Thousands clash with police, damage cars in Bulgaria
An anti-government rally turned into a riot in front of the parliament.
Hundreds of protesters clashed with police, smashed windows and damaged cars in Bulgaria's capital on Wednesday when an anti-government rally turned into a riot.
The violence broke out during a peaceful protest in front of parliament of more than 2,000 people, including students, farmers and green activists, who said they were fed up with life in the European Union's poorest and most corrupt nation.
The riot in Sofia was the worst since 1997, when mass rallies and strikes toppled the then Socialist government for pushing the Balkan country into an economic meltdown.
On Wednesday, protesters demanded the Socialist-led government step down for its failure to tackle widespread graft and crime and solve economic problems in the face of a global slowdown. Some shouted "Resign" and "Mafia".
"We are fed up with living in the poorest and most corrupt country," the protest organisers said in a statement. "This a unique protest which unites the people in their wish for change and their wish to live in a normal European country."
Demonstrators hurled snowballs and bottles at parliament and hundreds clashed with police about an hour after the rally started. Six policemen and some protesters were wounded.
When police tried to drive rioters away from parliament, some began to destroy cars and hurled metal bars and cobblestones dug up from the streets at shop windows and buses.
Police arrested at least 53 people and confiscated hand-made grenades, metal chains and rods.
Rioting in Latvia
Riots also broke out in fellow ex-communist Latvia on Tuesday after an earlier peaceful anti-government demonstration.
The global financial crisis threatens to the erase economic gains achieved in the past decade in eastern Europe, raising pressure on governments and anger among people whose incomes remain well below those of their richer Western neighbours.
Opinion polls show over 70 percent of the 7.6 million population in Bulgaria want the government to quit and 75 percent disapprove of parliament's work, citing a lack of progress in the anti-corruption fight.
"This government is a symbol of theft and corruption," said protester Alexander Atanasov, 31.
"They simply have to go," said Tsetska Vachkova, 31.
The EU last year punished Bulgaria for failing to put corrupt officials and crime bosses behind bars by suspending hundreds of thousands of euros in EU aid.
Last year's report by Transparency International portrayed Bulgaria as the most corrupt EU nation, taking the lead from neighbouring Romania.
Observers say accelerating protests ahead of this summer's elections are unlikely to topple the government, which has an overwhelming majority in parliament.
But it will probably see its support eroding as thousands are expected to lose their jobs mainly because Bulgaria's main export market, the EU, faces deep recession, analysts say.
Public anger is mounting against the government also due to a prolonged cut in Russian gas supplies, which left thousands without heating and forced some factories to shut down. Bulgaria is among the worst hit in a Moscow-Kiev gas row that blocked all Russian supplies to Europe via Ukraine a week ago.
Reuters Last Mod: 14 Ocak 2009, 15:35