Bulgarian education minister sacked in science funding dispute

SOFIA, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov sacked his education minister on Monday after more than a thousand scientists complained that the state research fund was funding worthless projects and hiring unqualified people.

The dismissal highlighted Bulgaria's problems rooting out corruption and cronyism, still a major concern five years after it was admitted to the European Union and more than 20 years after the fall of communism.

"If a minister cannot control his work and allows violations, it means that he is not (suitable) for this job," Borisov told reporters after firing Sergei Ignatov.

The scientists made a written request to prosecutors for an investigation, saying that the scientific research fund had supported projects dear to Ignatov but of scant scientific merit and had hired people lacking professional qualifications.

Ignatov, who became education minister in November 2009, denied wrongdoing. The 52-year-old replaced Yordanka Fandukova after she won election as mayor of the capital Sofia.

Ignatov's dismissal came only hours after the resignation of Hristo Petrov, chief executive of the controversial fund, which spent more than 14 million levs ($9.64 million) on research projects last year.

The Balkan country remains blighted by organised crime and graft, putting off investors and hindering economic growth.

Bulgaria needs to show it can impose strict rule of law to end EU monitoring of its progress on fighting crime and convince its peers it is ready to join the bloc's Schengen zone of borderless travel. ($1 = 1.4518 Bulgarian levs) (Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Mark Heinrich)