Electricity bills set Bulgaria on fire

Bulgaria Dnevnik.jpg

Tens of thousands of Bulgarians protested in more than 20 cities on Sunday (17 February) against high electricity bills and called for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and his centre-right government to resign. [Watch photo gallery by Dnevnik, the EURACTIV partner in Bulgaria.]

 



Protestors shut down roads and intersections, hurled eggs and bottles at public buildings and burned their electricity bills, some shouting 'mafia'.

Electricity bills for January sparked mass outrage, news reports said. Many Bulgarians say that they are unable to pay their bills, which average more than €100. Bulgaria has the lowest average salary in the EU, €387 a month. The average pension stands at €150, and the base pension is €76.

The protestors accused three foreign-owned energy companies of raking in windfall profits and didn't buy the explanation that January had been an exceptionally cold month.

Bulgaria’s power distribution market is divided into three regions, controlled by Czech firms ?EZ and Energo-Pro and Austria's EVN [see map].

The country privatised its energy distribution network during the government of former Prime Minister Simeon Saxe Cobourg-Gotha (2001-2005).

On 24 January, the European Commission referred Bulgaria to the European Court of Justice for failing to fully transpose the EU energy market rules.

Many Bulgarians suspect complicity between the utilities and the government. During Sunday's “Let’s set on fire the monopolies”, demonstrators also protested against Borissov's government and the political class in general, Dnevnik, the EURACTIV partner in Bulgaria, reported.

Polls show support for Borissov’s Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, or GERB party, is declining. With parliamentary elections due in July, GERB was trailing the opposition Socialists led by Sergei Stanishev, who is also the leader of the Party of European Socialists.

Bulgarians blame Borissov for the decline of standards of democracy and media freedom since he took office in 2009, and for his inability to tackle corruption. In a recent debate in the European Parliament, Bulgaria was described as “the weak link” in terms of decline of democratic standards and a threat to European values across the continent.

>> Read: Parliament debates state of democracy in Bulgaria

Energy Minister Delyan Dobrev appeared in a hastily organised news conference on Sunday, promising to publish the utilities’ agreements with the Bulgarian state. As these agreements are secret, reports say that the Bulgarian state has guaranteed them a profit of 15%. Also, according to rumours, the utilities report massive fictive activities, aiming at paying lower taxes.

Stanishev stopped short of asking the re-nationalisation of the utilities, saying that he would insist that the Parliament look into the implementation of their privatisation agreements.

Riding the wave of public anger is the nationalist Ataka party, which called for the re-nationalisation of the utilities, and advised citizens not to pay their bills and to destroy their electricity meters. 

Asked by EURACTIV to comment, Marlene Holzner, spokesperson to energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said that the Commission’s position was that if there was a market and the market was working, then the customers should have the best possible prices.

In the case of Bulgaria, Holzner said that the Commission had issued last year a country report in which two issues were identified.

The first, she said, was the wholesale market in electricity, which in her words was not completely liberalised in Bulgaria. “There are quotas, there is a dominant player and there are no free prices”, she said.

The second problem identified in Bulgaria was that the country’s regulator was not fully independent, in spite of the recommendations of the Commission. In Bulgaria there were regulated prices for small and medium enterprises and also for end users. The Commissions’ position was that Bulgaria should have market prices, but also regulated prices for very vulnerable consumers. 

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, shortcomings remained regarding judicial reform and the fight against corruption. In the case of Bulgaria, problems also remained regarding the fight against organised crime.

A cooperation and verification mechanism (CVM) was set up to assist both countries with judiciary matters after their EU accession. Moreover, the European Commission retained the right to use special safeguards.

These allow the EU to refuse to recognise court decisions or even freeze payments of EU funds. However, starting 1 January 2010, Brussels no longer had the power to trigger the clause.

The last reports on Romania and Bulgaria were published on 18 July 2012.

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