March 17, 2013 / 2:50 PM / 7 years ago

Pressure on Bulgaria to revoke CEZ licence as protests continue

* Prosecutors ask state regulator to revoke CEZ licence

* Czech company denies any wrongdoing

By Angel Krasimirov

SOFIA, March 17 (Reuters) - Hundreds demonstrated against corruption in cities across Bulgaria on Sunday amid growing pressure on the state energy regulator to revoke the licence of one of the country’s biggest power distributors accused of widespread irregularities.

Protesters waving national flags blocked main roads and railway tracks in the Black Sea city of Varna, while demonstrators shouting “Mafia” gathered in front of the economy ministry in Sofia and paralysed the city centre.

Public anger at high bills charged by energy monopolies led to the broader protests against low living standards that forced the resignation last month of the centre-right cabinet headed by Boiko Borisov. An early election is scheduled for May 12.

“This is our last chance to save Bulgaria from the monopolies,” Gancho Lazarov said in the capital Sofia, as protests continued for a fifth consecutive Sunday.

“They robbed people in recent years with the high electricity bills and it just cannot continue anymore.”

Electricity prices are politically sensitive in the European Union’s poorest member since power bills make up a big chunk of household expenditure, especially during the harsh winter.

Bulgarian prosecutors have requested the state regulator revoke Czech company CEZ’s licence for power distribution in the Balkan country over what they say were massive regulatory breaches.

“The ongoing check on CEZ activities has revealed massive irregularities in the ways CEZ accounts for power used by customers,” chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov told local media late on Saturday.

“We found an excessively liberal calculation of expenses made by the company into the price of electricity delivered to consumers.”

A few days before resigning, Borisov also asked the state energy regulator to remove CEZ licence.

The Czech company, central Europe’s largest listed firm which supplies 1.9 million clients in Sofia and western Bulgaria, said it had fulfilled its regulatory duties.

“We observe, respect and will continue to comply with the laws of Bulgaria,” CEZ said in a statement on Sunday.

“We believe that the results (of the ongoing check) will prove exactly that.”

PROTESTS DWINDLE

Last month, Czech diplomats and politicians called on European Union partners to stop Bulgaria from stripping CEZ of its licence. The company is one of three power distributors in the country alongside Czech company Energo-Pro and Austria’s EVN.

The numbers of people at the Sunday protests had tailed off for a second week, indicating demonstrations may be losing steam as protest leaders fail to unite into a single political party ahead of May’s election.

President Rosen Plevneliev appointed an interim administration on Wednesday to run the country until the poll, with the ousted GERB party and the Socialists still running neck-and-neck, comfortably ahead of their opponents.

The Socialists have presented a “100-day rescue plan” to wrestle the country from the economic and political crisis, should the win the elections in May.

“At the present moment, there is no bread for labour in Bulgaria, there is no free air for businesses, there is no justice for people,” Socialists leader Sergei Stanishev told reporters on Saturday. (Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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