Corruption and Protests Can’t Shake Tough Man’s Grip on Bulgaria
(Bloomberg) -- A bodyguard to a former communist dictator and then a self-styled crime fighter, Bulgaria’s prime minister has made plenty of enemies over the years. In fact, Boyko Borissov has distinguished himself as a European leader for his ability to stick around.
Since coming to power in 2009, there were personal scandals, allegations over ties to organized crime, street protests and feuds with the president and some of the country’s richest men. He even resigned twice. Then there’s the state of the nation. Under Borissov, Bulgaria has remained bottom in the European Union for living standards, media freedom and corruption.
Yet as Bulgarians vote in an election on Sunday, his governing Gerb party remains the favorite when the pandemic is still raging — the country is currently one of the world’s hotspots — and the economy is taking a hit. If the polls are right, Borissov’s toughest battle may be how to coax other parties into a coalition rather than convince a jaded electorate.
His core support is conservative voters who like his man-of-the-people populism and reject the opposition Socialists because of their links with Bulgaria’s communist past. Borissov has also been adept at balancing the nation’s interests between historical ally Russia, which the country depends on for energy, and the West. He has embraced NATO and the EU while former eastern bloc peers Hungary and Poland engage in open conflict with Brussels.
“To many people, Borissov is still the best there is — or the least worst,” said Evelina Slavkova, a researcher at pollster Trend, which put Gerb almost seven percentage points ahead of the Socialists in a March 26-30 survey. “The biggest question is not whether Borissov will win, but whether he’ll have enough support to form a government.” The party of TV host Stanislav Trifonov is set to place third and may become the kingmaker.
Opponents say that four more years of Borissov, 61, will lead to more hardship and missed opportunities. The national model is one of state decay and corruption, according to President Rumen Radev, Borissov’s chief political rival who is running for re-election himself this fall.
The U.S. State Department referred to “significant human rights issues” in a March 30 report on Bulgaria, including arbitrary arrests, media censorship and violence against journalists and minority communities.
Meanwhile, gross domestic product per capita, when adjusted for relative purchasing power, was 43% of the EU average just before Borissov took office. It’s now just over 50%.
Borissov’s office points to the economy as a high point of his latest administration. Bulgaria has a low budget deficit and the EU’s second-smallest debt load. Growth exceeded the EU average from 2017 to 2019, it said. He has also played up his ability to tackle challenges such as the European debt crisis, an influx of refugees to Europe and Covid-19.
“In the past 10 years, Bulgarians lived through three crises,” Borissov said on a visit to a village in the south of the country during his nationwide tour in February. “I ran all three of them along with my colleagues in the best possible way.”
In the early 1990s as organized crime flourished, Borissov was employed as the private bodyguard of Bulgaria’s last Soviet-backed dictator, Todor Zhivkov. He started his political career in the Interior Ministry before becoming mayor of the capital, Sofia.
With a black belt in Karate and a gruff, working-class demeanor, he cultivated a tough-on-crime image that won him fans — and the nickname “Batman” — in the 2000s, when a presidential adviser, a prosecutor, soccer club bosses and dozens of mobsters were killed in violent gang wars.
Yet all but a handful of those murders remain unsolved. What Borissov hasn’t made progress on is the perception of corruption among the public and the country’s international partners.
He came close to being forced out last year after a series of scandals and a raid by prosecutors on the president’s office triggered national demonstrations. Protesters demanded the resignations of the chief prosecutor and Borissov, accusing them of links with the mafia, which both denied.
Transparency International has ranked the country last in the EU for most of the past decade in its Corruption Perception Index. The EU has also criticized Bulgaria over its failure to uphold the rule of law and judicial independence.
“Affirming the rule of law” is a priority of the government, it said in a response to questions. The authorities say they’re cracking down on graft and organized crime, seizing assets and staging raids on prominent politicians and business leaders. There have been no notable convictions.
Critics say that campaign targets rivals of the government and those opposing powerful oligarchs who have seized influence over much of the economy. Failure to tackle corruption has blocked Bulgaria from joining Schengen, the EU’s passport-free travel zone, and delayed its bid to join the ERM-2, a precursor to adopting the euro currency.
Bulgaria has been undermined by a lack of “political integrity” for decades, Jessica Kim, a legal adviser for the U.S. Department of Justice, said at an online event on Jan. 28. “Then you add in oligarchic influence, issues of conflict of interest, abuse of state resources and the lack of media independence, and one understands why Bulgaria remains the EU’s highest scoring country for corruption,” she said.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.