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Bulgarian demonstrators staged some of the largest rallies since the crisis erupted in the country and vowed to continue protests as their demands escalated.
More than 100,000 people took to the streets across the country on Sunday, Bulgaria’s Liberation Day, demanding sweeping changes to the political system and economic policy.
The largest turnout was in the eastern city of Varna, where some 50-70,000 protesters, almost a quarter of the population, demonstrated against what they said were entrenched mafia structures, and called for the removal of their long-serving mayor.
Further demonstrations could be fuelled by grim new economic statistics and the death in hospital in Varna of protester Plamen Goranov, who set himself on fire two weeks ago.
After the resignation of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov’s government last month, protesters’ demands have expanded to include overhauls of election law and various measures targeting the banks, such as a ban on unilateral changes of interest rates on loans and the passing of a personal bankruptcy law.
A meeting on Friday between President Rosen Plevneliev and representatives of protesters and trade unions ended in failure when the Bulgarian leader’s opponents walked out, media reported.
“We are not going to sit at the same table with those we are fighting against,” protest leader Angel Slavchev told journalists.
“We are going out in order to fight to the end,” he said.
Meanwhile, outgoing premier Borisov was admitted to hospital with high blood pressure for the second time in less than a week, increasing speculation about his health and fuelling opponents' claims that he is attempting to present himself as a victim.
Parliament unexpectedly pushed through the appointment of a new constitutional court judge, hoping to overcome the logjam within the country’s highest legal authority and soothe the political crisis.
But newly-published data on unemployment and Bulgaria’s budget deficit threatened to increase public discontent.
According to EU statistics office Eurostat, unemployment climbed from 12.3 per cent in December 2012 to 12.4 per cent in January 2013, pushing Bulgaria’s joblessness rate yet higher than the EU average of 10.8 per cent.
Unemployment among those under 25 was 28.3 per cent in the first month of the year, well above the EU average of 23.6 per cent. Local analysts have also speculated that these estimates are conservative and that the real figures are higher.
The finance ministry meanwhile announced on Friday that the budget deficit had jumped in January by 80 per cent in a year.
In the first month of 2013, the deficit stood at 536.5 million leva (274.4 million euro), up from 298 million leva in January 2012. Revenues dropped by 5.9 per cent year-on-year, while spending was up 5.8 per cent.
Sergei Stanishev, the chairman of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the largest opposition party in parliament, accused the government of spending some 2 billion leva in January and February this year.
Borisov and his allies had ruled like “an irresponsible child who has come across its parents’ savings” during their final two months in power, Stanishev claimed at a press conference on Saturday, according to Bulgarian media reports.
But the alleged spending surge, even if confirmed, has not appeased the protesters, some of whom set up a small tent camp near parliament in Sofia on Monday with a banner vowing a "Rebellion for a new Bulgaria".
A decision by the state utilities regulator to cut the price of electricity by 6.7 per cent for customers of the CEZ distribution company, 7.3 per cent for customers of EVN and 5.3 per cent for Energo-Pro subscribers has also failed to fulfill popular expectations.
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