How to Clean Up Bulgaria

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DIMITAR DILKOFF / AFP / Getty

Formidable A former cop, Borisov holds a black belt in karate

Bulgaria's Prime Minister rushes into his office more than an hour late for an interview, lights a half-smoked Cohiba cigar lying on the coffee table and says, "I have only a few minutes." His manner may be brusque, but by his own admission, Boyko Borisov does not care whom he offends. That's a useful quality in a man who says his main ambition is to uproot the widespread corruption deeply entrenched in Bulgarian life. "My biggest advantage is that I have no friends," Borisov says. "I do not do this so people will like me."

For Borisov to succeed he might need to make some powerful — even dangerous — enemies. He won a landslide victory last July largely thanks to his slogan that he was "the only solution for crime and corruption." For Bulgarians, that was a tantalizing promise. Two decades after communism collapsed across Eastern Europe, Bulgaria remains one of the region's poorest and most corrupt countries. E.U. membership since 2007 has given it free access to the world's largest economic market and the prospect of billions in E.U. funds. But graft and bribery, commonplace during the communist era, has soared. As in other former Soviet satellites, party officials, military officers and security agents snapped up state-run factories and companies for token sums and handshakes. While some of the new rich built legitimate businesses, others created criminal networks that protected market share by force — there have been 191 contract killings in Bulgaria since 1992. Today, government officials say, it is sometimes difficult to tell the two groups apart.

Left to untangle this mess is the man Bulgarians call "Batman." The nickname dates to Borisov's years as mayor of Sofia from 2005 to 2009, when he would regularly appear at crime scenes in the capital, a tall, powerfully built figure dressed in his trademark black clothing. Now 50, Borisov carved out his image as a blunt law-and-order man. An ex-cop, he used his law-enforcement and political contacts to build a successful private-security company during the tumultuous transition in the 1990s. In 2006, with Bulgarians having grown weary of years of scandals surrounding the ruling Socialist Party, Borisov created a new party called Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, or GERB. He traveled to towns and villages across the country, persuading people to back him, steadily building a mass movement. By the time his campaign for Prime Minister kicked off last year, he was the most popular politician Bulgaria had seen in years. "He plays the role of an outsider very effectively," says Ognian Schentov, chairman of the Center for the Study of Democracy. "The election was a tectonic, Obama-like wave."

Much like Obama, however, Borisov is now burdened with his supporters' sky-high hopes. He launched a full-throttle crackdown on graft within days of taking office last July, instructing officials to probe all government ministries and officials. Many customs directors and 80% of the regional police directors were fired on suspicion of corruption. Last October officials began investigating several top judges and magistrates for allegedly having paid bribes to secure their jobs, using a businessman as an intermediary. Although none have been charged with wrongdoing, 14 officials have so far resigned in the scandal.

Cleaning Bulgaria's Augean stables is vital to freeing up E.U. funds that the country needs to build a modern economy. In 2008, E.U. officials froze about $674 million in funds to restructure Bulgaria's public institutions and agriculture — a huge blow for a country whose 2009 public budget was about $297 million. Meanwhile, other E.U. funds have vanished into Bulgaria's corrupt vortex. On April 30, when the government reported to Brussels how it had spent last year's E.U. agricultural subsidies, researchers discovered that about $889,000 had been given to the 27-year-old daughter of a former deputy agriculture minister who was in charge of distributing the handouts. Now officials in Brussels are waiting to see if Borisov can jail Bulgaria's criminals — something his predecessors did not accomplish. "We have heard for many, many years from successive governments about reforms," says Mark Gray, European Commission spokesman in Brussels. "We want to see arrests turned into prosecutions and sentences."

A crucial test of Borisov's cleanup campaign is playing out in the provincial capital of Kyustendil, an hour's drive southwest of the capital Sofia. In a wood-paneled courtroom, one of the area's wealthiest businessmen, Plamen Galev, and four associates are on trial for extortion and threats, having for years run what prosecutors claim was a thriving racketeering enterprise. Tall with close-cropped hair, Galev, 43, is no ordinary suspect: until recently he served as key adviser to the mayor of nearby Dupnitsa, a pretty municipality of some 50,000 people nestled in the foothills of Bulgaria's highest mountain. Bulgaria's trade registry lists about 11 engineering, trucking, consulting, waste-collection and gambling companies under Galev's name, including some registered in Cyprus and the Seychelles. The trial's testimony, however, revolves around far grittier business dealings. The day TIME visited the trial last October, a manager of a taxicab company in Dupnitsa, Plamen Milanov, told the judge that Galev had demanded monthly payments of about $1,500 to avoid vandalism and theft of his fleet of 100 cars. When the judge asked why he had not gone to the police, he said, "We knew not to talk." Galev, who denies the charges, refused to talk to TIME, on the advice of his lawyer, Emil Velinov. Velinov said he would not discuss his defense arguments, "because then I will have no chance to fight in court."

Galev, of course, is still innocent under law, and the trial could last for several months more. Yet some of those testifying against him believe they might be at risk of retaliation by his associates, even if the defendants are acquitted. "I am very scared," Milanov told me during a break in the proceedings. "My wife and I only go out to crowded places, and we check the wheels and brakes before starting the car."

Other witnesses are scared too. Lidiya Pavlova, a Dupnitsa journalist known for her hard-hitting reporting on corruption for her regional newspaper, Struma, told TIME last October that she feared being attacked for having testified against Galev in a separate trial, in which he and his public relations manager are charged with verbally threatening her. "There is no place to hide in Bulgaria," she says. In late January the tires of her car were slashed — an action that Pavlova believes was a warning sign for her to stop her reporting — prompting a regional media organization in Vienna to appeal to Borisov to protect her.

Corruption experts say that Bulgaria urgently needs protection for whistle-blowers if Borisov is to stamp out rampant corruption. Last November, a survey by the corruption-rating organization Transparency International found that 82% of Bulgarians were "reluctant to report corruption-related cases" because they feared being targeted. The report says that since Bulgarians still have fresh memories of the old communist dictatorship, "the whistle-blower is all too often seen as a traitor or as being like a police informer."

Even if Borisov can persuade more people to help him fight corruption, he faces daunting challenges in jailing its perpetrators. Unlike the hero in the comic book, this Batman can't single-handedly overcome some crucial problems in Bulgaria. His biggest hurdle is the country's judicial system, whose magistrates and judges are not elected or appointed by the government but have secured their jobs in a haphazard hiring process and often keep them for life. Several people interviewed by TIME cited widespread corruption within the judiciary as Borisov's chief obstacle to his anticorruption campaign.

Borisov knows that Bulgarians are as impatient to see results as E.U. officials are. Trials like Galev's "are a test," he tells TIME. "I hope our judicial system can do its job." Until the criminals are jailed, however, "I will do what I have to do, and do my best." Bulgarians hope his best will be better than the government they have had until now.