Robert Rand, BURN Editor

This story, in a recent online edition of the British newspaper, the Telegraph, is for those of you worried about paying your monthly electric bills. Here’s the headline and lead sentence (point of reference: a British pound equals around $1.50):

Bulgaria Bishop

The bishop in question lives in Bulgaria, one of the poorest members of the European Union. The cleric’s name is Nikolay, and his eBay-like effort to pay the electric bill of a church named Saint Marina is one rather offbeat consequence of an energy crisis so monumental in scope that it has triggered mass demonstrations, at least four self-immolations, and, last month, the resignation of Bulgaria’s prime minister and his government.

 bulgaria mapBulgaria is one of those former Soviet controlled countries in eastern Europe forced to walk the difficult path towards capitalism and democracy after the collapse of communism in 1989. It is situated in the Balkans – always a rough block to live on.

Energy distribution in Bulgaria is dominated by three foreign-run power companies, two from the Czech Republic and one from Austria. Under them, electricity prices more than doubled between December and January, the delayed hit of a nearly 14 percent price increase imposed last summer.

The surge was caused by a complicated and volatile combination of global market forces, high wintertime energy consumption, inefficient management and political corruption. An analysis by the Center for the Study of Democracy, a non-partisan Bulgarian think-tank, attributed the rise of social discontent to a citizenry fed up with having to pay a premium for bad governance.

Protesters in Bulgaria. The sign reads: “Czech Pirates.” (AP Photo/Valentina Petrova)

Protesters in Bulgaria. The sign reads: “Czech Pirates.” (AP Photo/Valentina Petrova)

Utility costs initially set off the protests, which featured demonstrators torching electric bills and tossing snowballs at the country’s economy and energy minister. The movement then turned into something bigger: a broad call for political and economic reform, higher living standards, and an end to corruption.

 A caretaker government now sits in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. Demonstrations have slacked off for the time being as the country awaits the outcome of parliamentary elections on May 12.

By the way: That bishop with the Rolex watch? He didn’t receive much in the way of sympathy. The Bulgarian church, like the government, has a PR problem. It is second only to the state as a landowner, and its wealth – as represented by that Rolex – has hurt its public standing. According to the British magazine The Economist, “Alleged ties to dubious businessmen and to the communist-era secret police as well as the luxurious lifestyle of some of its highest-ranking bishops have damaged the church’s reputation.”

Maybe it’s time for the Bulgarian church, and state, to switch off the power and light some candles.