Black Belts and Bulgarian Politics
by Tony Barber
After spending an hour today with Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria's prime minister, I am more convinced than ever that a political career in the Balkans is not for the faint-hearted.
Borisov is a barrel-chested former police chief and bodyguard who holds a black belt in karate. The grip of his handshake is strong enough to convey the confidence of undisputed power and to make you realise that, if it were just a little tighter, you would experience measurable pain.
Borisov is the perfect host, serving tea and coffee in his spacious but not overly-grand offices in central Sofia. He vigorously defends his centre-right government's record in maintaining Bulgaria as "an island of financial stability" in the troubled Balkan region (Greece to the south, Romania to the north, Serbia to the west). He acknowledges that corruption has not been conquered, but asks for time because Bulgaria is "a young democracy" that lived through 45 years of communism and then a turbulent two decades of transition to political pluralism and the free market.
I notice that Borisov's collection of mementoes include two books from Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier – one containing Berlusconi's personal signature. In a conversation with me earlier this morning, a Bulgarian opposition politician compared Borisov with Berlusconi, citing their common populism and non-stop determination to control their media image.
So I ask Borisov, "Do you admire Berlusconi?" He replies firmly: "No."
Then he leads me across the room to a wall where a photograph is displayed of himself in the company of Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor. "This is who I admire," he said. "Fantastic woman, doing a great job in the euro crisis."
Is he being sincere? Yes, absolutely. As the leader of the European Union's least well-off nation, but one which is trying to adhere to the same rigorous fiscal standards upheld by Germany, Borisov means what he says. Then again, he also means what he says when he tells me that Bulgaria enjoys complete freedom of expression and a fully independent judiciary.
A few minutes after saying goodbye to Borisov, I cross Sofia's main boulevard and reach the spot where Stefan Stambolov, one of his predecessors as prime minister, was chopped to death in 1895 by a pair of knife-wielding assassins. Nearby there is a large modern bust of Stambolov with a deep split in his skull to represent his horrible end.
Like I say, not for the faint-hearted.