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Insight: Power rustlers turn the screw in Bulgaria, EU's poorest country

Protestors march on a boulevard during a demonstration in central Sofia March 3, 2013. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov
Protestors march on a boulevard during a demonstration in central Sofia March 3, 2013. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

By Sam Cage

SOFIA (Reuters) - In a rundown area on the edge of Bulgaria's capital, where violent protests over power prices brought down the government last month, some residents are risking their lives and their neighbors' wrath to steal electricity.

Struggling to make ends meet in the European Union's poorest country, thieves bypass the meter or piggyback on someone else's supply.

"They do tricky stuff - putting toothpicks in the light switches, so that the electricity in the entrance can go on and they can hook up to it," said Lora Todorova, administrator of a communist-era apartment block in Modern Suburb, a district that belies its name.

No one seems to be doing anything about it, she says, not the police, nor the power companies, but then few things run as well as they ought.

Six years after joining the EU, governance in Bulgaria remains deeply dysfunctional and graft ridden, despite efforts in Brussels to force Sofia to clean up its act. It is the bloc's second most corrupt member, says Transparency International.

"Our compatriots make clear they want simple things - they want decent politicians, they don't want to be robbed, they do not want to be lied to, and they want to live good lives," President Rosen Plevneliev said in a speech last week.

With next month's elections almost certainly heading for a hung parliament and raising questions over economic stability, those aspirations are unlikely to be met any time soon.

Outgoing premier Boiko Borisov has alienated his potential coalition partners, while his main rival, Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev, whose party is neck and neck with Borisov's, says he won't be premier if his party wins. Some think a new political force could come from nowhere, inspired by the dramatic rise of comic Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement in Italy's elections last month.

"The phrase lions led by donkeys comes to mind when I think of the Bulgarian people and some of the politicians they get," said Andy Anderson, a Briton who runs Stara Planina Properties in the town of Ruse on the Danube.

DYSFUNCTIONAL

Bulgaria's population has shrunk 7 percent in a decade to 7.3 million as citizens fled its toxic mix of corruption, weak rule of law and poor infrastructure. Many in the bloc, and especially in Britain, are concerned that a flood of migrants will leave Bulgaria and neighboring Romania when the last remaining restrictions are lifted at the end of this year.

Both countries, whose justice systems are under EU monitoring, will remain blocked from passport-free travel into the Schengen zone due to corruption and organized crime.

Successive governments have failed to solve hundreds of high-profile contract killings that have plagued Sofia and other cities since the late 1990s.

Everyday life is a struggle, made worse by frequent low-level corruption. Even hospital patients must visit a cash point first as doctors and nurses insist on extra payment above their tiny salaries. All of which helped fuel demonstrations that have continued for nearly a month. Three protestors have even set themselves on fire in protest at high fuel prices and low standards of living. Two of them died.

In response, Bulgaria cut electricity prices by an average 7 percent from March 1 and is revoking the license of Czech utility CEZ, saying the distributors are to blame for the high bills. The companies say they have done nothing wrong.

"I am positive that there is some kind of conspiracy with the electricity bills," outgoing premier Borisov said.

By risking a diplomatic row with the Czech government, which is the majority owner of CEZ, and the rest of the EU, Bulgaria has alarmed investors and highlighted a tendency among some new EU members, like Hungary and Romania, to test the bloc's rules.

In the meantime, Bulgarians expect little will change.

"We live in a time where corruption dictates the actions of politicians," said student Grigor Radkov, 24, walking in central Sofia, where plush shops and pedestrianized streets are a far cry from the surrounding estates.

Back in Modern Suburb - Moderno Predgradie in Bulgarian - where small houses are scattered among crumbling apartment blocks and patches of overgrown waste ground, apartment administrator Todorova is heartened by the approach of spring, when power bills should fall and the two or three families stealing electricity will have less need.

Other residents have unusually high bills, and inspectors from CEZ, distributor for the area, have confirmed there have been thefts, she said.

People do not appear ashamed of stealing from their neighbors, and residents witnessed a party with loud music and lights in an apartment disconnected for non-payment of bills. Some use open fires to keep warm because they cannot pay for electricity for heating, yet still receive a bill for 150 levs ($100), more than half a regular pension.

The companies say they lose about 15 percent of supply during distribution - compared with less than 10 percent in other ex-communist EU countries - and some analysts say the total figure could be as high as a quarter. Theft must account for a "substantial" part of the difference, said Georgi Kaschiev of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna.

There are no official data on the total cost of thefts, because much of it is undetected or the losses are borne not by the companies but innocent customers.

Thefts on CEZ's network rose 28 percent in the first half of 2012, and it said it was working with authorities to address the problem, which lowers quality and security of supply, as well as being dangerous.

"Every morning, I check the board with the meters to see whether there are strange wires connected where they should not be," said Todorova. "I do the same when I go back home. But they steal during the night - I cannot stand guard 24 hours."

(Additional reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova and Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Will Waterman)

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