Weary Bulgarians hope ex-bodyguard can clear graft Reuters - 2009/6/29
SOFIA (Reuters) - Ever since communism collapsed 20 years ago, Bulgarians have been waiting for a savior to rid the country of its plagues: corruption, nepotism and impunity for the powerful of the day.
The return of ex-king Simeon Saxe-Coburg as prime minister between 2001 and 2005 -- the only living person to have borne the title Czar who spent most of his life in exile -- failed to inspire deep change in a society steeped in nihilism and disillusionment.
Joining the European Union in 2007 has also failed to strengthen the rule of law. Nostalgia for the communist past is growing and a survey by Gallup rated Bulgaria among the world's most pessimistic nations along with Zimbabwe, Haiti and Egypt.
Days before the July 5 parliamentary election, hopes are now pinned on a bodyguard-turned-politician with cropped hair, a karate black belt and the epaulettes of a general.
Boiko Borisov, Sofia's straight-talking mayor, has shot to fame on promises to clean up the Balkan country's image and put corrupt officials and crime bosses behind bars. His center-right GERB party is set to win most votes, opinion polls show.
"I'll vote one last time and give Borisov a chance," said Sofia resident Valentina Borisova, 32. "If he fails too, then there is no hope left for Bulgaria. I'll give up."
The question on everyone's mind is whether Borisov -- an ex- bodyguard to late Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and former king Simeon -- is capable and determined enough to confront corruption and the underworld.
The rhetoric of the burly 50-year-old so far suggests he is aware of the risks if Sofia fails to produce results.
"The political class has become so cynical and arrogant," Borisov told Reuters in a March interview, sitting at a table near a photo of himself with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "That is why the European Union is disgusted with us."
BAD IMAGE, BIG RISKS
One sign of the challenges involved is the fact suspected criminals have registered to run for parliament to obtain release from custody, and temporary immunity from prosecution. The president has called on Bulgarians not to vote for them.
Resentment at home and abroad has reached such proportions that only a root-and-branch overhaul to make magistrates, politicians and crime bosses accountable can repair the damage.
Bulgaria is the black sheep of the European Union: Brussels froze millions in aid last year over fraud, and Transparency International rates it the most corrupt EU nation.
"Bulgaria's reputation has suffered so much that only radical measures can clean it up," said Tihomiz Bezlov of Sofia's anti-corruption Center for the Study of Democracy.
For the majority of the 7.6 million population, opinion polls show corruption remains the biggest problem facing the country, topping the economic crisis and recession.
Another failure to reform the judiciary and address fraud threatens access to the 11 billion euros Bulgaria has been promised in EU aid, and could turn membership into an economic handicap. Sofia's annual contribution to the EU budget could exceed its receipts, analysts say.
Isolation, criminalization of entire sectors of the economy and a boost for far-right parties preaching euro-skepticism could follow, analysts say.
Local media say countries including the Netherlands have already begun pressing Brussels for more sanctions against Bulgaria as well as neighboring Romania, which also joined in 2007. Bucharest has suffered no EU aid freeze so far despite failures to address rampant corruption effectively.
Borisov's track record shows he is a man of action who can be uncompromising. He personally headed raids against drug traffickers and criminals when he was the interior ministry's chief secretary, and received the rank of general in the previous government. As mayor, he has fired numerous officials from city contractors and agencies and prosecuted them on suspicion of fraud.
Ordinary people like him because they say he is the only one at the top who does something and is not afraid to confront anyone. Always accompanied by his bodyguards, he has won hearts with his down-to-earth, often coarse language.
Analysts say high expectations will force a government headed by GERB to be tough. The ruling Socialist-led coalition is widely accused of incompetence and lacks the political will to sever links between politicians, judges and crime bosses.
"Given the economic situation and the existence of strong anti-elite moods in the society, the probability of making ministers from the current government accountable is more real than ever," wrote Ivan Krastev of the Institute for Liberal Strategies.
To regain the trust of Brussels, Sofia will have to show that crime bosses are also held accountable.
"Surely, not all corrupt people will get caught but if three or four oligarchs, as the people call them, get sent to jail then the others would get scared. Now we see impunity reigning," said Etienne de Poncins, France's Ambassador to Sofia.
NEW FACES, SHORT OF IDEAS
But privately, some EU diplomats express skepticism about Borisov's resolve for deep change because of alleged past links with Bulgaria's underworld. He was a fire-fighter before founding a private security firm which guarded many dignitaries in the 1990s.
Borisov reacts with outrage to such allegations, rejecting them as propaganda.
To prove GERB is different from the existing political establishment, he has attracted some new faces, including Western-educated economists and lawyers, to join the party.
But critics say the party has so far failed to produce concrete ideas about how to reform the judiciary.
The depth of change will depend to a large extent on whether GERB is forced into a broad coalition. A European Parliament election on June 7 suggested this was likely after GERB got 24.4 percent of votes, against 18.5 percent for the Socialists. A coalition could lead to compromises.
The worsening economic situation and falling budget revenues will also test GERB's determination to tackle graft.
But unlike in 2001, when many hoped ex-king Simeon could fix everything overnight, people no longer expect a miracle. Simeon became Czar in 1943 aged six, but ruled for just three years before the communist regime abolished the monarchy and sent the royals into exile.
"We will see some long-delayed reforms but not radical change," said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic ahead of elections.
"I believe Bulgaria will end up like Italy in five to 10 years -- corruption will be endemic and the economy will be charging along."
Author: Anna Mudeva