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Smooth Operator

With his third ascent to power, an adaptable Boyko Borissov seems to embrace yet another role.

by Boyko Vassilev 18 May 2017

Easy come, easy go: global political trends rush with irresistible speed east of Berlin and south of Vienna – and then, all of a sudden, dissolve again into oblivion. Yesterday a politician proclaimed himself “the local Trump,” today there are new examples to emulate. As in fashion, trends often come from Paris. So, who will play Marine Le Pen and who Emmanuel Macron, the two presidential contenders in this month’s elections?


It would never cross your mind that the two antipodes of the French election could meet in one person. Yet there is one man to rule them all: the new-old Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.


At first sight, you can tell he is your typical, Eastern European strongman. A karate enthusiast, former bodyguard company owner, and police general, Borissov became a dominant party leader who knew how to read into the souls of Bulgarian voters. He has won 11 elections of all kinds, including a landslide in March 2017, which gave him a third mandate as prime minister, a count to beat all records. “The Boyko” combines a solid stature with a quick temper and folksy wit. He has made friends with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. And yes, he has something to say for just almost everything.


At the same time, he has been astonishingly quick to resign from official office, bending to the smallest hint of discontent. In 2013 he quit after protests inspired by inflated electricity prices, and in 2016 after his center-right party’s candidate lost the presidential elections. Both moves were justified as “obeying the democratic will of the people” – and were followed by an even mightier comeback.


Internationally, Borissov’s guiding light is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. His policy has always been in perfect tune with Brussels, up to the finest detail. His party’s acronym (GERB) stands for “Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria.” His victory in March was hailed throughout Europe as “pro-European,” and for good reason: the Socialists who had flirted with Russia came in second, while the nationalistic United Patriots ended up in third.


In other words, Bulgaria now has the Europhile Macron and the strong-handed Le Pen rolled into one. And there is more. Boyko Borissov also has them both in his government: a mix to satisfy all tastes.


GERB has namely formed a coalition with the United Patriots; two out of the prime minister’s four deputies are the Patriots’ anti-establishment leaders. However, Borissov gave crucial ministerial posts to people who resemble Macron and other urban Europhile liberals. It is fair to say that they are better represented in the government than in society.


This is a compromise easy to explain. Bulgaria has not proved immune to the nationalist/populist wave that flooded politics with the likes of Trump, Le Pen, and Boris Johnson. Historical affection for Russia and an admiration for Vladimir Putin’s muscular soft power play also a role. All of this intermingles with transition fatigue, poverty, immigration, the refugee crisis, and an assertive Turkey at the gates. It’s no surprise that Bulgarians elected another “security” figure as president in November 2016: the fighter pilot and general Roumen Radev – or that Radev was running on a left and patriotic ticket. Borissov read their minds.


Yet Bulgarians are among the greatest Europhiles in the EU. They respect the European Commission as the ultimate authority to punish their own elite. Their economy is totally dependent on European funds – and follows EU trends down to a T. Collectively, the country’s biggest investors are actually Bulgarians living abroad, in the wealthier countries of Western Europe, who support their relatives from a distance through remittances. While two thirds of the population would, emotionally, favor Russia, almost the same percentage – or an even bigger number – rationally supports the EU. Borissov also took note of this.


This is a man used to playing all sides. He listens to Merkel, but also has one-on-one talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin – and with Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In March, when Erdogan angered many in Bulgaria with what seemed like pre-election interference in internal affairs, Bulgarians didn’t choose a candidate who railed against the Turkish president, but the one who could call him on the phone. In this stormy sea, they opted for terra firma, an island of solid, stable land.


The new Bulgarian prime minister has often demonstrated his Protean nature – his astonishing ability to change. Hailed in 2009 as the Avenger against corrupt elites, he emerged in 2014 as the Unifier of a complex and delicate coalition. Now, he plays the Smooth Operator, the one who talks to everyone.


But is the Smooth Operator also the Fixer? Will his communication skills help him pursue the painful reforms Bulgaria badly needs in many fields, from the judiciary to health care? This is another, much more complex question – and indeed, the biggest long-term risk.


One thing is for sure. Bulgarians wanted security, stability, and identity under a European roof. And Boyko Borissov, with his impossible mix of Macron and Le Pen, was there to deliver.

Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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