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Jack Knox: Challenging days for Oak Bay grad who is prime minister of Bulgaria

Kiril Petkov graduated from Oak Bay High School in 1997

Did you know the new prime minister is an Oak Bay High grad?

The prime minister of Bulgaria, that is.

Yes, Kiril Petkov, an anti-corruption crusader whose sudden rise has turned him into something of a European political rock star — “Un golden boy à la tête de la Bulgarie” read the headline in France’s Le Monde — has a Vancouver Island pedigree.

Not only did the 41-year-old graduate from Oak Bay High in 1997, but he married a Courtenay girl who has gained her own measure of fame in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. His mother recently retired as the manager of Saanich’s Bruce Hutchison library branch.

And now, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, his job just became harder.

Petkov, dubbed the Balkan Trudeau by some in the European media, became prime minister in December as a reformist wave swept Bulgaria.

He was born in the nation of 6.5 million, but his family moved to Victoria when he was 14. He went on to earn a commerce degree from UBC (where he won the International Business Studies Award in 2000) and an MBA from Harvard (where he finished near the top of his class). He spent four years working for McCain Foods, including time in Europe.

It was at UBC that he met his wife, Linda McKenzie Petkova. They married while still at university and now have three daughters.

In 2007, they moved to Bulgaria, where Petkov got involved in science-based tech start-ups, launching ProViotic, maker of the world’s first vegan probiotic (extolled by Oprah, no less).

He was also a founder of a Harvard-affiliated economics program at Sofia University, where he taught classes in economic development, entrepreneurship and the microeconomics of competitiveness.

Following anti-corruption street protests in 2020 and an election that dumped the then prime minister last April, Petkov was appointed Bulgaria’s minister of the economy.

He caused a sensation when he found that the state-controlled Bulgarian Development Bank, which was supposed to help small- and medium-sized businesses, had in fact loaned $700 million to eight companies, something he called “a complete disgrace.”

Petkov and Harvard pal Assen Vassilev then launched the centrist, anti-corruption We Continue the Change party, which in December, following another election, became part of a coalition government headed by Petkov.

He had to renounce his Canadian citizenship to comply with Bulgarian law.

Much has been made of Petkov’s personal appeal. “In a political scene dominated by nepotism and patronage networks, Petkov has built a reputation as a youthful, hip and foreign-educated leader,” the news site Politico wrote.

“A reluctant heartthrob, his charisma inspired a frenzied, meme-fueled social media fandom. One meme that went viral during his economy minister stint juxtaposed two images — one, a shirtless Chris Hemsworth showing off his six-pack abs, that read, ‘What men think women want’; the other, a neatly dressed Petkov sitting at a desk that read, ‘What women actually want.’ ”

Some Bulgarians have noted a resemblance to a younger John Travolta; Petkov made fun of that on Instagram, posting a Grease-era photo of the movie star over the caption “one of my better portraits.” His was the most-Googled name in Bulgaria last year.

His Canadian wife, who spent her teenage years in Courtenay, is seen as a political asset. Politico said that prior to Petkov’s stint as economy minister, it was she who was better known, thanks to her appearance as a contestant on MasterChef Bulgaria. She opened her bakery cafe Amelie Sweet Shop (its website bills it as “the most delicious gluten-free pastry shop in central Sofia”) in 2018.

All this is a long way from the halls of Oak Bay High. The school has had its share of famous grads: author Pierre Berton, hockey’s Courtnall brothers, artist Roy Henry Vickers, broadcaster Vicki Gabereau.

Politicians? Former B.C. Green leader Andrew Weaver went there, as did Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch. Ben Isitt was a year ahead of Petkov. No prime ministers, though.

High school buddy Marko Kessler, now the city of Prince Rupert’s IT manager, said he had lost track of Petkov after Oak Bay, but it didn’t surprise him that his friend did something big with his life. Petkov was ambitious, confident that he would rise to a position of significance, one where he would make a difference.

Kessler, who came to Oak Bay as an international student from Serbia, figures he and Petkov were drawn together because they came from the same part of the world.

He recalls Petkov as a kid with a strong accent but a good command of English. “He was always very upbeat, very optimistic,” he says. “You never saw him grumpy, or cranky, or tired.”

Petkov signed Kessler’s yearbook “to the smartest man alive.” Kessler says: “I didn’t agree with it, of course, but this just shows his kind, funny character, and his always positive attitude.

Petkov will need that positivity, as Bulgaria faces challenges. In 2017, Transparency International ranked it the most corrupt country in the European Union. It is also the world’s fastest-shrinking country, having seen its population drop by more than 10 per cent in a decade. It has the lowest COVID vaccination rate and the highest COVID death rate in Europe.

Of immediate concern, the country is only two doors down from Ukraine. Formerly in the Soviet orbit, Bulgaria has been a member of NATO since 2004, but still relies on Russia for much of its energy needs.

Petkov came out firmly against the invasion. “We strongly condemn the Russian military aggression against Ukraine,” he tweeted. “The use of military force against a sovereign country is unacceptable in the 21st century.”

Bulgarian media quoted Petkov as backing sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s Russia: “Europe’s position is united. Our task is to set the price of sanctions on Russia in such a way as to influence those who make decisions and those who support them.”

The Sofia news agency Novinite quoted him as saying that Bulgaria would help those fleeing the invasion: “We can’t even imagine what it’s like for families leaving their homes in search of salvation, but we can lend a hand and provide them with shelter and security. Bulgaria will fulfill its duty, especially to the Bulgarian minority in Ukraine.”

Tough days ahead. Let’s hope they taught Petkov well at Oak Bay.

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