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A combination picture shows Kornelia Ninova (L), leader of the Bulgarian Socialist party and Boiko Borisov, former Bulgarian prime minister and leader of centre-right GERB party voting in Sofia, Bulgaria, March 26, 2017. REUTERS/Staff

(reuters_tickers)

By Tsvetelia Tsolova and Angel Krasimirov

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgarians were voting in a snap general election on Sunday, with the centre-right GERB party challenged for power by Socialists who say they will improve ties with Russia even if it means upsetting the country's European Union partners.

Many Bulgarians feel a strong cultural affinity for Russia, with which they share the Cyrillic script and Orthodox Christianity and a decade after joining the EU, the Balkan country remains the bloc's poorest member with corruption rife.

The Kremlin's most loyal satellite during the Cold War era, Bulgaria remains a popular holiday destination for Russians attracted by its Black Sea beaches and low prices, and it is also almost entirely dependent on Russian energy supplies.

Opinion polls put the GERB party of former prime minister Boiko Borisov, 57, only narrowly ahead of the Socialists (BSP), who have seen their popularity rise since the candidate they backed, Rumen Radev, won the presidency in November.

Voting in the country of 7.2 million people got underway at 7 a.m (0400 GMT) on Sunday with the turnout by 10 a.m. (0700 GMT) 8.4 percent, slightly up from the previous parliamentary vote in 2014, the central electoral commission said.

Borisov resigned in the wake of Radev's victory, triggering Bulgaria's third parliamentary election in just four years.

While Bulgaria historically has had strong ties with Moscow, Borisov's GERB party is strongly pro-EU and has supported the bloc's sanctions imposed on Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis.

"BSP is quite right. Who, if not Bulgaria, should be Russia's closest partner? Why don't we remember what Russia did?" said Georgi Kasabov, a 69-year-old pensioner.

"It liberated us, it helped us build so many factories," Kasabov said, referring to the end of Ottoman rule in 1878 and industrial development during the Communist era.

The Socialists, led by 48-year-old Kornelia Ninova, have vowed to vote against continuing the sanctions, posing another potential headache for the EU as it grapples with Britain's move to leave, the rise of right-wing populists and the future shape of the bloc.

Bulgaria takes over the EU's rotating six-month presidency in January 2018.

"The GERB party, to a much greater extent, will maintain Bulgaria's Euro-Atlantic orientation and integration," said Boriana Dimitrova, an analyst with pollster Alpha Research.

"If Bulgaria begins giving up on participation in a number of EU integration policies, underlining its specific interest and privileged relations with Russia, that wouldn't just put it on Europe's periphery, it would move it into a different orbit."

FRAGILE COALITION

The latest opinion poll put the GERB party on 31.7 percent and the Socialists close behind on 29.1 percent.

If it retains power, the GERB party is expected to maintain a tight rein on public spending – key to Bulgaria's currency peg to the euro – in contrast to the Socialists who have pledged to raise wages and pensions and expand public spending.

"GERB deserves another chance to complete the good things it started," said voter Radoslava Kamenova, 57, after casting her ballot in a Sofia suburb polling station.

"It is a modern party, which takes care of the young who are the future of this country," she added.

Neither party, however, is likely to win enough votes to govern alone and will struggle to form what analysts expect to be a fragile and diverse coalition.

They will almost certainly have to court the United Patriots, an alliance of three nationalist parties polling third before the election thanks to widespread anger over the flow of migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia trying to reach Western Europe via the Balkans.

On Friday, the nationalists blocked Bulgaria's border crossings with Turkey, saying they would stop Turks who hold Bulgarian passports from trying to vote to sway the election.

(Editing by Gareth Jones, Greg Mahlich)

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