Foreword: Some time ago, I was asked by a friend from the UK to explain to her about the new Bulgarian Prime Minister. Her quest for comprehension made me aware of the fact that there are others like her in the Western world. I hope this helps.
On 5 July 2009, a general election was held in the Republic of Bulgaria. After the polls closed and preliminary results began coming out, one man stood before the nation as the informal leader of the party which had apparently won the most votes. Boiko Borisov announced his victory: “with this result, and with the responsibility which has fallen on the shoulders of the GERB party, I have no right not to take the lead in the new government.” Three weeks later, he officially became the new Prime Minister of Bulgaria.
Mr. Borisov is a favorite of the Bulgarian media and not a day goes by without him appearing on the television screens. His conflict with the nation’s president, Georgi Parvanov, escalated into a full media war, with the two men jesting verbally over major and minor issues. Apart from the conflicts, some of Mr. Borisov’s other media appearances include his argument with the mayor of Blagoevgrad over transportation infrastructure funds: “Mr. Mayor, where is the money?”; his constant questions over the expenses required for the new Nuclear Power Plant at Belene: “How much does a price cost?”; and his commanding attitude towards the cabinet of ministers: “Tzvetanov [Minister for Internal Affairs], fix this so that I never have to hear about it again!”. Because of these constant media appearances and his imposing personality, Mr. Borisov makes the public feel that their leader is working for democracy and transparency, even if it is hard to see the borderline between his concept of democratic rule and a form populism he has been accused of exercising.
What many Bulgarians know and yet choose to ignore are the past activities of Mr. Borisov. In 1982, he graduated from the Special Institute of the Ministry of Interior with a diploma in engineering, specializing in firefighting technology and safety – a fact which gave him the sarcastic nickname ‘the firefighting Prime Minister’. He then went on to teach in a school for officers, holding the rank of captain, and successfully defended his doctoral dissertation on ‘Psychological and Physical Preparation of Operations Personnel’ in 1990. Mr. Borisov was also the personal bodyguard of the socialist leader Todor Zhivkov, an activity taken up through his business venture IPON Security which he founded in 1991 after leaving the Interior Ministry. A photograph of Mr. Zhivkov and Mr. Borisov is one the most wide-spread and commented items in the Bulgarian internet community.
After some years of developing his private business, Mr. Borisov came back to the political scene when he became general secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in 1997. After being promoted several times, he now holds the rank of Lieutenant General. To many Bulgarians, he made a name for himself as the savior who battled corruption and organized crime running rampant in the country. Under the governments of Ivan Kostov and the ex-Tzar Simeon II, he raged a vigorous anti-mafia campaign which restored faith in the police and increased internal security. After the general election of 2005, when the Socialist party came to power, Mr. Borisov resigned from his post, only to be elected as mayor of Sofia in the same year with the support of roughly 2/3 of the capital’s voters.
Many Bulgarians, especially the younger generation, are only becoming aware of Lieutenant General Dr. Boiko Borisov’s past, but not many are keen on holding it against him. His ministers enjoy popular support and many are happy that he is there as a guide to the team of experts he has put together to govern the country. Although his methods are considered crude at the best of times, they are so far proving effective. His down-to-earth manner and plain way of speaking makes the ordinary Bulgarian feel closer to the people in power, something which has been lacking since the start of the transition period twenty years ago. In external relations, Mr. Borisov has been accepted in the European Union as the leader who can fight corruption (still the country’s biggest problem), and the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, extended a “credit of trust” to him at their meeting on 10 September 2009. Yet, the ‘firefighting Prime Minister’ has many fires to address and whether any significant change will take place remains to be seen.
The message Mr. Borisov sends out is one of optimism. He is a symbol of hope to the Bulgarian people that they can finally be accepted as equals in Europe and that the internal problems will be fixed. Yet, only time will tell whether results will come through a democratic process, or if the Bulgarian public’s greatest fear will be realized – an authoritarian figure at the head of a pseudo-democratic system. For now, Mr. Borisov is the captain who steers the ship. Only time will tell whether the ship will come into the right port or if the GERB party will prove to be just another disappointment to an already politically disillusioned public.