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Bulgaria suffers winter of economic pain


Socialists agree to discuss early elections

January 13, 1997
Web posted at: 3:20 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Christiane Amanpour

SOFIA, Bulgaria (CNN) -- Bulgaria, once one of the most successful of the old Soviet satellite nations, is on the brink of bankruptcy, brought to its knees by disastrous economic policies and corruption in the post-communist era.

Responding to eight days of street protests, the country's ruling Socialist party said Monday it would consider calling an early general election. And in response to increasing complaints from the opposition, it said it had drafted a plan to end the political and economic crises.

But in the winter snows of the capital, Sofia, residents have lined up for food -- the first such lines since the fall of communism six years ago. Even the middle class are queued up at cut-price outlets.

Some residents can't afford to heat all the rooms in their homes, and the city has sealed off some of the radiators.

Buying power is a tenth of what it was just a year ago, and fixed salaries cannot keep up with soaring inflation. These days a good pension amounts to $12 a month -- a high wage, $40 a month.


"If my daughter and her husband didn't give me money I would simply die of hunger," said one woman. "Everyone says they get poorer with each day that passes."

Bulgaria's work force is one of the best-educated in all the former Soviet satellites. The country has plenty of arable land. But bad policies and corruption have taken a toll.

The bread lines are forming because businessmen with ties to the ruling Socialists sold this year's grain surplus for their own profit -- and now the state is importing grain.

Financial analysts say similar transactions are happening at many state-owned factories and other enterprises.

"That means the government gets stuck with the losses and all the cash and the profits get skimmed off by private interests," said economic analyst Kenneth M. Lefkowitz.


The taxpayers bear the pain. The government is unable to budget even enough money for antibiotics and other medicines at the state hospital. This winter, orthopedic surgeons are begging other city hospitals for plaster to make casts.

Protests began over a week ago to force the government into action. On Monday, before the announcement that the Socialists were ready perhaps to talk about early elections, 8,000 people rallied in Sofia, and tens of thousands more marched in 20 towns across the country.

The problems, say economists, must be met with tough reforms soon, before Bulgaria sinks too deeply into its economic morass.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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