IN 2021 BULGARIANS voted in three general elections and a presidential one. They ended 12 years of domination by Boyko Borisov, a bull-necked former bodyguard whose period in power saw incomes rise, the population fall and lurid tales of corruption proliferate. But it was only this week that a new coalition government finally took the reins of power. Make way for “the Harvards”, the political pairing now performing a double act.
Kiril Petkov, aged 41, and Assen Vassilev, aged 44, are the new prime minister and finance minister respectively, having earlier this year served in the country’s interim government. Both studied at Harvard Business School. Both became successful entrepreneurs after returning home. But that is not the only reason they are dubbed “the Harvards”. In 2008 they together opened a centre in Sofia affiliated to the school, offering courses on economic strategy and competitiveness. Many of their graduates are either already MPs for the new government or will fan out to run bits of the administration.
In September the pair created a party called We Continue the Change, echoing what they had started as interim ministers. In the most recent election, on November 14th, it came first, winning almost 26% of the vote; it has taken them a good month to put a coalition together.
Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU, but the Harvard duo say it shouldn’t be. “Bulgaria is not a poor country,” says Mr Vassilev. It has simply been “brutally plundered”. Mr Petkov says they became frustrated because, according to the economic models they were teaching, all of Bulgaria’s advantages (location, EU membership, a decent education system) should have made it “an amazing growth success story”. Instead, it has stagnated thanks to corruption and bad management. Mr Petkov says they hoped that a new leader would emerge whom they could advise as experts. When that did not happen, they decided, “ OK, let’s do it!”—on their own.
When he was 13, Mr Petkov’s parents emigrated to Canada. He earned a degree in finance and landed a job working for a Canadian food giant, McCain. But his sights were set on bigger things than oven chips. In 2005 he wrote in his application to Harvard that he wanted to be finance minister of Bulgaria. On graduating he raised money for a retail park outside Sofia, then invested first in equipment for clearing birds off runways and next in probiotics.
Mr Petkov and Mr Vassilev were not widely known in Bulgaria until recently, but they are not political novices. Mr Vassilev was briefly minister for the economy in 2013. Mr Petkov has long been a champion of green causes and hit the news in 2018 when he flew to Nepal on a mission to find a missing Bulgarian mountaineer.
Ognyan Georgiev, editor of “Kapital Insights”, an online business publication, says the duo remind him of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s partnership in Britain during the 1990s. He says Mr Petkov is “energetic, outspoken, optimistic and wildly charismatic and wants to be the face of the whole thing”, whereas Mr Vassilev is the reserved, cerebral half of the duo.
Vessela Tcherneva of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, warns that the pair must act fast to achieve results, especially with their anti-corruption agenda, because the popularity that has come with being new and upbeat can quickly evaporate. The pair need to secure a prompt and impressive corruption conviction, she says, and that is easier said than done. The chief prosecutor, whom the incoming government cannot legally remove, is a man of the ancien régime. Indeed, all Bulgaria’s institutions and much of its media are run by people loyal to Mr Borisov and his allies. The Borisov team may be out, but they are far from gone.
Other EU members, meanwhile, want Bulgaria to lift its veto on the initiation of talks on membership with North Macedonia—part of a row over language and historical identity. Mr Petkov says he has a plan for that, but that it will take time. His first concern, he says, is to put an end to a shabby understanding whereby the EU turned a blind eye to Bulgaria’s corruption so long as Bulgaria did not become a troublemaker like Hungary. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Here come the Harvards”