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A tough guy for a tough country

Meet Boyko Borisov: a former bodyguard and perhaps Bulgaria's next prime minister.

Boyko Borisov speaks in Sofia, Oct. 21, 2007. (Nikolay Doychinov/Reuters)

SOFIA, Bulgaria — A thick-necked tough guy in dark sunglasses and a black leather jacket might be the only person able to get rid of the thick-necked tough guys in dark sunglasses and black leather jackets who are said to be really running this Balkan country.

Boyko Borisov, mayor of the capital Sofia and leader of the European Development of Bulgaria party (known by its acronym in Bulgarian, GERB), will likely be the country's next prime minister. His party won nearly 40 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections on Sunday, paving the way for a coalition government with other, smaller parties.

A former bodyguard to Bulgaria's long-serving Communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, and past coach of the country's national karate team, Borisov has cultivated an image that many Bulgarians equate with strength and leadership: A shaved head, broad shoulders and the signature swagger and, at least much of the time, the all-black outfit associated with the "mutri" — or mafia operatives — who allegedly permeate every level of Bulgarian society.

Corruption led European Union officials in Brussels last year to suspend around 430 million euros ($600 million) in subsidies designed after the country's EU accession with neighboring Romania in 2007. Another 300 million euros ($418 million) are still being held back. The unprecedented move couldn't have come at a worse time. In the fall, many predict the full brunt of the worldwide economic crisis will hit Bulgaria, the EU's poorest member. Per capita GDP in 2008 was less than $13,000, according to the CIA World Factbook.

"I will bring the suspended money back to Bulgaria, while the judicial system should clear up its problems, which are criticized time and again in the reports of the European Commission," Borisov told the Sofia News Agency on Monday.

GERB defeated the incumbent Bulgarian Socialist Party — heir to the defunct Bulgarian Communist Party — which received around 18 percent of the vote. The Socialists and their coalition partners were widely viewed as unable to tackle the mutri and curb graft.

Borisov, on the other hand, has earned the nickname "Batman" for his image of a man of action — in black — willing to make bold moves. "Those who have stolen should be very afraid," he said on Sunday. "The thieves will go to jail."

Borisov served as a high-ranking crime-fighting official in the Interior Ministry under the former Bulgarian king and prime minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg. But in 2005, after Saxe-Coburg lost the premiership but his party remained in the Socialists' coalition government, Borisov resigned his position over disagreements with the then-interior minister, Rumen Petkov, a top Socialist.

The decision to break with Petkov was fortuitous. Last year, Petkov resigned after admitting he had contacts with suspects in investigations involving gangland-style assassinations on the streets of Sofia.

After leaving the Interior Ministry, Borisov won office as Sofia mayor, a job that garnered him nationwide attention. A year later, he founded GERB, saying a new party was necessary to clean up government under Bulgaria's current political elite.