SOFIA Bulgaria's president on Friday praised week-long protest rallies against corruption and a lack of transparency in the Balkan country and said politicians must heed the demonstrators' demands for reform.
Thousands of mainly younger, well-educated Bulgarians have been rallying in Sofia and other cities since last Friday to demand the resignation of the three-week-old Socialist-led cabinet over its bungled bid to impose a media mogul as head of national security without any debate.
Bowing to the protesters, parliament has cancelled the appointment and Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski has apologised, but he refuses to quit, saying this would destabilise the European Union's poorest member state and harm the economy.
"Bulgaria can be proud of this good-natured, democratic protest which delivers a message to the politicians," said President Rosen Plevneliev, whose office is largely ceremonial but carries moral authority.
"I very much hope they will be heard and that this time the politicians really take responsible, clear and, I would say, brave decisions," he told reporters.
The demonstrations have been enlivened with singing and dancing and seem driven more by impatience over sleaze and "mafia rule" than by the poverty that still blights the country. Further protest rallies are planned for Friday and the weekend.
An opinion poll by Alpha Research published this week showed more than 80 percent of Bulgarians support the protests, though respondents were almost evenly split on whether the cabinet should step down now.
It also showed support for the new coalition - comprising the Socialists and the ethnic Turkish MRF party - stood at 23 percent, the lowest level since 1997. Some 28 percent of respondents in the June 13-18 survey expressed disapproval.
More than two decades after the fall of communism, Bulgarians are fuming over their politicians' continued failure to tackle graft and organised crime, which deter investment and keep living standards low.
Bulgaria and its northern neighbour Romania joined the European Union in 2007 but the weakness of their institutions and rule of law has kept them under close scrutiny from Brussels and denied them entry to the EU's borderless Schengen zone.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told Oresharski during talks in Brussels on Friday that special monitoring for Bulgaria should continue and he urged the premier to seek wide support on key public appointments.
"I've made this point very clearly to the prime minister, our concerns... The candidates chosen should be based on merit and should have the highest standards of integrity," Barroso said in a statement posted on the Commission's website.
The government's candidate to head the national security service, a highly sensitive post with access to intelligence on high-level graft and organised crime, was Delyan Peevski, a 32-year-old ex-lawmaker with no experience in the security field.
Bulgarian media said Peevski stood behind a powerful network of national newspapers and television channels owned by his mother and which has been criticised for concentrating media ownership in the hands of a few.
The main opposition centre-right GERB party, which lost power in February after protests over low living standards and graft, won most votes in the snap May election but lacked allies to form a government.
GERB has called for a fresh election but it cannot force a vote of no-confidence in parliament because the government can still rely on the passive support of a small nationalist party.
(Additional reporting by Radu Marinas, editing by Gareth Jones)