Bulgarian Prime Minister to Replace Economy, Justice Ministers

Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev accepted the resignations of two key ministers in the coalition cabinet less than a month before a European Union assessment of the country's fight against graft and crime, reported Bloomberg.

Replacements for Economy and Energy Minister Roumen Ovcharov and Justice Minister Georgy Petkanov will be named after talks with the two junior coalition partners, Stanishev, who leads the ruling Socialist party, said at a news conference in Sofia today.

Ovcharov is under investigation for obstructing justice in a 5 million-euro ($6.7 million) money-laundering and tax-evasion case against the director of a Sofia heating plant. The European Commission will comment on Bulgaria's progress in battling crime and corruption in a June 27 report. The European Union criticized Bulgaria before its Jan. 1 accession for its failure to curb graft.

``Minister Ovcharov's resignation was a strong moral gesture, required by the current situation,'' Stanishev said. ``Our society no longer tolerates even the suspicion of corruption. We have to set new, more ambitious priorities, which meet the expectations of all Bulgarians.''

The Bulgarian Socialist Party rules in coalition with the National Movement for Simeon II, led by the country's former king, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which represents the country's ethnic Turks.

Ovcharov was sent on leave on May 10 amid a corruption probe, which ended on May 30 without enough evidence for trial. Petkanov said May 30 he will resign for personal reasons.

Stanishev also announced plans to set up a new National Security Agency, which will be formed by units from the current ministries of interior, defense and finance.

``The new agency is being formed because the fight against organized crime, corruption and shadow businesses is a national priority, not the priority of one ministry or another,'' Stanishev said.

The cabinet changes also followed the results in the country's first elections for European Parliament members on May 21, where the Socialists ranked second after Gerb, a new party led by Sofia's mayor and not represented in the national assembly. The elections served as a popularity test for the coalition government.

Stanishev said he will not yield to pressure from within the Socialist Party, which is demanding changes in the cabinet's fiscal policy and increases in social spending, including higher public-sector wages.

``The government will do everything possible to gradually raise incomes for those who rely most on the state's help,'' Stanishev said. ``I will not allow this process to threaten financial stability. The cost of financial destabilization is usually paid by the poor, not by the rich.''

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