up on the capital’s rutted streets to oversee the repair of pot-holes.

His critics claim he was often too overbearing when it came to the administration of the law, sometimes to the benefit of his allies.

Since 9 February, tens of thousands of Bulgarians have daily taken to the streets to express their anger at soaring electricity bills and austerity measures which help keep Bulgaria’s currency pegged to the euro.

In recent months, many have been shocked to receive electricity bills of more than half of the £260 average income. A rudimentary billing system means customers have to pay their bills rapidly or be cut off.

Wage and pension freezes and tax hikes have bitten deep in a country where earnings are less than half the EU average and tens of thousands of Bulgarians have rallied in protests that have turned violent, chanting “Mafia” and “Resign”.

Mr Borisov’s departure will hasten elections scheduled for 7 July. President Rosen Plevneliev is expected to announce today the revised date, widely expected to be at the end April.

Mr Borisov and his cabinet will make way for a transitional government in which Mr Borisov said he would play no part. It is unclear if he will run again as head of Citizens for a European Development of Bulgaria (Gerb).

Interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who many consider the strategist in Gerb, leapt to his feet in parliament and declared Mr Borisov’s resignation the action of a “true statesman”. He later told protesters Mr Borisov was Bulgaria’s best hope.

Mr Borisov continued to distance himself from finance minister Simeon Djankov who he sacked on Monday in an attempt to bring calm.

Mr Djankov’s austerity measures have been applauded by other European state leaders for keeping the country on track to join the eurozone.

Mr Djankov offered his services to any future government, pointing out that his departure hand not been voted on, but Mr Borisov countered his ambition by saying, “I let him go and I have not changed my opinion.”

Socialist opposition leader Sergei Stanishev, Mr Borisov’s immediate predecessor as prime minister, described the resignation as a “desperate” act of “panic” which left Bulgaria “on the brink of civil war”. Mr Stanishev also said Mr Borisov had jumped before the voters had pushed him from office.

Bulgarian electricity bills in February were higher than usual because of a longer billing period over Christmas, said a spokesman for EVN, an Austrian company operating in the south and east. But protesters think their large bills are the work of foreign providers fiddling new, centrally-read meters. Czech companies CEZ and Energo-Pro hold the other two regional monopolies on power production.

“He made my day,” said student Borislav Hadzhiev in central Sofia, commenting on Mr Borisov’s resignation. “The truth is that we’re living in an extremely poor country.”