* 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.
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.
Demonstrators threw eggs, bottles and fruit, burned their
electricity bills and attacked the offices of power firms in
five cities. More than 2,000 people blocked the highway to
Greece near the southern town of Dupnitsa.
In the capital Sofia, protesters blocked traffic on the
famous Eagles' Bridge and along several main roads.
"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?"
Local media reported that protesters, including women and
children, clashed with police when trying to reach the
headquarters of Czech firm CEZ which supplies power to
Sofia and northwestern Bulgaria.
Bulgaria's power distribution market is divided into three
regions, controlled by CEZ and fellow Czech firm Energo-Pro and
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, while the average monthly
pension is $176.
The government has said it will look into the issue of
rising electricity bills, but Finance Minister Simeon Djankov on
Wednesday ruled out the re-nationalisation of power firms.
"There is no such possibility and I don't think any European
Union member can afford to talk about nationalisation," Djankov
told the state television BNT.
RULING PARTY SUPPORT WANES
Support for the ruling centre-right GERB party, led by Prime
Minister Boiko Borisov, 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."
Police ordered a bus to park across one Sofia street to stop
protesters reaching the president's office. A few stones were
thrown in the direction of the building.
In one of the biggest rallies, more than 10,000 people
filled the city of Varna on the Danube River, where the national
flag had been lowered at the municipality in support of the
($1 = 1.4650 Bulgarian levs)
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Rosalind Russell)