Page last updated at 10:32 GMT, Saturday, 25 July 2009 11:32 UK

Meeting Bulgaria's new Mr Big

In Sofia, Nick Higham meets former bodyguard and newly-elected Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, the man many Bulgarians are counting on to rid the country of corruption.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov
Borisov's nickname in Sofia is Batman because of his energy and drive

Boiko Borisov is an intimidating man.

He has the shaved head, thick neck and massive shoulders of a wrestler, which is what he was, long ago.

He was also a fireman, karate coach, bodyguard and top policeman.

Today he is a highly successful politician.

On the day we interviewed him he had just accepted an invitation to become Bulgaria's next prime minister in a brief ceremony at the country's Communist-era presidential palace - all marble pillars, grandiose staircases and chandeliers the size of trees - but we met in his office at Sofia's scruffy City Hall.

We waited in the ante-room with other supplicants - the man in charge of building the city's metro, a senior Spanish policeman - while a succession of political henchmen came and went through the door to the main office.

Fighting organised crime

When we finally got inside, Borisov rebuffed my attempts at political small talk with a curt "stop chatting and get on with it".

He made me distinctly nervous and he had an even more unsettling effect on my Bulgarian producer and translator, who told me she was physically sick after the interview.

This formidable physical presence no doubt served him well when, in the early 1990s, he offered his services as bodyguard to the deposed communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov.

A file photo of Todor Zhivkov and Boiko Borisov
Todor Zhivkov was the longest-serving leader in the former Soviet bloc

A decade later he did the same for Bulgaria's former king, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who returned from nearly half a century of exile to run for parliament and become prime minister. Borisov so impressed the king that he gave him a government job.

For our interview Borisov sat in an armchair in front of a cascade of silver cups, trophies and medals from his days as a sportsman.

When we were finished, he insisted on showing me the photos on his walls. There were pictures of him with top cops from Britain, the US and Europe and framed testimonials from the likes of the FBI and Europol, praising his efforts in the fight against organised crime. At the time, General Borisov was the chief secretary at the interior ministry and Bulgaria's most senior policeman.

This was not idle boasting. The testimonials are evidence that he really is serious when he promises to clean up his country.

He was prepared, he said, to do whatever it took.

Bulgaria's politicians are notorious for being on the take, but he told me he was not prepared to shield anyone, even a minister or deputy minister, who engaged in corruption.

"We need 100% trust from Brussels," he said.

"We're going to do everything Brussels asks of us. For a country as poor as Bulgaria, it's vital to get the money from Brussels flowing again."

Cash for licences

Bulgarian corruption takes many forms.

At one extreme there are the mobsters, known as "mutri" or "thick-necks", many of them ex-wrestlers, who made their fortunes in the post-Communist anarchy of the early 1990s, running protection rackets thinly disguised as security firms or insurance companies.

His political opponents sometimes accuse Boiko Borisov of being one of them, though one Bulgarian political analyst told me no-one had ever produced any evidence to show that he was.

Bulgarians have turned to Boiko Borisov to get them out of this mess

At the other extreme is the day-to-day corruption involving underpaid public officials.

Health workers who agree to speed up treatment or traffic policemen who turn a blind eye to speeding in return for cash.

In between comes cronyism, influence-peddling, embezzlement, fraud, rigged tenders for public contracts, and outright bribery.

I met an investigative television journalist who told me of a case he had recently looked into, in which a driving instructor and an examiner had taken a bribe to give a licence to a man who had never even driven a car. The price: 300 leva (around £130/$80).

Bulgarians have turned to Boiko Borisov to get them out of this mess.

In the recent general election around 40% of voters backed his political party, known as Gerb, which has adapted one of Barack Obama's slogans. Its glossy television adverts end with Borisov himself, speaking straight to camera: "Let's show them Bulgaria can," he says.

Waiting game

After our interview, we filmed the prime minister visiting a rebuilt school.

Former Bulgarian King Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha
Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was Prime Minister from 2001 to 2005

Amid a mob of cameramen he patted children's heads, chatted up their mothers, embraced their grandmothers.

There is no doubt he is popular, but so was a previous prime minister, the king.

Simeon successfully steered Bulgaria towards accession to the European Union, but he could not get rid of corruption, despite General Borisov's best efforts.

In the most recent election the king's party was wiped out, and Simeon himself resigned as its leader.

Bulgarians now wait to see whether Boiko Borisov's career goes the same way or whether, as he promises, he really can fix Bulgaria's problems.

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SEE ALSO
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