Situated at opposite ends of Europe, Sofia and London have mayors who share more than a name
With Bulgaria as a new EU member, Sofia supposedly joins the list of Europe's most significant capital cities, alongside London. Incidentally, London's new mayor, Boris Johnson, shares his moniker with the incumbent Sofia mayor, Boyko Borisov. Despite having a name connection, how deep do other similarities between the mayor of the East and the mayor of the West run?
Upbringing and education
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, born 19 June 1964, is the eldest of four children that claim a melting-pot ancestry, including Muslim, Jewish and Christian. He was born in New York, severely deaf, but after a series of operations back in the UK, gained adequate hearing and went on to be educated at the European School in Brussels. Then he read classics at Balliol College, Oxford. Boyko Borisov was born on 13 June 1959 in the well-to-do suburb of Bankya, mere kilometres from the capital he would one day manage. His father, Metodi, was a unit head in the Sofia Fire Department and his mother, Veneta, was a school teacher. Borisov graduated at the Higher Specialised School at the Interior Ministry with an engineering degree in firefighting techniques and safety.
Boyko Borisov was born on 13 June 1959 in the well-to-do suburb of Bankya, mere kilometres from the capital he would one day manage. His father, Metodi, was a unit head in the Sofia Fire Department and his mother, Veneta, was a school teacher. Borisov graduated at the Higher Specialised School at the Interior Ministry with an engineering degree in firefighting techniques and safety.
Johnson followed in the footsteps of his great-grandfather Ali Kemal Bey, a liberal Turkish journalist, and became a trainee reporter for The Times. In his first year, however, he was sacked for making up a quote from his godfather, Colin Lucas, a former vice-chancellor of Oxford University. Nonetheless, he continued to strive in his journalistic career as a writer for the Wolverhampton Express & Star, then The Daily Telegraph as a feature writer, and later as European Community correspondent and assistant editor. In 1999–2005 he was editor for The Spectator, but left when he was appointed shadow minister for higher education. His political career only really started in 2001, when he succeeded Michael Heseltine as MP for Henley-on-Thames, and quickly moved up to be vice chairman of the Conservative Party. In July 2007 he declared he was a candidate for the 2008 London mayoral election. Long-term honcho Ken Livingstone was knocked off his London throne a few minutes before midnight on 2 May 2008, and Johnson took his place, after congratulating him as a "very considerable public servant."
Boyko Borisov, on the other hand, has always stuck to the civil servant field. After his graduation in 1982, he enrolled in Sofia's police force as a platoon commander, and was soon promoted to unit commander. In addition, he taught at the Interior Ministry Higher Institute for Preparation of Officers and Scientific Research up to 1990, whilst simultaneously mastering and later teaching the art of karate. When he left the institute, with the rank of major, he set up what is now one of the largest security agencies in Bulgaria – Ipon-1 – where he became a personal bodyguard to none other than Simeon Saxe-Coburg. On 19 January 2002 he was promoted to general and became the Interior Ministry's chief secretary. He entered the mayoral election for Sofia in October 2005 and went on to defeat BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, candidate Tatyana Doncheva. Shortly after, he established the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, or GERB, which was registered as a political party in 2006.
Johnson's personal life has been followed by the UK press with great zeal, due to several allegations of adultery. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why his first marriage, in 1987, to Allegra Mostyn-Owen, failed within a year. His second, and some may say long-suffering, wife is Marina Wheeler, a barrister. The Wheeler and Johnson families have known each other for decades, and Johnson even attended school in Brussels at the same time as his future wife. They currently live together in Highbury, North London, with their children, Theodore Apollo, Milo Arthur, Lara Lettice and Cassia Peaches.
Borisov also split with his first wife, Stela, with whom he has a daughter, Veneta, who currently does studies in Los Angeles. He left her to be with his long-term partner, Tsvetelina Borislavova, the SI Bank board chairwoman, which is convenient: Shortly after the split, Stela emigrated to the United States with Tsvetelina's ex-husband.
Johnson is famed for his unkempt, bright blonde hair and the fact that his preferred mode of transportation around the city he governs is bicycle, despite being victim to several bike thefts.
Borisov has the look and poise of an action movie hero, complete with jeans, black T-shirts and a leather jacket. He braves the risks of Sofia congestion in his Subaru B9 Tribeca.
Johnson's no stranger to media furore, owing to his outspokenness and unique sense of humour. However, there are some incidents he'd rather forget. For example, despite referring to initial allegations of extramarital affairs as "an inverted pyramid of piffle," Johnson was fired from his post as vice chairman of the Conservative Party for lying about his four-year soiree with Petronella Wyatt, former deputy editor of The Spectator.
More often than not, it's the verbal faux pas that cause Boris the most problems. In 2007 he was called upon by MPs from Portsmouth to step down from his post, after he called the city "one of the most depressed towns in southern England, a place that is arguably too full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs." His big mouth also lead to allegations of racism, after comments in articles such as "it is said the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies" (a derogative term for black children), although he has argued that these quotes were taken massively out of context. Most recently, he was investigated for theft in 2008, when the police randomly decided to dredge up an admission in one of Johnson's 2003 Daily Telegraph articles. In the piece he confessed that he took a cigar case from the rubble of the home of Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam Husayn's associates, but would return it to the owner upon request. He later said the investigation was a "monumental waste of time."
However, the mainline media darling Borisov has come under critique too. The US publication Congressional Quarterly was quick to cite Bulgaria's favourite politician as "a business partner and former associate of some of the biggest mobsters in Bulgaria," at least according to their "source" – a secret dossier compiled by former top US law enforcement officials. "Since Boyko Borissov was appointed chief secretary of the Interior Ministry in 2001 . . . there have been a large number of assassinations and mob-style killings of persons identified with criminal groupings in Bulgaria," the report said. Borisov was quick to dismiss the accusations as "100 percent lies," although it is true that he was an associate of the former SIK, a group considered part of Bulgaria's mafia. Compared with this, other disparagements of poor resolution of Sofia's rubbish or stray dog problem do not seem that bad.
The public has always looked fondly on the slightly quirky, dishevelled-looking and gaffe-prone Johnson. He is a particular favourite with satirists, such as Private Eye, and isn't afraid to self-deprecate in the name of humour, as seen on popular UK TV shows Top Gear, Have I Got News For You (The host later said his appearances gave him a "cult following."), The Dame Edna Treatment (He rode in on his trademark bicycle.), and Room 101, where he declared his refusal to eat eggs from the age of 6 months was his "first major policy decision." This fondness stops where the borders to Liverpool start, however. The city found it hard to forgive him after The Spectator ran an article in 2004 – referring to Liverpudlian Kenneth Bigley, who had recently been executed by the Taliban – which said Liverpool was wallowing in a "vicarious victimhood" and that its population has a "deeply unattractive psyche."
In turn, the general public fawn over the calm and collected Boyko. They look up to him as a kind of superhero who personally fills pot holes in the road and is ready and willing to "take the reins" of not just Sofia, but Bulgaria as a whole, and give them to the public. His nicknames include "BB," "Batman" and "Bate Boyko," or Big Brother Boyko. Borisov was even nominated as a candidate for the 2006 World Mayor Award.
"If you vote for the Conservatives, your wife will get bigger breasts, and your chances of driving a BMW M3 will increase" promised Johnson during a 2004 campaign trail.
"Who hooted at me?" Johnson's puzzled response to inadvertently pressing the horn with his elbow whilst driving a Suzuki Liana on Top Gear.
"What is going on in these mosques and madrasas? When is someone going to get 18th Century on Islam's mediaeval ass?" Johnson's response to London's July 7 bombings in his The Spectator column.
"If gay marriage was OK – and I was uncertain on the issue – then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men, or indeed three men and a dog." – an excerpt from Johnson's book, Friends, Voters and Countrymen.
"They are killing each other off because they're not in jail. And they're not in jail because when we (the police) catch them, they (the courts) let them go" is Borisov's most famous quote, later parodied to refer to the stray dog problem.
"Parvanov won the elections and I congratulate him. Only I can speak about Parvanov. You are not to talk about Parvanov any longer. Right?" Borisov speaking in gallant defence of former BSP leader and current president, Georgi Parvanov.
"Does the mayor eat small children for breakfast?" commented Borisov, somewhat absurdly, during a GERB conference.
"It was easier for General Gurko – the Russian general whose army liberated Sofia in 1878 – to cross the Balkan Mountains than it is for me to reach Sofia" grumbled Borisov when attempting to travel to work in the snow in early January 2008.
"Ring the church bells and don't breathe!" warned Borisov after the Chelopechene blasts in July.
Still fresh in the shoes of Ken Livingstone, Johnson has instigated a few changes, such as the Forensic Audit Panel to monitor financial mismanagement at the London Development Agency and the Greater London Authority, and a ban on drinking alcohol on public transport. For the future, he promises to encourage 24-hour policing, boost home ownership, reform the congestion charge and encourage newcomers to learn English. Oh, and tackle the knife crime issue.
Despite his own protests to the contrary, it is largely thought that Boyko Borisov intends to be Bulgaria's new prime minister under his GERB party. Whether or not that's his aim, the party still promises to fight crime and corruption, preserve the family as the cornerstone of society and achieve energy independence.