Every day at 4 o'clock, the streets of this capital echo with the sound of drums, rattles, and whistles as tens of thousands of people begin their new afternoon routine: collect in front of the presidency building, march en masse to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and chant for the overthrow of the government.
Taking their cue from neighboring Serbia, people in cities across Bulgaria have been taking to the streets every day for nearly two weeks to express outrage against their political leaders - former Communists who have refused to implement key economic reforms.
"The protests are just a symptom of the profound political, economic, and social crisis in the country," says Ognian Avramov, an adviser to outgoing President Zhelyu Zhelev. Mr. Zhelev, whose post is largely ceremonial, has been acting as a mediator between the two main political parties to try to find a compromise to the political deadlock.
The protesters' main demand is that the Socialist (formerly Communist) Party government call for new elections immediately - two years ahead of schedule. The Socialists - whose prime minister resigned at a special party congress Dec. 21 - wish to remain in power until at least the end of this year and have proposed a new government run by Socialist Nikolai Dobrev.
Attention has focused on negotiations between the Socialists and the opposition Union of Democratic Forces, which is one of the main organizers of the street protests. Not surprisingly, the UDF backs protester demands that elections be called in May; the Socialists have offered to hold them in December. A breakthrough is expected whereby a joint caretaker government is formed with a mandate through the end of the year.
Demonstrators are motivated by their increasing impoverishment, a condition which may worsen in the short-term regardless of whether a new government is formed and takes the needed economic reform measures. "But the parties must reach a political consensus that will allow the country's economic problems to be addressed without delay," says a senior Western diplomat.
The country's economic plight has worsened in recent months, and living standards have plummeted. Inflation was running at 310 percent at the end of last year. Even bread is in short supply, although yesterday parliament approved a government request to import $35 million worth of wheat from the United States.
Much of the blame is aimed at the Socialists. Bulgaria's economic crisis has been brewing for years, but many party and government leaders are said to have enriched themselves through massive corruption and embezzlement. But it's unclear if the UDF would do a better job. Its brief tenure in the government of 1994 also failed to deal with economic reforms.
Further protests and warning strikes were expected today, although union leaders say a general strike would be implemented only as a last resort.