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Bulgaria's Future "Sheriff"? By: John Wilhelm
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, November 12, 2007

Current events in Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran have captured today’s headlines. Passing virtually unnoticed in the western press are the recent municipal elections in Bulgaria, which just completed run-offs November 4th. The results point to a shift of national political sentiment from socialist towards the center-right party led by Boyko Borissov, the flamboyant and highly popular mayor of the country’s capital of Sofia. And this shift is highly significant.

The increasing tumult in the Middle East and Central Asia projects this former Eastern Bloc country front and center as a key player in today’s international affairs. By virtue of its historic position astride the ancient East-West trade routes, Bulgaria is fast becoming a frontline in the battle against drug smuggling, human trafficking, radical Islam, and a resurgent Russia. Soon it will also become a vital pipeline route for gas pumped across the Black Sea from Central Asia. Because of all this, what happens in today’s Bulgaria has far-ranging consequences for tomorrow’s world.

When voters initially went to the polls at the end of October, Sofia’s highly popular mayor, Boyko Borissov, scored a second term, landslide victory. His strong, 53.4 percent plurality eliminated the need for him to enter a run-off, which is a more common occurrence in elections held since the country shed communism in 1989. The mayoral run-offs held November 4th placed Borissov’s party candidates into control of seven of the country’s ten major cities. This significant political strength exhibited by the mayor of Bulgaria’s capital city greatly increase his likelihood of being named the next prime minister after the scheduled 2009 parliamentary elections.

His move to higher office, however, might even come sooner than that. Borissov’s two-year-old political party—Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, GERB for short—has called several times for parliamentary elections to be held ahead of schedule. At a press conference following the run-offs, Borissov called for the parliamentary elections to be held next spring.

There have been many visible improvements since Borissov took over as Sofia’s mayor. The city’s parks have been cleaned up; its old public buildings are being repaired, repainted, and magnificently lit; and a new Metro line is under construction to relieve the city’s growing traffic jams, which are themselves signs of the city’s increasing economic vitality.

Bulgaria has come far in the last 18 years, and today is a rough and tumble but undeniable democracy: Its politics are ferociously competitive; there is an unfettered and undisciplined press. Most importantly, the country has free and frequent elections. In addition to the EU, Bulgaria recently joined NATO and is an enthusiastic American ally, with boots on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is also a U.S.-accessible airbase in Bourgas, on the Black Sea.

The country’s main cities clearly are doing well. Major companies have moved in and tourism on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast and mountain ski resorts is flourishing. Like many Eastern European transition countries, however, many of its small towns and rural areas remain wretchedly poor. Nevertheless, Bulgaria has shed its gray communist past and is undergoing a transition, however bumpy, to Western-style capitalism.

Bulgaria’s transition has been a free-for-all scramble for state-owned companies and resources. Bribes and insider deals were the norm, as well as considerable violence. In the absence of rules, the distinction between crime and private enterprise was predictably blurred. In the “creative destruction” that is capitalism today, a few became very rich while many were consigned to sullen poverty.

Bulgaria is still a rough neighborhood for business, however. While the current government has attempted to tackle corruption, there are still high-ranking, corrupt politicians who remain untouchable. There are still gangsters who threaten legitimate businesses with offers that can’t be refused. There are still local officials who regard every request for a permit as a chance to increase personal wealth.

Bulgaria will not be cleaned up by well-intentioned but inept reformers; by saints with immaculate resumes; or by endless edicts from EU headquarters in Brussels. The cleanup must be led from inside Bulgaria, by the same savvy, gritty veterans of the recent transition from communism–imperfect characters, yes, but whose once personal ambitions for monetary gain have now turned to political endeavors . . . characters like Sofia’s just re-elected mayor.

While in Sofia earlier this year I interviewed Mayor Borissov. His muscular build and pugnacious demeanor reflect a resume that includes stints as head coach of Bulgaria’s national karate team and bodyguard to the last Communist head of state and first non-Communist president. He smilingly encourages comparisons with the former body-building champion, movie star, and present California Governor, Arnold Schwarznegger.

During the interview, Borissov was flanked by two, life-size portraits of famous Bulgarian patriots. His other office walls were covered with photos showing him shaking hands with police chiefs and intelligence officials from throughout the Western world. But behind him was his favorite, and perhaps most telling, graphic piece: A movie-poster painting of actor Yul Brynner and six rugged cowboys atop galloping horses charging against the bad guys in a scene from the classic Western, “The Magnificent Seven.” It’s a tale of gunslingers enlisted by desperate villagers to assist in a noble cause. This says it all.

There have been allegations of the mayor's dark past, but dark pasts are abundant in Bulgaria. While it is true that there were a number of unsolved gangland murders during Borissov's tenure as Secretary-General at the Interior Ministry, Bulgarians credit him with sharply reducing ordinary crime.

As we know from America’s history, when townsfolk wanted to impose order in wild frontier towns, they didn’t elect the grocer to be sheriff. They chose a tough, ex-gun fighter to do their dirty work.

Many see Borissov as Bulgaria’s potential new “sheriff” prime minister. His somewhat murky past now may be less important than what he can do for Bulgaria in the future: Clean up the town so business and the country can flourish.

John Wilhelm is a former TIME magazine domestic and foreign correspondent, national magazine editor, and documentary filmmaker. He currently is co-writing a history of Russian military intelligence (the GRU). Mr. Wilhelm recently participated in the 2nd Black Sea Security Conference in Varna, Bulgaria.

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