Bulgaria’s new President Rumen Radev took office on 22 January 2017. However, his political position remains controversial to this day. On the one hand, before his electoral success in November 2016, Radev used to single out good relations with Russia as his priority. He criticized the West’s standpoint on Ukraine’s crisis, challenged Western sanctions on Russia, and didn’t seem to notice any kind of threat in Russian hybrid wars.
During one of his first interviews after the successful runoff, Rumen Radev rejected allegations of being pro-Russian orientated by saying:
“I am a NATO General, I am the first Bulgarian who has completed the US Air-Force Academy’s training course and I will defend our (Bulgaria’s) Euro-Atlantic membership by even more active means than I am doing so today.”
Nevertheless, Bulgarian experts don’t express any particular trust to his words.
“Radev’s candidature was nominated to the election as a result of a joint game played by the larger part of Bulgaria’s new political elite, topped by the then Prime-Minister Boyko Borissov’s government and main parliamentarian parties of Socialists and Nationalists, in order to remove the then incumbent pro-Western president Rossen Plevneliev. The thing is that all key positions in our country at the moment, including the one of Borissov, are in one way or another occupied by people linked to former Bulgaria’s Communist party and the KDS, which is the Bulgarian equivalent to the Russian KGB. As a result, the Borissov-orchestrated efforts led to nominating two key pro-Russian candidates – one from his ruling party and one from the Socialists, Radev, who was the final winner. And I am convinced that it was made upon a demand by Russian President Vladimir Putin,”
Bulgarian political commentator Georgiy Dimitrov told Krym.Realii.
According to the analyst, Bulgaria is one of the Kremlin’s important priorities.
“Russia’s government more than once expressed its discontent at NATO’s initiatives in the Black Sea last year to which Borissov immediately responded that Bulgaria’s cooperation with USA and NATO ‘has its limits’ and that it was important to defend Russia from a possible NATO flotilla organized in the Black sea,” Dimitrov added.
The expert points out also that Kremlin, obviously, is happy to see Radev elected as President, evident from the positive coverage in the Russian media. Notably, the first foreign structure to meet Radev was the Russian institute of strategic studies (RISS), part of the Russian President administration (earlier RISS was within the framework of Russia’s foreign intelligence, the FSB), which was also seen in their approach to Milorad Dodik, the President of Serbia. Even more, according to a RISS former employee, the institute has lobbied for the annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas already in 2009.
“Last year, RISS’ director advised Borissov and Radev to ‘scrape away’ the pro-Western ‘dirt’ from Bulgarian political life. After the election, the institute’s director sounded even more demanding, declaring that ‘Russia should intervene in Bulgaria in order to help cleanse it of its pro-Western elite,’ and that ‘Bulgaria is a part of Eurasia.’ Borissov kept up relations with other Russian special services. For instance, in 2006 he boasted that he has been the only foreign guest of FSB to Moscow on occasion of its ‘Vympel’ spetsnaz anniversary celebration. Recently, he pointed out that the Soviet KGB was an ‘organization that many foreign specialists may learn much from,’ and that the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has been ‘world’s greatest diplomat’,” shares the Bulgarian commentator.
Georgiy Dimitrov is of the view that during the past two years Radev, as Bulgaria’s Airforce commander, has his share in delaying rearmament of Air Forces by western-produced aircraft.
“He has also insisted that Bulgaria’s several MiG-29 Russian-made fighters’ engines repair works should be carried out at the producer’s industry plants instead of a NATO-allied country like Poland. Many consider Radev to be well connected to Russia’s military industry. At least three last Airforce commanders have connected their careers to the Socialist party after retiring. At their new positions, political or otherwise, they have maintained close positions with Moscow on matters relating to Bulgarian Armed forces, armament or political issues,” says Dimitrov.
According to him, Radev’s team raises serious questions as well.
“One of its members, a former military general and a former Vice-President of the country, was renown with his strong opposition against Bulgaria’s application for membership in NATO. Another member of the team was linked to one of the Socialist party’s events that set the flag of the EU on fire in 2014 and cut the flags of EU and NATO to pieces in 2016. Yet another member, a journalist at a Russian oligarch-owned Bulgarian TV canal, was included by the government of Ukraine in its 2015 ban list of foreigners as ‘threat to its national interests, national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity’,” the expert notes.
Radev has been well-known for his position that sanctions on Russia must be removed and that the illegally annexed Crimea has in fact become a Russian territory. Even more, according to Radev, Ukraine needs to play carefully with Russia, otherwise it risks losing rest of its eastern territories to Russia as well.
“On the day after his first successful round of the elections, he reiterated his position that ‘Russian colors flying over Crimea are an (undisputable) fact – should we close our eyes (before it)?’. Five days later Russian media announced that the government of Borissov signed a contract with the Russian MiG producer to purchase 10 engines for its fighters. NATO has for years called Bulgarian government to acquire Western-produced jets in order to end its dependency and improve interoperability with the allies however government has constantly found excuses,” Georgiy Dimitrov clarifies.
Summing up, the Bulgarian experts are wary over the new President’s priorities. Concerns exist that, regardless of positioning himself as a “NATO general,” Radev would pursue a pro-Kremlin politics including on issues such as Crimea and Ukraine.