A tough guy for a tough country

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.

Adding to Borisov's popularity were his commonsensical, Rudolph Giuliani-like moves to improve the quality of life in Sofia. In recent months, for example, Borisov installed black-and-white metal poles on curbs in numerous Sofia neighborhoods to put an end to drivers parking on sidewalks, making them impassable.

It's unclear which party Borisov might tap as his partner in a coalition government. But already his government should be more stable than the coalition assembled by the Socialists, giving him a good chance to maintain his image as a strongman. Bulgaria's Central Electoral Committee on Monday reported that GERB won 116 seats in the 240-seat parliament, just five seats shy of a majority.

He has said he would prefer the Blue Coalition, a group of parties whose members were key figures in the democratic movement that brought down the Communist regime in the early 1990s. They received less than 7 percent of the vote, or 15 seats.

But reports said Borisov has also not ruled out an alliance with Ataka, a far-right nationalist party that earned almost 10 percent of the vote. Ataka is critical of EU membership, foreigners who purchased land in the countryside during the recent real estate boom and the power of a controversial Turkish minority political party — the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (MRF) — that that is a junior member of the current Socialist-led coalition.

During the campaign, Borisov criticized the MRF for its get-out-the-vote efforts, which news reports said included transporting ethnic Turks with Bulgarian citizenship from Turkey across the border to polling stations. Many ethnic-Slavs view the 9-percent Turkish minority in the country as an unwelcome holdover from when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire through the late 19th century.

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