(Corrects location of Varna in para 13)
* Tens of thousands protest in more than 20 cities
* Protesters demand re-nationalisation of power distributors
* Finance minister has ruled out nationalisation
By Angel Krasimirov
SOFIA, Feb 17 Tens of thousands of Bulgarians
protested in more than 20 cities against high electricity bills
on Sunday, piling pressure on the government after a week of
Protesters chanting "It will be the same every day until we
win", paralysed city centres and demanded the resignation of the
cabinet and the re-nationalisation of power distributors.
Demonstrators hurled eggs and bottles, burned their
electricity bills and attacked power firms' offices in cities
across the country.
Electricity prices are politically sensitive in the European
Union's poorest member since power bills bite off a big chunk of
monthly incomes, especially during the winter.
The ruling centre-right GERB party has seen its popularity
flag since last year with voters disgruntled by low incomes and
Responding to Sunday's protests, Economy Minister Delyan
Dobrev told reporters: "In the coming days, we will take a final
decision on whether there are grounds for revoking the licenses
of the power distributors."
Bulgaria's power distribution market is divided into three
regions, controlled by Czech firms CEZ and Energo-Pro
and Austria's EVN.
"We fully understand the anger of the people," CEZ
Bulgaria's vice-chairman Petr Baran told local media. "If
needed, we will pay compensations to our clients."
Many protesters said they had been overcharged in their
December bills and an avalanche of complaints has been lodged
with the power distributors.
"Each complaint will be carefully considered and checked,"
Baran added. "If there are mistakes, corrections will be made."
Sunday saw the biggest demonstrations in eight days of
protests. More than 2,000 people blocked the highway to Greece
near the southern town of Dupnitsa and in the capital Sofia
protesters blocked traffic on the famous Eagles' Bridge.
"We cannot stand it anymore," said Penka Slavova, a
pensioner. "My pension is 155 levs ($110) and my December bill
was 175 levs. What should I do?"
In one of the biggest rallies, more than 10,000 people
marched in Varna on the Black Sea, where the national flag had
been lowered at the municipality in support of the protests.
Local media reported that protesters clashed with police
when trying to reach the Sofia headquarters of CEZ and four
demonstrators were arrested.
LOW LIVING STANDARDS
Despite enjoying relative economic stability since the
global financial crisis erupted, Bulgarians face low living
standards compared to other EU members. Monthly pay averages 400
euros, just a fraction of the EU norm.
The government has said it will look into the issue of
rising electricity bills, but has ruled out the
re-nationalisation of power firms.
Support for Prime Minister Boiko Borisov's GERB party fell
to 22.6 percent in February, down from 23.8 percent in January
due to delayed reforms, low incomes and a lack of action to root
out corruption. Unemployment is at a 10-month high.
Backing for the opposition Socialists, who said they would
consider re-nationalisation of the power distributors if they
win the parliamentary elections on July 7, rose to 22.1 percent.
"We should remember this date - February 17," said political
scientist Evgeniy Daynov of Sofia's New Bulgarian University.
"This is when the ruling GERB party died. This is a protest
against the oligarchic model of GERB rule, which is nothing more
than the plundering of the state to benefit the oligarchs."
Bulgaria has long been criticised for failing to liberalise
its highly monopolised electricity and gas distribution markets
in line with the EU rules.
In January, the European Commission referred the Balkan
state, Estonia and Britain to the European Court of Justice -
the highest EU court - after the three countries had only
partially transposed EU energy market directives
($1 = 1.4650 Bulgarian levs)
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Rosalind Russell)