Bulgarian burned himself alive 'to rise against the misery'

"I wanted to rebel, to rise against the misery," said Dimitar Dimitrov, lighting a cigarette with hands badly scarred from when he set himself on fire during recent mass protests in Bulgaria.

Six people set themselves ablaze in February and March amid massive anti-poverty street rallies that helped bring down the Bulgarian government and opened the way to snap elections on May 12.

But of the six, only Dimitrov, who staged his protest in front of the presidential palace in the capital, Sofia, on March 13, survived his desperate act.

"I have this memory of feeling the flames and how the presidential guards started to extinguish them and I shouted 'Don't do it, leave me to die'," the 51-year-old self-employed blacksmith told AFP.

"Then I fell unconscious."

He was hospitalised in critical condition with burns over 25 percent of his body -- mostly his face, hands and chest -- and severe respiratory problems from smoke inhalation.

Having undergone several operations to rebuild his badly-burned face, he was discharged from hospital on April 10.

Two weeks later with his bandages removed, he sits chain-smoking in an armchair in his Sofia flat. He speaks eloquently but his voice still trembles with anger and emotion.

"People may wonder what led a man who seems to have everything to do something like this," he admitted.

"The reason is the annihilation of our nation by all the governments of the past 23 years, not to mention the previous 45 years of communist rule.

"While some get super rich, ordinary people live in insecurity and constant worry over their daily bread," he fumed.

Electricity bills that suddenly doubled in January unleashed a flood of public discontent across Bulgaria, prompting the first massive and spontaneous street protests since those staged against hyperinflation in 1997.

Bitter anger soon turned against the power monopolies and widespread corruption, against a background of rising unemployment and frozen incomes.

"A lot of pressure must have built up on me that burst out in the end," Dimitrov said of his protest.

"I knew the world would realise there was some problem with a country where such things happened."

-- Unable to pay the bills --

Ousted prime minister Boyko Borisov's right-wing government took power at the height of the international financial crisis in 2009 and managed to maintain relative macroeconomic stability.

But this came at the price of tightened government purse strings, with average monthly salaries frozen at about 400 euros ($512) and average pensions at 138 euros -- among the lowest across the 27-nation European Union bloc.

"What kind of country is this where the monthly electricity bill is twice the pension?," asked Dimitrov.

"They say they're going to raise pensions. How? By taking money from the unemployed to give to the pensioners. It's just absurd," he said resentfully, even if his family is able to pay all its bills.

He added that corruption and red tape forced the closure of his workshop two years ago, just as thousands of other small entrepreneurs lost their business, bearing the brunt of the crisis.

Trade union data shows the cost of living for an average four-person family in the first quarter of 2013 stood at 2,264 leva (1,156 euros, $1,511), or 566 leva per person.

Over 90 percent of Bulgarians however had an income below that.

"The lack of money is constantly on people's minds. They live under constant stress over how to make ends meet. And I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel," Dimitrov said.

Despite deepening voter apathy, Borisov's GERB party is tipped to win the May 12 elections ahead of the opposition Socialists, although it will still fall short of a governing majority, the latest polls show.

This has prompted analysts to predict a new outburst of street tensions after the vote.

On Wednesday, a man set himself on fire in the southern town of Smolyan -- the seventh self-immolation in Bulgaria since February -- although it was unclear whether his act was politically motivated.

"To be honest, I can't stand any party. They are all the same and similarly involved with the oligarchy and corruption," said Dimitrov.

"I regret this foolish act and I would not do it again for sure," he said.

"But life goes on despite everything. My hands will heal soon and I'll start doing some jobs.

"And maybe my 22-year-old daughter will live to see Bulgaria turn into a normal state," he said hopefully.