* Bulgaria joined EU in 2007 but made little progress
* Half the population at risk of poverty or social exclusion
* Sudden rise in power prices tipped people over edge
By Sam Cage and Angel Krasimirov
BLAGOEVGRAD, Bulgaria, Feb 22 Bulgaria's
government has bowed to popular anger over high electricity
prices and poor governance, but the spirit of protest in
struggling towns like Blagoevgrad has not been quenched.
Blagoevgrad's Lyudmila Manova has become known as a kind of
Joan of Arc for leading the demonstrations in the town of 70,000
that quickly spread across the European Union's poorest state.
"We have no intention of stopping," said the 35-year-old
blonde who, jobless for several years, is typical of the average
Bulgarian struggling to make ends meet.
"We are not only protesting against high electricity
prices... we demand more rights for citizens," she told Reuters.
Austerity measures in Bulgaria have been mild compared with
some European countries like Greece, with salaries and pensions
frozen rather than cut, and Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, who
resigned on Wednesday, avoided the kind of bailout that
neighbours Greece, Romania and Serbia were forced to take.
But the relative economic stability in recent years has come
at the expense of living standards: the average monthly pension
is $180 and the average salary $550, less than half the EU
average. The official 11.9 percent unemployment rate does not
include the many thousands who have been out of work for so long
that they no longer get benefits.
For many the final straw was winter power bills which at
times exceeded incomes due to a 13 percent price hike in July
2012 that began to bite as temperatures fell. Some bills rose by
more than half in December.
Sirma Antonova's pension and benefits covered barely half of
her December electricity bill of 270 levs ($180). A widow who
lives in a two-room apartment with her two children, she has
been unemployed since 2008.
"We sold everything we had at home and we cannot survive any
more," said Antonova, 54, on the verge of tears outside
Blagoevgrad town hall, where she had come to appeal to
authorities for help.
Hundreds gathered on Thursday night at the central square of
the town, famous as the hometown of soccer star Dimitar
Berbatov. More protests were planned around the country on
Friday evening, as well as over the weekend.
SECOND CLASS EU MEMBER
For many Bulgarians, joining the European Union in 2007 held
the promise of rising prosperity and a chance for their country
to catch up with western Europe after decades of communist
neglect. But the economy has not yet returned to its peak from
2008, when a credit bubble burst and plunged the country into a
The journey south from Sofia to Blagoevgrad shows how
governments since the 1989 fall of communism have consistently
failed to address Bulgaria's problems.
A new motorway was supposed to run through the town to the
Greek border in time for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Instead it
peters out after 40 km into a potholed two-lane road through
dusty towns scattered with abandoned houses, factories and
Many voters are deeply frustrated that successive
governments have failed to clamp down on widespread corruption
and organised crime, which has left the country effectively a
second-class member of the EU.
Bulgaria is excluded from the bloc's passport-free Schengen
zone and the justice system is under special monitoring from
Brussels because of concerns over graft and organised crime. No
administration since the end of communism has managed to win a
Borisov's rightist GERB still has a chance of returning to
power after an election, which will now probably be brought
forward from July. But they are barely ahead of the opposition
Socialists in the polls and many people say they simply have no
President Rosen Plevneliev has begun talks with the main
political parties on the prospect of creating a government ahead
of the election.
"I'm really sick of all the parties and their promises,"
said Emil Antov, 56, who now collects wood and rubbish to burn
Bulgaria bills itself as a low cost and high skill location
for investment with a flat tax of 10 percent, but most ordinary
people do not benefit. Nearly half the population are at risk of
poverty or missing out on basic rights and opportunities such as
housing, healthcare and jobs.
"All this suggests that the next government, no matter what
its political motivation, will have to focus on reducing poverty
as one of its main policy priorities," said Kristofor Pavlov, an
analyst with bank UniCredit.
Before he resigned, Borisov promised an 8 percent cut in
electricity bills as of March, but the energy regulator said a
decrease would not be possible before April at the earliest.
So the protests are likely to continue, for now.
"I've been jobless for three years now," said Antov. "I'm
collecting food from the garbage pails and I'm shivering at home
because I cannot afford to pay the electricity bill."