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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bulgaria in Decline As Politicians Spar

SOFIA -- More than four years into an economic free-fall, Bulgaria has yet to hit the bottom. The economy has contracted sharply in each of the years since Communist leader Todor Zhivkov was overthrown in a bloodless coup. Unemployment is 16 percent and rising. Inflation topped 60 percent last year. Foreign investment has been miserly, and the country is $13 billion in debt.

By every political and economic measure, there is no end in sight to Bulgaria's crisis. Living conditions are so much worse in the reform era that Bulgarians look back fondly on communism's "good old days," when the state crushed personal freedom but ensured that people were housed, employed and had enough to eat.

A Western diplomat in Sofia predicted that if a vote were held in the next few months Bulgarians would replay the "Poland scenario," re-electing former Communists in an attempt to reclaim the past.

The parliament is split between the ever-so-slightly reformed Socialist Party and a 16-group coalition known as the Union of Democratic Forces. Neither group commands a majority, which has allowed the small Movement for Rights and Freedom, representing Bulgaria's ethnic Turks, to play kingmaker, shifting support from left to right as priorities dictate and undermining governments.

The hopelessly divided parliament has proved incapable of producing reform legislation needed to win foreign investors' confidence. And a dispute over the need for early elections may leave the paralyzed legislature in power through the October 1995 expiration of its current mandate, ensuring the status quo of a collapsing economy and stagnant investment.

"The general stumbling block is political instability," Georgi Shivarov of the Bulgarian Industrial Association said of the lack of foreign investment, which since 1989 has totaled $260 million -- less than 4 percent of the amount invested in Hungary over the same period.

Bulgaria's proximity to the raging Yugoslav wars is also scaring away investors, Shivarov said.

Interim Prime Minister Lyuben Berov, a nonpartisan historian, is the fourth man to head the government since multiparty elections in 1990. He was chosen by the Socialists and the Movement for Rights and Freedom to serve as a caretaker until new elections are held but has already held office for 14 months while the parties bicker endlessly and veto each other's bills.

The result has been paralysis in institutions of power, leaving Bulgaria's 8.5 million residents to fend for themselves in a system where crime and corruption flourish and where security was an early victim of mismanaged reform.