Battle to lead Bulgaria out of long crisis

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The Independent Online
With inflation set to top 200 per cent per annum, foreign currency reserves down to next to nothing and anger running high, the post of President of Bulgaria is not presently an enviable one.

The country seems locked in almost permanent economic and political crisis. Earlier this year people were forced to queue for bread for the first time since since the fall of the Communist regime in 1989. There was a run on the banks as people rushed to withdraw almost worthless levs to convert them into hard currency. In the autumn, soldiers were sent home on leave because the army could not clothe and feed them.

While some of Bulgaria's former Warsaw Pact allies in Central and Eastern Europe have attracted billions of pounds in foreign investment and are touted as future members of the European Union and Nato, Bulgaria has lagged miserably behind.

Despite the scale of the problems - or because of them - 13 candidates have thrown their hats into the ring for a presidential election tomorrow, only the second time Bulgarians have freely chosen a head of state since 1989.

According to most opinion polls, the front-runner is Petar Stoyanov, a 44-year-old lawyer from the opposition Union of Democratic Forces. His most serious challenger is Ivan Marazov, a leading member of the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which is widely blamed for many of the country's current problems. Close behind is the head of the Bulgarian Businessmen's Bloc, George Ganchev, a colourful populist who promises a firm hand on the tiller.

Given the scale of the country's crisis, both main candidates agree on the need for serious economic reform and steps to reduce a spiralling crime wave. Mr Marazov argues that this would be better achieved under him as a Socialist president, working in tandem with a Socialist government. Mr Stoyanov argues that after two years of BSP government it is time for a change - and that if he wins commandingly, he will press for early parliamentary polls.

The sharpest division between the two comes in the field of international relations. While Mr Stoyanov believes Bulgaria's future lies within Nato and the institutions of the West, Mr Marazov is more ambivalent, reflecting the more pro-Moscow approach of the Socialists.