The Boyko Borisov show

The Boyko Borisov show

The Boyko Borisov show

November 16, 2009 — Sofia
Writer: Matthew Brunwasser

The professional CV of the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov does not read like your standard head of government: firefighter, private security company owner, black belt in karate, trainer of the national karate team, bodyguard of the former Tsar Simeon II and communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and head of the national police.

Bulgarians and Europe are hoping that Borisov’s unusual political chemistry will help steady the country through its rough political seas. Bulgaria is the poorest EU memberstate, with monthly wages averaging €300, and its reputation in Europe has been seriously damaged by constant hammering from the European Commission for failing to fight corruption and organised crime.

Borisov used the occasion of his party’s landslide win on Sunday in elections for the mayor of Sofia to deliver a few kicks to his political opponents. The previous government, he said, “emptied” the state and “that’s why there’s no money left any more”. Focusing on the corruption of his predecessors – in short, blaming them for everything – and preparing the public for painful budget cuts at the same time, is clearly populism. And it might also be smart political strategy. But it’s not enough to help turn the country around.

Bulgaria is not your typical EU memberstate and Borisov’s special political style might be just what is needed. His thick frame, broad shoulders, shaved head, black leather overcoats, cigars and tough, straight-talk might make him suspect outside Balkan political culture. But no one disputes that Borisov is the most successful politician in Bulgaria at winning votes: his first elected position was as mayor of Sofia in 2005. He then became prime minister this July with a landslide 40 per cent of the vote in his party’s first parliamentary contest. In the last four months, Borisov’s cabinet has impressed critics with quick and transparent decision-making, the technical competency of his appointments and the absence of ideology. He is clearly comfortable delegating power for matters to others in spheres in which he feels less able.

The biggest political issue Bulgaria faces today is “corruption” – and as Bulgaria’s former top law enforcement official, Borisov is closely engaged in the effort to bring to justice corrupt officials among the former governing coalition. The prosecutor’s office has found enough evidence to start criminal investigations for corruption against two former government ministers. Europe has long criticised Bulgaria for failing to prosecute even one high-level official for corruption. A successful house cleaning of the Bulgarian government involving jail time for former top officials is clearly one of the measures of success by which Borisov’s government will be judged.

Most recently, former Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev has surrendered his immunity so the prosecutor’s office can begin an investigation against him for misusing two classified reports about corruption within his cabinet, prepared by the State Agency for National Security. When the new Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said Stanishev had failed to return two confidential reports, the former PM Stanishev complained of a witch hunt. Borisov responded that Stanishev lost the reports because “they turned the Council of Ministers into a bar and grill”. This was a particularly adroit move, since most Bulgarians, in their self-deprecating way, would readily admit that their kin are far from the best at governing, but are proud of their prodigious ability to eat and drink the night away in the neighbourhood bar and grill.

The enormous task of restoring public confidence in Bulgarian state institutions and mending Bulgaria’s relationship with the EU is now in the hands of Borisov. There have been few signs so far of the corrupt and incompetent governance which has helped keep Bulgaria behind the rest of Europe. Bulgarians can only hope Premier Borisov spends more time on the statesmanship he is not so experienced at – improving the performance of the creaky Bulgarian state apparatus – and less energy espousing populist political explanations for Bulgaria’s myriad serious problems.

Matthew Brunwasser is a regular contributor to Monocle and lived for several years in Bulgaria.

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