Tensions rise as Bulgarian protesters pressure PM to resign

Thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets on Monday in a fourth day of protests demanding the resignation of new Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski after a political blunder sparked public outrage.

Seven protesters and a lawmaker from the ultra-nationalist Ataka party were hurt as stones and bottles flew between demonstrators and nationalists shortly before midnight, public BNR radio reported.

One protester was arrested as huge numbers of police and gendarmerie in protective gear were deployed near Ataka's headquarters in downtown Sofia, where the scuffles took place.

Less than three weeks after being named premier of a Socialist-backed technocrat government, Oresharski is facing calls to step down over his appointment of a controversial media mogul as national security chief.

Some 7,000 protesters shouted "Resign!" and "Red Garbage!" as they marched through Sofia Monday evening, blocking traffic downtown for hours.

The nomination of Delyan Peevski, who is also a lawmaker, was immediately withdrawn but this has failed to appease protesters weary of a political establishment they see as corrupt.

Oresharski has rejected calls to resign, saying it would be "extremely irresponsible" and could destabilise the country just months after massive anti-poverty rallies brought down the conservative GERB government.

"We do not seek to oust the Socialists so that GERB comes back," 37-year-old teacher Ekaterina Boyanova said at the rally. "They are all the same -- controlled by the oligarchs and the mafia."

The Socialists, under the leadership of economist Oresharski, scrambled to put together a government of technocrats after inconclusive May 12 snap elections.

Peevski, who has no experience in the security sector, is a lawmaker from the Turkish minority MRF party, a key supporter of Oresharki's government.

He is most controversial for his role in Bulgaria's media market where his family owns several newspapers, TV channels and websites.

The new government's first misstep also prompted unprecedented criticism from President Rosen Plevneliev, who said he had lost confidence in the cabinet and on Thursday summoned the consultative council on national security.

"These protests are categorical, they have their clear reason and the politicians must change their approach," he said Monday.

The deadly winter rallies were held by mostly poor, disillusioned people who could not pay their high power bills. For these latest protests however, more and more prominent figures and members of the middle class have turned out.

Many have demanded changes to the country's electoral code to open the way for new faces in politics.

"We have to find a way for new, small parties to enter parliament," company manager Biser Ivanov, in his 40s, said at the rally.

But Oresharski has refused to resign as long as the Socialists and the MRF back him in parliament.

"I realise that the government has lost a part of its legitimacy. But a resignation now... will be dangerous," he told private bTV television Monday.

Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 and is its poorest member, faced with deepening poverty levels, rising unemployment and falling living standards against a backdrop of persistent crime and corruption.

The demonstrations "show once again the depth of concerns in Bulgarian society about the rule of law," a European Commission spokesman said on Monday, ahead of a visit by Oresharski to Brussels on Friday.