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Bulgaria: Who is Vassil Terziev, Sofia's new mayor?

Vassil Terziev won Sunday's mayoral election in Sofia, Bulgaria

Vassil Terziev won Sunday's mayoral election in Sofia, Bulgaria

Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, has a new mayor. Vassil Terziev is successful, modern and pro-European.

He has promised to transform the city and tackle the problems that have been plaguing it for years, such as poor air quality, corruption and stagnating public projects.

His critics highlight his lack of experience in both politics and urban planning. But such criticism is like water off a duck's back: Terziev is convinced that his background as an entrepreneur and investor will help him do a better job than his predecessor, Yordanka Fandakova, who was mayor of Sofia for 14 years.

But what motivated the 45-year-old, whose IT company, Telerik, was sold for the record sum of $262.5 million (€245.2 million) in 2014, to move into politics?

"I firmly believe that successful people should give something back to society," he said in his first TV interview as mayoral candidate in June 2023. After winning the election in Sofia on Sunday with 48.2% of the vote, he now has the opportunity to do just that.

Terziev's controversial family history

Terziev was born in Sofia in 1978. His grandfather and both his parents worked in the Bulgarian secret service during the communist era — a fact that quickly became a focal point of the election campaign after Terziev announced his candidacy.

His family's communist past was particularly relevant because the alliance that nominated him included a range of pro-democratic, pro-European parties and organizations such as the We Continue the Change (PP) party of former PM Kiril Petkov, Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and Save Sofia.

Divisions in Bulgarian society

One of the electoral pledges of Save Sofia was to dismantle the Monument to the Soviet Army in the capital. The monument, which was erected in 1954, has been a bone of contention in Sofia since the collapse of the communist regime in 1989.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, however, it has also become a symbol of the divisions within Bulgarian society, which were apparent throughout the election campaign.

'The voice of the Kremlin'

Vanya Grigorova was the other candidate in the election run-off on November 5. The prominent trade unionist pledged to exclude private companies from the provision of local services such as water and public lighting if she won.

Her refusal to condemn Russia's war on Ukraine and her passionate calls for a restoration of Russian gas supplies to Bulgaria led her critics to call her "the voice of the Kremlin."

She was also the voice of those Bulgarians who sympathize with Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which — according to opinion polls — is about a quarter of the population.

Backed by pro-Russian parties

Grigorova was backed by a range of pro-Russian parties and is considered a close ally of President Rumen Radev, who is fiercely opposed to Bulgarian military aid for Ukraine.

"We cannot allow Putin to conquer our capital," said former President Rosen Plevneliev just two days before the poll.

The race between Terziev and Grigorova was unexpectedly close. In the end, she got 46.9% of the vote, finishing just 1.3 percentage points behind Terziev.

Terziev's focus on the future

Terziev's critics say that the son of a member of the communist apparatus cannot be a real pro-European alternative. Terziev disagrees, arguing that the time has come to look to the future.

"The more we look to the past and find opportunities for division, the more our focus shifts away from the way things should be," he told DW in August. "At a recent meeting with citizens, I said that whether Communist or anti-Communist, we all breathe the same air, drive on the same poor roads and suffer from the same problems."

He also stressed that his success had nothing to do with his family's networks. "With me, there is none of what people see as privilege. My academic success was entirely my own. We built up our business with money from clients," Terziev told DW.

Successful tech entrepreneur

Terziev's successes are certainly considerable. He and three friends founded the IT company Telerik in 2002. Twelve years later, they sold it for $262.5 million to the American company Progress Software — a record for the Bulgarian tech sector at the time.

Since then, Terziev and his partners have founded the Telerik Academy, which trains software and IT experts. Terziev himself has invested in over 100 Bulgarian start-ups.

Millionaire now in charge of billion-euro budget

The challenges he faces as mayor of Sofia are no less considerable: He now assumes responsibility for a city with a budget of over 2.5 billion leva (€1.28 billion/$1.37 billion) and a long list of knotty problems ranging from inadequate public transport and poor air quality to a lack of vision for urban development in the city.

"My dream is to have the longest pedestrian zone in Europe — for pedestrians, cyclists and motor scooters," he told DW.

Is a pact with his opponents inevitable?

If he is to implement his ideas, however, he will need support in the city council. He has only two options in this respect: firstly, to seek the support of the former ruling party, GERB (the conservative Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria), which ruled Sofia for 18 years. During the campaign, Terziev and his team said that GERB was their main rival.

The only other possible source of support would be the pro-Russian coalition that backed Vanya Grigorova.

Over the summer, the parties that nominated Terziev were forced to work with GERB to form a government after Bulgaria's parliamentary election to stem the influence of the pro-Russian bloc — even though some of these parties were established with the specific aim of driving GERB from power.

It would appear that Sofia's new mayor now has no choice but to work with GERB to keep pro-Russian forces in check.

This article was originally published in German.