SOFIA Bulgarians took to the streets in over 10 cities in the European Union's poorest country on Sunday to protest over their latest electricity bills, surprised only now by last July's 13 percent price hike after the cold winter pushed consumption up.
Chanting slogans including "mafia" and "resignation", thousands of frustrated citizens marched through the cities of Sofia, Varna, Plovdiv and Blagoevgrad, burning their power bills, and demanding the re-nationalization of power distributors.
Hundreds of people blocked traffic in the Black Sea city of Varna, waving their January electricity bills, while in the central city of Plovdiv people burned their bills in front of the headquarters of the power distribution company EVN, local media reported. Two EVN cars were burnt overnight, the company said, condemning the attack.
Bulgaria's power distribution market is divided into three regions, controlled by Czech companies CEZ and Energo-Pro and Austria's EVN.
Electricity prices are politically sensitive since power bills eat into a huge part of incomes, especially during winter months in a country where monthly pay averages 350 euros per month, just a fraction of the EU norm.
The protests come ahead of elections in July which will test the popularity of the center-right government of Boiko Borisov, whose support has already suffered from austerity cuts, low incomes and high unemployment.
Bulgaria increased the costs of electricity by 13 percent last July, but the real impact was not felt until households started using electrical power to heat up their homes over the winter.
Energy Minister Delyan Dobrev, who was hit by a snowball by protesters in Sofia on Sunday, told reporters the ministry has ordered checks on the higher bills, adding that many of them appeared to be for a longer period which included both the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Power distributors have also said they were investigating complaints.
(Editing by Greg Mahlich)