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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Transport Workers Strike in Bulgaria

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Large crowds massed outside banks in Sofia on Thursday, hoping desperately to exchange their savings for dollars -- or any money that would not go into free fall like the increasingly worthless leva.

In contrast, bus stops and tram stations were practically empty Thursday morning as transport workers staged a warning strike. The one-hour strike, announced well in advance, was intended to demonstrate the unions' readiness to organize an all-out strike that could cripple Bulgaria's transit system.

The main highway to Greece was blocked throughout the night as protesters tried to make good on their pledge to stop traffic there until the Socialist Party, the former Communists, agrees to give up power and submit to new elections, state radio reported. The road is one of the main trade arteries between Western Europe and the Aegean coast.

The strikes, threatening to stop dead the already reeling economy, have added urgency to the 24-day demonstrations called to protest the Socialists' failure to push through economic reform and protect the country from spiraling poverty.

Independent New TV quoted trade union officials as saying workers at the main oil refinery in the Black Sea port of Burgas would block supplies of fuel starting Friday. That would shut down transport nationwide.

On Wednesday, protesters also closed down the main road to Romania and the only border crossing with Macedonia.

Workers at two major coal mines in the town of Pernik began striking Thursday and marched through the center of the city. They threatened to march to Sofia, about 20 kilometers to the north, if their demands for monthly wages equal to $100 were not met.

With hyperinflation lowering the value of the national currency, the lev, by more than 50 percent since the beginning of the year, average wages have dipped below $12 a month. Miners generally earn about $27.

Opponents of the Socialists called a nationwide strike after President Petar Stoyanov gave the party a green light to form a new government. So far, workers have staged warning strikes and held protests across the country, but not a total work stoppage.

Premier-designate Nikolai Dobrev, in an interview with state television Wednesday night, acknowledged that the previous government had failed, but he warned that prolonging the current situation could lead to more unrest.

Dobrev insisted that a broad coalition government be formed, but under the Socialist mandate. Such a government could last at most five months, after which there should be elections. If necessary, he said, he would be ready to give up the premiership.

The opposition has rejected a coalition.

Stoyanov, who is currently in Brussels to meet European Union and NATO officials, had urged political rivals to put aside their differences long enough to pass emergency economic measures and then submit to early elections in May.