Bulgarian who set himself on fire new symbol of protests

A hundred flickering candles and mountains of flowers block the entrance to Varna's city hall, surrounding a picture of a smiling young man with long hair who has become a symbol of anti-corruption protests that have swept Bulgaria.

Plamen Goranov, a 36-year-old amateur photographer and avid rock climber whose name came from the Bulgarian word for "flame", died Sunday after setting himself on fire in the country's first self-immolation in decades.

"You fired up our courage and love for freedom," reads one message written in felt-tip pen on the pavement. "The mafia is killing Bulgaria," says another.

Comparing him with a Czech student who set himself ablaze in 1969 to protest the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, a note near Goranov's portrait reads: "You are our Jan Palach."

Goranov was a fervent participant in protests against high electricity costs, corruption and poverty that began in his Black Sea hometown three weeks ago and then spread across the country.

He set himself on fire outside Varna's city hall on February 20.

An investigation said he had been carrying a huge sign demanding the resignation of Mayor Kiril Yordanov, whom he accused of corruption and favouritism towards a local business group.

Later that day, and after mass nationwide rallies that turned violent at times, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov stunned the country by announcing he was stepping down.

"Plamen was a giant, he cleared the way," said Radostina Petrova, a friend, sitting next to the young man's portrait.

"Plamen burned down but his flame lives on," the title page of Varna's opposition newspaper Narodno delo said Tuesday.

With his act, Goranov has become a symbol of the protests that have shaken Bulgaria, political analyst Ognyan Minchev told AFP.

But he noted: "His self-immolation is a grave precedent for a democratic system."

With the mayor, Yordanov, expected to also step down this week, Minchev warned that continued pressure would be needed to prevent local oligarchs from naming his successor.

One of the informal leaders of the Varna protests, 25-year-old Ilarion Ananiev, added: "The government's resignation does not change anything."

"Civil society should come to control everything: the monopolies, the elections, the parties, the institutions."

Goranov spoke out in particular against a huge local holding, TIM, and claims that Yordanov facilitated the group's business dealings. Other protesters have adopted this cause.

"TIM is like an octopus that stifles the economy, destroys nature and criminalises political life," said Minchev.

"Nothing in Varna happens without TIM," said Plamen Dimitrov, a lawmaker from Borisov's GERB party.

Set up by former elite marines in the 1990s, the holding is one of the most powerful in Bulgaria with business interests ranging from the petrochemical industry to air and maritime transport, finances, ensurance, media, trade, tourism and grain production.

A 2005 US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks exposed TIM as "involved in a wide range of criminal activities, including extortion and racketeering, intimidation, prostitution, gambling, narcotics trafficking, car theft, and trafficking in stolen automobiles".

It was "thought to have connections to Russian organised crime," the cable said.

"Plamen was an eccentric man but also the first to point a finger at those who ruin any initiative at independent economic activity in Varna," 25-year-old IT specialist Radoslav Radev said Tuesday.

In his 14 years as mayor, Yordanov has failed to improve infrastructure and bring much needed foreign investment to Varna -- Bulgaria's third largest city and a key Black Sea port. The population of 350,000 relies mainly on tourism jobs in the summer to make a living.

Three suicides in 24 hours in the Varna region have meanwhile been attributed to poverty and despair among the population, adding fuel to the protesters' cause.

"These sacrifices change it all. We will not back down, we will continue to protest to give Bulgaria back to its people and some hope for the future to the young," Ananiev said.

Another protest leader even appealed on radio Tuesday for people not to resort to taking their own lives.

Bulgaria's government has declared a national day of mourning for Goranov on Wednesday.