On a February morning, a few dozen foreign journalists, including fDi, piled into an auditorium in Sofia’s city hall for a press conference with mayor Boyko Borissov. If any felt a bit sleepy, they were soon to be jolted awake by the shocking, yet refreshing, candour of the city leader.
After a talk by Sofia’s chief architect about urban planning, the mayor bursts into the room. Easily mistaken for the security detail rather than the mayor himself, Mr Borissov dresses in black and has an aggressive stare that belies his background as a former fireman, policeman, karate coach and Interior Ministry official. He cuts an imposing figure.
He is a very popular figure, though. According to a March poll by the National Centre for Public Opinion Surveys, he is the most popular politician in the country, with 67% of votes. President Georgi Purvanov ranked second, Focus news agency reported.
As soon as Mr Borissov starts to speak at the press conference, the translator looks sorry that she has to repeat his statements – someone forgot to tell him that the point of the meeting was to promote Bulgaria as an investment destination. When asked about the problem of brain drain – young Bulgarians leaving to find work in western Europe – he blurts out that he cannot blame them for seeking opportunities elsewhere “because Bulgaria is still a communist state”.
There is no decentralised local authority, he says, and the national government is populated by spin-offs from the former communist party. “I don’t think anything good will happen in Bulgaria under this government,” he says bluntly. “Our way of living in the world is very much influenced by our communist past, which was that we would all be equally poor and the state is obliged to take care of us. People who are living abroad take the opposite view of life,” he says.
Proud of emigrants
“I am always proud when I see Bulgarians in London, Madrid, etc, and see they are people exceptionally prepared to contribute to the future of the country… Someday they will return and will lay the foundation of change in Bulgaria,” Mr Borissov says.
The mayor says he has been working hard to combat corruption in Sofia and “will not leave any [act of corruption] unpunished”. A Sofia master plan, approved last year and pushed by the mayor, has brought some order to the chaos of city planning and, according to Mr Borissov, has cut corruption.
“To not have a master plan is the easiest way for special interests to kick in and take advantage of the situation, which is what was happening,” he says. This is a start; true reform, he adds, must happen in the national legal system. “We are not really reformed because the criminal justice system is related to the ruling parties.”
The mayor proposes having 15 judges from the EU to oversee the legal system instead.
Unsurprisingly, he pulls no punches with the reporters who were daring enough to pose questions to him. To a German journalist, who questions his efforts to combat local corruption, Mr Borissov snaps: “There is corruption in all countries in the EU – and don’t sit there like you’re a saint because you’re not.” Many of the worst incidences of graft in Bulgaria, he says, have involved Germans and other western Europeans.
As he gets up to go, an Irish journalist speaks out to thank him for his time and to “console” him, somewhat patronisingly, with the knowledge that Rome was not built in a day. The mayor has a priceless retort: “You are too lucky – you have not got communists in Ireland.” He fires one last parting shot before exiting: “And the communists would have a very different opinion of Rome as well.”