Protesters promise a wave of civil disobedience

Bulgaria's beleaguered Socialist Party yesterday said it was ready to negotiate with the opposition over its demand for early elections after almost a week of daily protests which spilled into violence in the early hours of Saturday morning.

More than 100 people were injured when riot police used batons and blank cartridges to disperse crowds surrounding the parliament building in central Sofia. More injuries were reported later in the day when scuffles broke out outside the presidency.

As tens of thousands of protesters rallied outside Sofia's Alexander Nevsky cathedral, the Socialist leader, Georgi Parvanov, said talks on resolving the crisis could start today. At the same time, he said he expected his party, which still has two years of its mandate to run, to govern for at least another year in order to "stabilise" the country as it tries to overcome its worst economic crisis since 1989.

Loud cheers went out as news of the concession reached the protesters, many of whom interpreted it as victory. Spokesmen for the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), however, were more cautious, saying they planned to continue the demonstrations until a date was set for the elections. They also showed no sign of backing down on their call for a nationwide strike from today and a campaign of civil disobedience.

Unlike the protests in neighbouring Serbia, which are over the government's cancellation of opposition victories in local elections, those in Bulgaria follow a catastrophic economic meltdown last year which saw annual inflation reach 310 per cent, the value of the national currency, the lev, decrease eightfold, and bread queues for the first time since the overthrow of communism in 1989.

The demonstrators say that the Socialist Party, which won an absolute majority in the 1994 parliamentary elections, has brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy and that it is incapable of introducing economic reforms. They also argue that the Socialists - the direct successors to Bulgaria's former Communist Party - lost their moral right to rule when their candidate in last November's presidential election was defeated by the UDF's Petar Stoyanov.

Hardline Socialists have condemned the protests as an attempt to stage a coup d'etat, pointing out that the party was legitimately elected to power and that if it bowed to pressure from the streets now, it could set a dangerous precedent.

Whoever ultimately assumes responsibility for the country's future will face a daunting challenge. With 90 per cent of the economy still in state hands, Bulgaria has yet to implement the privatisation programmes long since in place in most of their more former Warsaw Pact allies such as Poland and Hungary.