“Women are more diligent than men, and they don’t take long lunches or go to the bar,” insisted Mr. Borisov, who has cited his mother and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany as his role models.
“Women have stronger characters than men because when they say no they mean no, and they are less corruptible,” he said last summer, inaugurating the women’s wing of his center-right party.
While some critics view Mr. Borisov’s elevation of women as little more than a cynical ploy aimed at giving this poor, notoriously corrupt country an image makeover, few dispute that the empowerment of women in Bulgarian public life is reaching new heights, even as men still dominate politics.
Women in high places include the justice minister, the mayor of Sofia, the speaker of Parliament, the nominee to lead the European Union’s humanitarian aid and the head of the prime minister’s office.
Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian diplomat who recently defeated the Egyptian culture minister to lead Unesco, is a 57-year-old mother and arms control expert. In 2009 elections to the European Parliament, 60 percent of the candidates put forward by Mr. Borisov’s center-right party were women.
(After the national elections last July, 34 of 116 Bulgarian Parliament seats were held by women).
How permanent their place at the pinnacle is in dispute. Across the border in Romania, the political establishment elevated Monica Macovei, a prominent human rights lawyer and corruption fighter, to justice minister in 2004. Once Romania was safely in the European Union, she was dumped, and she is now relegated to the relative obscurity of sitting in the European Parliament.
Bulgarian officials, conscious that the country won the dubious distinction in October 2008 of being the first to lose E.U. development funds for fear they would be siphoned to organized crime, certainly hope for an image overhaul.
Mr. Borisov, dubbed Batman for his proclaimed invincibility, asserts that women are his secret weapon in fighting lawlessness. Kamen Sildniski, deputy chief prosecutor, noted that there were no criminal cases of corruption against a woman in Bulgaria and that female applicants to the Prosecutor’s Office consistently outperformed men on polygraph tests. “It’s hard to admit, but women are less corruptible than men and are cleaner,” he said. “Because they are more risk averse.”
In development circles, many prefer to emphasize the equality that comes with women’s promotion rather than the alleged incorruptibility it brings. Some people contend that women are socialized to be more ethical than men, and others retort that women are just as corruptible but less tested, as they are outside the chummy networks where corruption festers.
The annual Global Corruption Barometer produced by Transparency International, the nongovernmental group based in Berlin that monitors international corruption, has shown for the past several years that women are less prone to taking bribes than men.
A 1999 study published by the World Bank claimed that women were more trustworthy and public-spirited than men and concluded that greater representation of women in Parliament in a sample of 150 countries in Europe, Africa and Asia led to lower levels of corruption.
Eiman Abulgasim Noor, a Sudanese environmentalist and former vice president of the Pan African Women’s Union, noted that women’s entry into politics in post-conflict countries in Africa, from Rwanda to Sierra Leone, was helping to mitigate corruption, in part because “women are the ones who support children and elders and are less willing to do anything that will put their families at risk.”
Echoing those in the financial world who assert that Lehman Brothers would not have collapsed had it been Lehman Sisters, Ms. Noor argued that the despotism and violence of recent African history would read far differently if Mobutu or Mugabe had been female.
Robin Hodess, head of policy at Transparency International, countered that while female leaders like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and former President Michelle Bachelet of Chile had played leading roles in combating corruption in their respective countries, the global ranks of corrupt leaders also included women like the late Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was twice removed from office amid allegations of fraud.
“It is important to bring women into politics, not as a hammer to fight corruption, but to fight gender inequality,” Ms. Hodess said.
In the case of Bulgaria, sociologists say the recent rise of women in politics, which was instigated by Mr. Borisov’s mentor, Bulgaria’s former king and prime minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, can be traced to the Communist era, when socialist ideology empowered women to be equal to men.
Tatyana Kmetova, director of the Center of Women’s Studies and Policies, noted that under Communism, women were expected to work and often received the same wages as men.
“We never had a feminist movement in this country,” she said, noting that in the late 1970s, Bulgaria had the highest percentage of working women in the world. “During Communism, women in Bulgaria were represented in almost every walk of life, from plant managers to medicine.”
Rumiana Bachvarova, Mr. Borisov’s cabinet chief and a leading sociologist, said that women were achieving a singular influence in Bulgarian public life, in part because — as elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc — they had proved to be adaptable during the difficult transition since Communism fell.
“While men suffered from losing their state-guaranteed jobs, women embraced the new freedom as an opportunity to reinvent themselves, to start their own businesses, and many became the breadwinners of their families,” said Ms. Bachvarova, a mother of two, who left a job at a state radio station and started her own market research firm before entering politics.
Evgeniy Daynov, a leading political analyst, said that in a patriarchal Balkan country, Bulgarian men traditionally were coddled, and that this made them idle and ineffective.
“Bulgarian men have been spoiled by their mothers because boys are the stars of the family, and when they grow up, they don’t have enough stamina to stand on their own two feet,” he said. “Meanwhile, under Communism, women would have to work all day at their jobs and then come home and clean the house, and take care of the lazy men. This made them twice as strong.”
Yet some critics argue that Mr. Borisov’s female entourage is little more than window-dressing in a society that still devalues women.
Ani Vladimirova, 42, a leading family psychologist, said that the recent rise of women in fact reflected sexist attitudes since many of the women appointed had been groomed to be obedient apparatchiks during the Communist era and now had high positions because they were nonthreatening and loyal.
“A Bulgarian Hillary Clinton or Margaret Thatcher would not be possible because women are expected to be weak and subservient to men,” she said.
Mr. Borisov knows that these women “will stay in line because they owe their positions to him. He is appointing all of these women because public opinion expects less of them.”
Yet the shift is having a subtle effect on Bulgarian political discourse, argued Marta Vachkova, who hosts a television program called “The Women.”“When a woman is sitting between two men, she is a mediator and a neutralizer of all that adrenaline, with the result that the decisions taken are more balanced,” Ms. Vachkova said in an interview.
Some female politicians note that being seen as too pliant can also prove to be a liability in Bulgarian politics.
Yordanka Fandakova, the first woman to be mayor of Sofia, a mother, grandmother and former headmistress, said she had faced discrimination during the mayoral campaign when opponents taunted her for being a lackey of Mr. Borisov. On the eve of the elections, the country’s leading market researcher published a poll showing qualities Sofia residents sought in their would-be mayor. Being a man was top of the list. Ms. Fandakova won by a landslide anyway in November, with many analysts attributing this to Mr. Borisov’s support.
“During the election my opponents called me one of Borisov’s good girls,” she said. “The media tried to portray me as weak. But I personally don’t devote much time distinguishing between men and women. Results are results.”
Ms. Fandakova said that the appointment of many women to City Hall had helped encourage female-friendly policies: 17 new kindergartens had been opened in Sofia in 2009; education had been made a priority, while she was advocating more women’s shelters for victims of domestic violence. “The desire to tackle social problems is in my heart, partly because I am a woman as well as a former teacher,” she said.
Not everyone in Bulgaria is convinced of the wisdom of promoting women in politics. Minko Gerdjikov, the deputy mayor, said that promoting women to powerful positions could prove a liability at a time of crisis.
“The big problem is that women are moodier than men and rule based on intuition rather than facts,” he said. “During a crisis a woman can transform very quickly from being a politician to being a human being, and this can be bad.”