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Bulgaria's new technocrat PM tells it straight

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Plamen Oresharski, confirmed Wednesday as Bulgaria's new prime minister at the head of a Socialist-backed technocrat government, is a non-partisan economist under no illusions about the challenges facing the EU's poorest country.

"The country is in a deep institutional crisis, continuing economic depression and worsening disintegration of society," the 53-year-old told parliament Wednesday before it approved his new cabinet.

"We will definitely not become richer or more prosperous but by the end of the mandate, our minimum task is that every Bulgarian have much more hope and a greater certainty that we're on the right track."

Oresharski, a professor of finance at Sofia's University for National and World Economy, was put forward by the Socialists as a Bulgarian version of Italy's respected former technocrat prime minister Mario Monti, after May 12 snap elections.

Former premier Boyko Borisov's GERB party, which won the vote, had failed to find partners to govern, leaving the second-placed Socialists to name a new prime minister.

A finance minister in a Socialist-led coalition between 2005 and 2009, Oresharski won praise for implementing a key reform in Bulgaria's taxation system.

He was also part of the team that oversaw the introduction of an IMF-led currency board regime in 1997 -- pegging the national currency, the lev, to the euro at a fixed rate -- that stabilised the economy and is still in place.

The stern doctor of economics has warned, however, that the bitter medicine he will prescribe to pep up the sickening economy will not start working right away.

"Even the most rapid and suitable measures will not give immediate results," he said after the election. "We will face a hard winter."

Analysts say it is not even certain his government will last until Bulgaria sees its first dustings of snow.

Mass protests last winter against rising poverty levels, falling living standards and corruption forced Borisov's government to resign in February. Seven people set themselves on fire.

Oresharski's cabinet will also have to rely on the support of two diametrically opposed parties to pass legislation in parliament -- the Turkish minority MRF and the unpredictable ultra-nationalist Ataka -- while GERB will not give it an easy time.

Never a member of the Socialist party (BSP), Oresharski was nevertheless given a seat by the party in the outgoing parliament and served on the budget and finance committee.

But despite his professionalism and readiness for dialogue, he has struggled to win over many in the BSP ranks, with opponents noting he once stood on the other side of the political spectrum.

In the 1990s, he was a deputy chairman of the rightwing Union of Democratic Forces, the main adversary of the ex-communist Socialists.

He was also deputy finance minister in the reformist rightwing government of prime minister Ivan Kostov that took power amid Bulgaria's worst economic and banking crisis in 1997.

In a country fed up with corruption, the new prime minister has not been squeaky clean either. A meeting with a shady businessman prompted Oresharski's expulsion from the UDF and withdrawal as their candidate for Sofia mayor in 2003.

Embittered, he left politics, vowing that it was for good. But he returned two years later as finance minister in the coalition government of Socialist premier Sergey Stanishev -- the man who as Socialist leader now offered him the top job.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130529/bulgarias-new-technocrat-pm-tells-it-straight