By Tsvetelia Tsolova
SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgarians will vote on whether to build a new nuclear power plant in the Balkan country's first referendum since the fall of communism in 1989, parliament ruled on Wednesday.
The government earlier this year abandoned a 2,000-megawatt nuclear project at Belene, citing a lack of Western investors. But Russian state firm Atomstroyexport, which had a contract to build the plant, last month demanded 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in compensation for the cancellation.
The opposition Socialists demanded a referendum to challenge the decision to drop the project, which cost the government popularity against a backdrop of rising electricity prices and high unemployment in the European Union's poorest country.
Parliament voted 106-7 in favor of a referendum.
But the center-right government of Boiko Borisov amended the question to be posed in the plebiscite. It will now ask, "Should we develop nuclear energy in Bulgaria by building a new nuclear power plant?" and not mentioning Belene specifically.
The original question was: "Should we develop nuclear energy by building a new power plant at the Belene site?" The Socialists abstained from parliament's vote in protest at the change in wording.
"By changing the question Borisov is already losing support," said Andrey Raichev of pollster Gallup International. "But the referendum is not going to decide next year's elections."
The referendum may well prove invalid because of a tough turnout requirement of matching the number of voters in the last parliamentary elections, or about 4.25 million out of a population of 7.3 million.
"It is a complete nonsense to expect that we will have that many people showing up at any referendum," said political analyst with Sofia University Rumiana Kolarova.
Many Bulgarians had hoped the Belene plant would help to restrain electricity prices. Bulgaria already has one operational 2,000 megawatt nuclear plant on the Danube River at Kozloduy which provides cheap electricity.
The Socialists collected over 770,000 signatures for a referendum, well above the minimum half-million required.
They said Borisov's GERB party had used its strength in parliament to override a significant degree of popular support for the nuclear project.
The president now has a month to set a date for the vote, which is most likely to be held in January.
Support for GERB has fallen in opinion polls to 21.4 percent compared with 16.1 percent for the Socialists, according to the latest survey by independent pollster Alpha Research.
Even if GERB remains the largest party in next year's election, it would probably need to strike a coalition deal with other parties to stay in power.
(Editing by Sam Cage and Mark Heinrich)