Through pandemic and protests, Bulgaria's Borisov hangs on

Diana SIMEONOVA
·4-min read

When Bulgarians took to the streets last summer demanding the resignation of conservative Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, analysts thought that after almost a decade in the job his time was up.

In sweeping and at times violent protests that lasted months, thousands came out to accuse the embattled 61-year-old former firefighter of protecting oligarchs and meddling in the judiciary.

Added to that was a slew of other troubles: there was a rift in Borisov's GERB party after his right-hand man left over a corruption scandal and an exiled gambling mogul claimed that Borisov's government had solicited bribes from him.

To cap it all, embarrassing pictures emerged of the prime minister asleep with a handgun on his nightstand, and others -- which Borisov said were doctored -- purported to show bundles of 500-euro notes crammed into his bedside table.

But after initially suggesting he wouldn't run in upcoming general elections on April 4, Borisov has remained at the helm of his conservative GERB party and simply sat tight through the crises.

The strategy seems to have paid off, with GERB on track to emerge as the single biggest party.

And after almost 10 years in the job, Borisov is now just weeks away from becoming Bulgaria's longest serving prime minister.

"If we had gone to early elections, there would have been a common front against GERB and Borisov would have been swept away," Gallup international analyst Parvan Simeonov commented recently.

"But now the protests are largely forgotten," he says.

Analyst Evgeny Daynov explains that with the failure of the protest movement to cohere, several small factions are now vying for demonstrators' votes.

The coronavirus pandemic also came to Borisov's rescue, keeping many Bulgarians away from the protests for fear of infection.

The virus may also help Borisov's government more directly.

"If (infection rates) are higher, turnout will be low, hitting mainly the opposition; if rates are lower, then those in power will say: 'See, we defeated the coronavirus'," Simeonov told AFP.

- 'First populist' -

Borisov reacted to protests and the ensuing drop in his traditionally high approval ratings by ceasing to come to parliament or give press conferences, retreating instead to his social media comfort zone.

There he could still be seen on his daily trips driving an SUV around the countryside, shaking hands with road builders, factory owners and villagers, who applauded him and shouted his name.

"He is not only the first populist, in power long before Orban and Trump," says Daynov, referring to Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and former US president Donald Trump.

"But he is also the most authentic populist, as he came closest to being perceived by ordinary people as their representative," he added.

Borisov has always stressed his humble background and Daynov says his SUV broadcasts are an attempt to both emulate Russian strongman President Vladimir Putin and also "play Todor Zhivkov" -- Bulgaria's last communist dictator.

Borisov was a bodyguard to Zhivkov, who also cultivated a "man of the people" image, shaking hands with rural labourers in newsreels.

"These tricks do not increase support for Borisov anymore but they do help contain the losses", according to Daynov.

- Balancing act -

In a bid to win more votes, the premier has turned on the spending taps over the past year, offering bonuses to doctors and pensioners and funding construction projects across the country.

Borisov recently boasted to his social media followers that Bulgaria had negotiated a sum of 29 billion euros ($34 billion) in the next EU budget, the highest sum it has received from the bloc since joining in 2007.

But Daynov says this largesse will only go so far, particularly when it comes to businessmen who have developed a cosy relationship with the government and who may be eyeing access to EU funds.

"They are not certain about their prospects because they have seen in recent years how many favourites have turned into black devils," he says, referring to several prominent businessmen who fell out with Borisov and are now being prosecuted for various crimes.

Foreign policy has also been a delicate balancing act.

For years, Borisov has managed to plot a course maintaining Bulgaria's traditional close ties with Russia, while remaining a loyal member of NATO and the EU.

His administration's failure to curb corruption and reform the judiciary seem to have gone unnoticed in Brussels.

Several critical statements by top US diplomats have, however, signalled that pressure on Borisov was rising ahead of the election.

Sofia particularly angered the US when it decided to build an extension of the Russian TurkStream pipeline, flying in the face of US efforts to limit Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas.

Last week's dramatic uncovering of an alleged Russia-linked military spy ring was seen by some as an attempt to placate Washington.

Bulgaria expelled two Russian diplomats over the affair but Borisov nevertheless pledged to have an "open and mutually beneficial dialogue with Russia" as he welcomed the new Russian ambassador the very next day.

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