It seemed that Boyko Borisov could not climb any higher in the popularity stakes, but a critical article in the Congressional Quarterly made the impossible happen: Sofia's mayor was backed by all Bulgaria's public figures, headed by the President
The American Congressional Quarterly is not among the best-known foreign magazines in Bulgaria, but when it published Jeff Stein's article "Bush's Bulgarian Partner in the Terror War Has Mob History, Investigators Say," the reaction in this country was instantaneous - mostly because the person whom the article accused of having a shady past is Bulgaria's man of the moment: Boyko Borisov.
Some time earlier, at the end of February, an opinion poll showed that Bulgarians viewed Sofia Mayor Boyko Borisov as the most attractive figure on the political horizon. The poll, conducted by the Market Links agency and commissioned by the Kapital weekly, showed that the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), a party founded in December 2006 and unofficially headed by Borisov, ranked second in terms of political support among Sofia's voters. What is more, the difference in support for the GERB and the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) was such that in a future election and with a greater motivation of its supporters, the two may exchange places. Far-right party Ataka, or "Attack", took a distant third place, with 2.5 times fewer votes. Borisov's party received a greater percentage than the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB) and Bulgarian People's Union (BNS).
Not bad for a party established on the basis of a movement that has only existed since March 2006, headed by a man without any significant political experience who, officially, is not even a member of its governing body. Boyko Borisov is a former fire-fighter, a former owner of the IPON security company and was the chief secretary of the Interior Ministry in Simeon Saxe-Coburg's government (2001-2005). He entered the mayoral election in Sofia in October 2005 and went on to win after a run-off with BSP candidate Tatyana Doncheva.
At a ceremony with a former monach and prime minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg, 2001
Market Links predicted that the new GERB party would be one of the major players in the European Parliament elections in May, and was in with a good chance of having more MEPs than any other political force apart from the BSP.
This is when Jeff Stein's article appeared. Quoting a "3-inch thick confidential dossier compiled by a team of former top US law enforcement officials on behalf of a Swiss financial house," the CQ analyst claimed that Borisov "is a close associate of known mobsters and linked to almost 30 unsolved murders". It took 18 months to compile the information in the report commissioned by a Swiss institution which asked not be identified. Stein's conclusions are not particularly pleasant.
According to the article, in his job as chief secretary of the Interior Ministry, Borisov "used his responsibility for policing official corruption to help mob associates wipe out their underworld competition."
"Since Boyko Borisov was appointed chief secretary of the Interior Ministry in 2001... there have been a large number of assassinations and mob-style murders of persons identified with criminal groups in Bulgaria. None of these murders have been solved. Many investigations reportedly led by Borisov have been closed without results or explanations," the report says, as quoted by Stein.
The office of Sofia mayor overlooks the St Alexander Nevskiy Square
Things looked bad for Borisov. This kind of information, be it true or not, coming close to an election, surely spelt trouble for Boyko.
Wrong. Borisov reacted immediately, with the characteristic flair which makes him the only man in Bulgaria who doesn't need a PR expert to be popular. He appeared on Bulgaria's most watched talkshow, Slavi's Show, on the bTV channel, and for half an hour refuted Stein's allegations. Over the next few days, he declared to various media that somebody had ordered the article to discredit him. He claimed that the people behind this attack were DSB leader Ivan Kostov and his archenemy, Economy and Energy Minister Rumen Ovcharov. Borisov and Ovcharov are currently embroiled in a heated argument about who is to blame for the misappropriation of funds from Sofia's Central Heating Company, which were discovered to have been stashed away in Swiss bank accounts.
Reportedly, Borisov even invited Stein to Sofia (the journalist declined the invitation) and declared to the Focus News Agency that the allegation that he was a "major player" in the deal to base US air, naval and army forces in Bulgaria was not true. "Al-Qaeda has its cells in the Balkans and the lies published about me automatically set me as a target of the most powerful terrorist organisation the world," Borisov told the agency.
Given that the report was compiled a year before the scandal involving the Sofia Central Heating Company funds, and given that it seems rather implausible that a Bulgarian politician would commission an American journalist to write a defamatory article in the United States, Boyko Borisov's campaign to vindicate himself may appear illogical. To an outside observer, such vehement denials could even be read as an indication that the mayor did indeed have something to hide.
This, however, would be the wrong impression. Borisov's reputation remained unharmed. Strange as it may seem, his popularity even rose. Most Bulgarian media supported him, deriding the article in the CQ. He was also endorsed by the highest ranks of state administration. President Parvanov labelled the article as "openly anti-Bulgarian in character, not based on evidence and offensive for Bulgaria", while Interior Minister Rumen Petkov stated that it "cast a shadow on Bulgaria".
This is not the first time when, faced with potential scandal, public opinion has sided with "our man" who is "tendentiously" attacked by "Bulgaria's enemies abroad". The same happened in 2004 when undercover BBC reporters accused the Bulgarian member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Ivan Slavkov of corruption.
Small girls sometimes make drawings of the mayor of Sofia. In the picture: This is my hero
The chairman of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee was caught on film haggling over a bribe to support London as a candidate city to host the 2012 Olympics. Nevertheless, the majority of Bulgarian media defended Slavkov. Then Chief Prosecutor Nikola Filchev even initiated legal action against the BBC. However, the strong public support for Slavkov, known in Bulgaria as "Bateto," did not stop the IOC from expelling him.
The similarities between Slavkov and Borisov go further. Both were related to the former Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov: Slavkov was his son-in-law and Borisov his bodyguard after the democratic changes. (Reportedly, Borisov often says that Zhivkov was his teacher in politics).
Both Borisov and "Bateto" are the type of public figures that will always enjoy popularity in Bulgaria. They are the "bad boys" of the system. Under Communism, Slavkov was also known as the "Playboy" due to his carefree lifestyle. Borisov took on the macho hardman image. A practitioner of martial arts (he was a one-time coach of the national karate team), with a predilection for black T-shirts and black leather jackets, he looks capable of taking any problem in his lengthy stride. His nicknames include the endearing "BB", the heroic "Batman" and "Bate Boyko" (an analogy with the Serbian actor Gojko Mitic who played the lead roles in films such as The Sons of Great Bear and Osceola).
Machismo has always been a quality appreciated in the Balkans, and both men took advantage of this to become firm media favourites. Outstandingly charismatic, they became the local stand-ins for Hollywood stars. As Stein noted, "Borisov encourages comparisons to Arnold Schwarzenegger".
In 2006, Little-Known Facts about Boyko Borisov circulated on the Internet. It was essentially a Bulgarianised version of a series of anecdotes about Chuck Norris ("Boyko Borisov is not as strong as a bull. Bulls are as strong as Boyko Borisov").
Some claim, however, that the media love affair with this Sofia mayor isn't based solely on blind adoration: there is also an element of well aimed pragmatism. Presumably, some Bulgarian publishers have joint business interests with Borisov or want to be on good terms with the politician who has every chance of becoming the next Bulgarian prime minister.
Of course, there is nothing new in the media courtship of politicians. In 1997, when the BSP and Zhan Videnov's government brought Bulgaria to its most severe economic crisis in recent history, Ivan Kostov, leader of the right-wing SDS, shot to glory. The media revered him and elected him Politician of the Year and Man of the Year until his midterm in office, when their affections began to cool and attention was redirected to Simeon Saxe-Coburg, who had just returned from exile (and hired Boyko Borisov as his bodyguard). Saxe-Coburg won the parliamentary election in 2001, but for a number of reasons, including the inability to find a common tongue in which to communicate with them, plus his notorious declaration that he would tangibly improve the life of the people within 800 days, he too soon fell out of favour with the media and became a persona non grata.
The question now is how long Borisov will continue to enjoy the high esteem of the media. Will they make it past the honeymoon stage to enjoy a long and happy marriage? Granted, they have already enjoyed a long engagement: at the time when he was chief secretary of the Interior Ministry, Borisov topped opinion polls as the most popular politician in the country, despite the fact that he was not one then.
The CQ scandal has revealed that he looks likely to surpass Ivan Kostov and Simeon Saxe-Coburg in the media popularity contest. Kostov and Saxe-Coburg allegedly both suffered from a chronic inability to be mediafriendly, the first due to his difficult character and the second because of the flimsy phrasing of his ideas in quaint Bulgarian.
Unlike them, Boyko Borisov is both willing and able to talk to journalists. He understands that modern politics is one big reality show where career success depends on keeping the viewers' interest. He is aware that it doesn't matter so much what you do, as long as it is shown on TV that you are trying to do it. This is why nobody is angry with him despite the fact that, during his one and a half years in office, Borisov has done little to solve Sofia's refuse problem, as he promised he would in election campaigns.
The capital's incumbent mayor knows too that it doesn't matter what you say, but how you say it. Preferably in a way that makes you look cool so people will like you. This is why the explanation that Chief Secretary of the Interior Ministry Borisov gave when asked why there were no big criminals in jail - "We arrest them and they (the judges) let them go free!" - has become urban folklore without harming his image. More recently, nobody complained when, instead of condemning an illegal protest by taxi drivers in front of parliament, which brought the capital to a standstill, Borisov legalised it post factum.
Boyko Borisov is an embodiment of the Bulgarian dream of the transition: strength, power, and a lack of restraints. Add to this his charm, the charisma of a man who is constantly moving on the edge of what is allowed and what is not, and the persistent emphasis on his humble origins and it becomes apparent why it will take more than an article in an American magazine to tarnish the prestige of Sofia's most popular politician.
Room at the Top
As he himself likes to recount, Boyko Borisov was born in 1959 in Bankya to a common family. His father Metodi was the head of a unit in the Sofia Fire Department and his mother Veneta was a primary school teacher. Boyko Borisov graduated from the Interior Ministry Academy in 1982 and left the ministry in 1990. The next year he founded the private security company Ipon-1 Ltd and became a public figure in 2001 when Simeon Saxe-Coburg appointed him the chief secretary of the Interior Ministry, a post from which he retired in September 2005 to win the mayoral election in Sofia. Six months later he established the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) association, which became a party in December 2006. Officially, Borisov is not on the list of its governing board, but is popularly recognised as its leader.
Suspicions and Speculations
Since Boyko Borisov took office as chief secretary of the Interior Ministry, there have been speculations about his participation in businesses run by shady figures. His links with the SIK group can be traced to Rumen "Pashata" Nikolov, who is his partner in several companies: the security company Tsebra, the trading company Teo International and Interbulpred. Nikolov is a former member of the Special Anti-Terrorist Squad. He is a partner in the main companies of the SIK group: the insurance firm of the same name, Intergroup and Interpetroleum. His name became well-known in 1993 when, together with the head of Nove Holding Vasil Bozhkov, Mladen "Madzho" Mihalev, one of the founders of SIK, and Multigroup president Iliya Pavlov, he established the IGM company, which runs Bulgaria's most lucrative casinos and bingo halls.
Borisov explained then that Interbulpred was meant to close long ago, but that his partners had "such antagonistic relationships" that it was impossible to collect all signatures necessary to close the company, which was not active. This is why the procedure had to be done in court. Borisov said that he had known Rumen Nikolov since the time his nickname was still Grebloto ("The Oar") and not Pashata. Nikolov was an oarsman. They were related by sport. Another of Borisov's former partners, Aleksey Petrov, is also a former green beret and an attempt on his life was made a few years ago.
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