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Bulgarian government resigns after power prices cause riots

Vassil Donev / EPA

Demonstrators throw stones at riot police during a protest in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Tuesday. Eleven people were hospitalized and 11 arrested. The protest, spurred by anger over high gas prices and austerity measures in the impoverished country, appeared to be the last straw for Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, who announced Wednesday that he and his rightist party would resign.

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Bulgaria's government resigned Wednesday after violent nationwide protests against high power prices, joining a long list of European administrations felled by austerity during Europe's debt crisis.

Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, a former bodyguard who swept to power in 2009 on pledges to root out corruption and raise living standards in the European Union's poorest nation, now faces a tough task to prop up eroding support ahead of a probable early election.

Wage and pension freezes and tax hikes have bitten deeply in a country where living standards are less than half the EU average. Tens of thousands of Bulgarians have rallied in protests that have turned violent, chanting "Mafia" and "resign."

AFP - Getty Images

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, right, leaves the parliament building in Sofia on Wednesday after announcing his government's resignation.

On Tuesday, 11 people were hospitalized and 11 arrested after protesters threw flares at police, who fought demonstrators with shields and truncheons.

"I will not participate in a government under which police are beating people," Borisov, who began his career guarding the Black Sea state's communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, said as he announced his resignation on Wednesday.

Parliament was expected to accept the resignation later in the day.

The spark for the protests was high electricity bills, after the government raised prices by 13 percent last July. But it quickly spilled over into wider frustration with Borisov's domineering manner and unpredictable decision-making.

The prime minister made sacrifices in an attempt to cling on, firing his finance minister, cutting power prices and risking a diplomatic feud with the Czech Republic by punishing foreign-owned companies, a move that conflicted with EU norms on protection of investors and due process.

Borisov's rightist party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, or GERB, is the dominant faction in parliament but will not take part in talks to form a new government, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said, indicating that an election planned for July will now be held early.

"He made my day," student Borislav Hadzhiev, 21, in central Sofia said, said about Borisov's resignation. "The truth is that we're living in an extremely poor country."

GERB's popularity has held up well and it still leads, barely, in the polls, largely because budget cutbacks have been relatively mild compared with those in many other European countries. Salaries and pensions were frozen rather than cut.

But the last opinion poll, taken before protests grew last weekend, showed the opposition socialists were nearly tied with the ruling party, and analysts said the protests had boosted the socialists' chances.

Unemployment in the country of 7.3 million is far from the highs hit in the decade after the end of communist rule but remains at 11.9 percent, and average salaries are stuck at around $550 a month.

Millions have emigrated in search of a better life, leaving large parts of the country depopulated and little hope for those who remain.

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