Kick It Like Borisov: A FAZ Profile of Bulgaria's Prime Minister

Novinite Insider | Author: Michael Martens |September 8, 2016, Thursday // 14:56| Views: | Comments: 0
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Bulgaria: Kick It Like Borisov: A FAZ Profile of Bulgaria's Prime Minister A file photo of Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borisov at a game of Vitosha Bistritsa "Tigers", a club he still occasionally plays for. BGNES

A profile about Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, done by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung correspondent Michael Martens, has sparked mixed reactions among the Bulgarian public.

That happened for a very simple reason: Bulgarian media outlets taking opposite sides when it comes to Bulgarian politics cherrypicked those parts that served them best. While journalists critical of Borisov have been misquoting Mr Martens to portray the former in a negative light, his supporters have praised other aspects of the piece.

Novinite is now publishing a full translation of the piece by Mr Martens, courtesy of the author himself.

It tells the story of Borisov's way to power in a way that, short of assessing his work at the helm of Bulgaria, the author defends beyond doubt his point that "no head of government in Europe has such a colorful biography".

The original title, "Kick it like Borissow", has been slightly amended here to match the name spelling used by this website.

Let's assume it was a potato field. Of course, it might as well have been a stubble or a fallow, who would know after all these years? In any case, in the autumn of 1944 his grandfather was led to this field and beaten to death. Those who hit were communists – or at least that was how they called themselves. The man they who was hit was a monarchist – or at least that was how they called him. Boyko Borisov, Prime Minister of Bulgaria, has often told the story of his father's father. Anyone willing to understand Borisov should think about this field in 1944. Anyone willing to misunderstand him should do the same.

Boyko Borisov is a man like a tree. With shallow roots, though, say his enemies. Such as Stefan Kolev for example, an economist who grew up in Sofia, but left Bulgaria years ago, just as hundreds of thousands of his countrymen after the collapse of communism in 1990. Kolev does not like Borisov. “This man symbolizes more than anyone else the history of the transition, the ugly face of these 26 years,” Kolev says.

In his words, Borisov only does politics of symbols, which hardly ever turns into deeds. "He has virtually no values," say Kolev and adds: “Only a huge ego. Therefore he acts in a western-friendly manner and enjoys being praised for this or patted on the shoulder in Washington, Brussels or Berlin." Many of the educated, successful Bulgarians, many of those who emigrated and watch the country only from afar, cannot stand Borisov. And many have high requirements of a politician they might like. They want an impeccable knight who speaks five languages. A person who comes from a house where Gainsborough paintings hang on the walls and Chopin was played. Kolev just wants a somewhat honorable man – but says Borisov is not that kind of a man: "This man is one of those people who could not care less about education but instead rely on the law of the strongest and the power of old networks. "

Many Bulgarians think like Kolev. Even more, however, do not think like Kolev. Borisov has governed since 2009, with a brief interruption. He is the only Bulgarian Prime Minister since the changes began 25 years ago to whom Bulgarians gave a second term. All previous heads of government were voted out of office after four years at the latest. If Borisov really is as Kolev describes him – what does that say about Bulgaria and Bulgarians? Did Borisov maybe give the best answer himself when he once told his countrymen: "You are simple and I am simple – so we get along." Or maybe the Prime Minister of the EU's poorest member state is quite different from the way its richest citizens describe him?

The truth does not lie somewhere in the middle, but rather slightly to the right of it. For one thing is clear: no head of government in Europe has such a colorful biography as Boyko Borisov – and he was invented by the CSU [Christian Social Union in Bavaria].

To explain this, we have to take one step back. Let's start with the formalities: Boyko Borisov was born in 1959 in a Sofia suburb. He was considered to be a bright child, but higher education was out of the question for him. Many years later, when Communism had long been defeated, Borisov would hold in his hands documents from the State Security. They said he was the grandson of an "enemy of the people" and a section with a red underline read: "He cannot assume a governing position." Borisov became a firefighter like his father, and, had communism persisted, would probably have retired as a firefighter. Instead 1990 arrived. The old ways no longer applied, nor did the old fears. For some nothing could go anymore, while for others everything could. Boyko Borisov belonged to the latter.

In times that passed long ago he played strength and power sports and karate. When post-communist bandit-capitalism emerged in Bulgaria in the 90s with all its bloody struggles for distribution of influence, Borisov founded a private guard and security firm - “Ipon-1 OOD”. His contacts in the circles of power sports helped him with this. With the fall of communism in Bulgaria, state support for Bulgarian athletes ended. Bulgarian wrestlers, weightlifters and boxers, who had won quite many medals at Olympic Games before, had to seek new livelihoods. “Ipon-1OOD" offered it to them. The fact that Borisov had also been the coach of the Bulgarian national karate team, made it easier to recruit people who hit hard. “Ipon-1 OOD” provided a living to hundreds of employees and promoted its activities with a fleet of armored cars, a good weaponry and bodyguards who held weekly shooting trainings.

The company presented itself as a "discreet partner" for "overcoming the risk factors that are a consequence of the normal functioning of your professional and personal life." In Sofia it is said that "Ipon-1" acquired skills in the business of debt collection as well. People who claim this, however, usually cannot prove what they claim to know when asked to do so. But whoever has faced Borisov in person (or shaken hands with him) will assume that it was probably preferable not to owe money to him or his clients. It is proven that Borisov's company at the time maintained best contacts within the Bulgarian Interior Ministry, which was deeply corrupt at the time. This brought lucrative contracts to the company.

So Borisov became a bodyguard of deposed Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov - the man who ruled Bulgaria from Chruschevs via Brezhnevs to Gorbachev times and who, with an iron fist, turned the country into the most loyal vassal of Moscow alongside the German Democratic Republic. Borisov was undoubtedly more of a guard to Zhivkov than a bodyguard, as the mass murderer had gone on trial in the last years of his life and had been placed under house arrest. Borisov personally took charge of the transport of Zhivkov to the central prison, where interrogations were conducted. Today, he says he wanted to look in the eyes of the man whose people had killed his grandfather. If what Borisov tells is true, Zhivkov spoke to him informally and told him: “It is a pity that I didn't know you then.” By “then" he meant the time Zhivkov ruled over the lives of the Bulgarians. However, when Borisov was taking him to the interrogations, what had remained of Zhivkov was only a shell. “He had again become a human being,” Borisov says. It was then that he learned much about power and its transience.

The next important client whom Borisov guarded was the protagonist of one of the most unusual episodes in Bulgaria's history: in 2001, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, formerly Bulgarian King Simeon II, from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, returned to his home country after decades of exile. He founded a party which within weeks became the most popular in the country. With his “National Movement Simeon II" – NDSV, the King won the next general election and became Prime Minister. Borisov was a security guard of Simeon during the election campaign and drew his interest. After winning the election, the new head of government appointed his security guard to the post of Chief Secretary of the Interior Ministry.

Borisov de facto began serving as acting Minister of Interior. It was then that he started to rise to national fame. Borisov, a genius in marketing himself, understood the laws of the contemporary media world like no Bulgarian politician before him. He would drive his official car on his own and behave like the chief "mafia hunter" of the country. Whenever a contract killing occurred in Sofia in those years, Borisov would quickly arrive at the scene and talk, always somehow “accidently” accompanied by cameras, about the fight against organized crime, which now had to be conducted even tougher. He would then fiercely glare at the cameras like Yul Brynner  in “The Magnificent Seven” [an American western from 1960], his favorite movie. The fact that Borisov's words were not proportionate to his successes in the fight against organized crime as the series of unsolved homicides reached their peak just at the time he was responsible for uncovering them, somehow did go unnoticed by many.

It must habe been sometime in 2001, when Borisov attracted the attention of Wolfgang Gl?sker. Gl?sker, nowadays retired and living in Florida, for a long time headed the Sofia office of the “Hanns-Seidel-Foundation”. This is a foundation for which one could euphemistically say it is “close to the CSU”. One could also say the Hanns Seidel Foundation is the international arm of the party that governs Bavaria. Like the political foundations of other German parties, the Hanns-Seidel-Foundation is constantly in search for partners the CSU could work with. Gl?sker found out, earlier than others, that Borisov would become the new strongman in Bulgaria and reported to Munich: We should get him for us! And that was what happened.

Upon taking over the position in the Interior Ministry, Borisov was invited to Bavaria. His schedule was cleverly made up: Bavarian hospitality, training in the fitness spaces of special police commandos, visits by specialized squads using search dogs (Borisov loves shepherd dogs), a test drive in a BMW at a speed of 200 km/h on the Autobahn (he loves cars as well). Borisov was impressed. Talks with Minister G?nther Beckstein, Bavarias minister of the interior at the time, went well, just like the ones with the criminal service of the police. There, Borisov was told about Bavaria’s approach in the fight against drug-smuggling and counterfeiting money. A participant in the meetings recalls: “Borisov said: ?This is what he need?.” Indeed, there were some subsequent results in the fight against organized crime in Bulgaria as well. A special unit created by Borisov [the so-called BORKOR] busts a money forging gang which had comfortably set up its headquarters on the third floor of a Plovdiv police department.

Bulgarians grew increasingly fond of Borisov. A long time earlier he had already overshadowed the Interior Minister, but he wanted more. In the 2005 elections in Sofia he ran as an independent candidate and delivered a heavy blow to candidates from established parties - nearly 70% of voters in Bulgaria's only city with more than one million inhabitants had cast a ballot for him. The Hanns-Seidel Foundation recommended him to use his popularity and set up a party without calling it this way - and that was what he did. He travelled around the country, spoke to people and united them behind himself. That was how the “Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria” movement was founded, with the acronym GERB which means "coat of arms" in Bulgarian. The Hanns-Seidel-Foundation was supportive of both the meetings called by Borisov throughout the country and GERB's later transformation into an ordinary party. Vast sections of the party's program, statute and internal rules are literal translations of the respective texts of the CSU. The translator was Antoaneta Nikolova Baycheva, Project Manager and later deputy director of the Hanns Seidel Foundation's office in Sofia. In 2009, at the first parliamentary elections in Bulgaria following its EU accession in 2007, GERB became the first political force by a landslide, while Borisov took over as Prime Minister. Antoaneta Baycheva is nowadays Consul-General of Bulgaria in Munich.

Links between GERB and the CSU are still tight, but in the refugee crisis Borissow does not follow his discoverers in Munich bur rather the German Chancellor. At least in public, he praises Angela Merkel in glowing terms and he has good reasons to do so, since Bulgaria is in a similar situation like Greece. Borisov knows: if the course of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orb?n prevails in Europe, who wants put up walls and fences, Bulgaria as a country bordering Turkey stands no chance. This is why Borissov wants to avoid confrontation with Ankara at all costs. Last week Borisov was in Istanbul for talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, whom he met in the Dolmabah?e Palace, becoming the first head of government of a EU member state to do so after the coup attempt on July 15. After the conversation Borisov said he hoped realism would win over nationalism and populism. He said his bet was on diplomacy: “Since if this conflict is not solved through diplomacy, war is inevitable."

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Tags: Boyko Borisov, FAZ, GERB, turkey, CSU, Hanns Seidel Foundation
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