Rumen Radev, the Unpolitical Presidential Candidate of Bulgaria's Socialists

Novinite Insider | October 6, 2016, Thursday // 10:58
Bulgaria: Rumen Radev, the Unpolitical Presidential Candidate of Bulgaria's Socialists File photo, BGNES

Novinite publishes profiles of presidential candidates running in the forthcoming elections on November 06.

After Parliament Speaker Tsetska Tsacheva, who was recently announced as the candidate of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's GERB party, it is time to introduce Maj Gen Rumen Radev, a nominee endorsed by the second-largest party in Parliament, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).

A Bulgarian Air Force Commander who received post-graduate training in the US, was among the staunchest supporters of buying new military aircraft and had never spoken out on any issues other than the Air Force itself.

The description above doesn't sound like the best resume of the Bulgarian Socialist Party's presidential candidate

Known for its close ties to Russian circles and advocating an end to Western sanctions, the BSP nevertheless endorsed him - but did not submit his name as its own candidate, leaving it up to an "initiative committee" - in a race that, after his entry, has seen a number of generals being added to the vote by other parties.

Russian media - but also Bulgarian ones criticizing Russia - describe him as someone who would defy the status quo of Bulgaria, questioning its stances within NATO and the EU and pursuing a more independent policy, ideas cherrypicked by journalists as a sign he wants to tilt the country toward Russia.

But his game may be much more complicated.

Radev, 53, took over as Commander of the Bulgarian Air Force in 2014. Prior to that, he had served twenty-seven years within the air force ranks. Having started as a junior pilot in 1987, he headed Graf Ignatievo Air Base in 2002 - an office he retained until 2005, with a one-year hiatus as he went to specialize in Air War College in Maxwell, Alabama.

In 2009, he was promoted to Deputy Head of the Air Force and, in 2011, to Deputy Commander. That was the time he was conferred the rank of a general, under President (2002-2012) Georgi Parvanov - the Bulgarian President also being the Commander-in-Chief of the Bulgarian Armed Forces.

All of that was little known to the public as Radev had never been the focus of attention - until October 2014, when the recently appointed Air Force Commander impressed a cheerful audience on the outskirts of Sofia with spectacular manoeuvre on a on a MiG 29 fighter aircraft - publicly performed for the first time in Bulgaria by a Bulgarian pilot. In the Pugachev's Cobra, a plane flying at a moderate speed suddenly raises its nose to the vertical position and slightly beyond, before dropping it back to normal flight.

It was perhaps due to his stunt that he got associated with Soviet-made MiGs, a key component of the Bulgarian aircraft fleet which has been in need of an urgent overhaul for years.

According to defense experts and to some specialized media outlets, Radev was an outspoken supporter of the acquisition of new multirole aircraft (and not second-hand F-16s offered by the US), the two offers being a Eurofighter or a Saab Gripen.

And yet, a recent publication on Terminal 3, a website whose daily comments are already becoming influential with young, politically active and pro-European Bulgarians, argued that: "Everything shows that the general [Radev] believes that if we just buy spare parts of aircraft from Russia, all problems of Bulgaria will disappear magically." He first tried to step down when joint missions were first proposed last October – but it was Prime Minister Borisov who talked him out of the move, promising him to speed up the acquisition of new fighter aircraft. He then insisted a repair of MiG-29 engines in Poland should be sped up – something that was clearly in the interest of the army as otherwise it would be left with no capabilities until the acquisition in question (2020 at the earliest).

Nearly two months before the comment was published (September 27), Radev stepped down and asked to be discharged from the Bulgarian Air Force, with reports suggesting he had done so in protest over the final decision to allow joint air-policing missions conducted by Bulgarian and NATO partner forces over the country's airspace (he had argued that, for a country already having its own Air Force, that could not be an alternative to the protracted acquisition of new fighter aircraft). He even went as far as to state the move had been more humiliating than the Neuilly treaty. That sparked outrage among right-wing and conservative parties even before he announced his bid - they saw it as an example of anti-NATO, pro-Russian rhetoric. However, if someone dedicated his life to the Bulgarian Air Force, it is understandable that he or she would reject the cause leading up to the joint air-policing missions (lack of aircraft that give Bulgaria its own capability, the only ones available either pending repair of their engines in Poland or waiting for new or repaired engines sought by the Defense Ministry).

For a while, Radev looked like a possible uniting figure for the left-wing political space who could bring together the BSP and two splinter parties, Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV) of former President Parvanov, and Movement 21 of Tatyana Doncheva. The three, however, failed to agree on his candidacy, with the BSP and ABV ditching all efforts to smooth out differences and agree “whose candidate” he actually is.

His names was among the first to be made public by the bigger parties of Bulgaria. Even before the official nomination, however, a war of words began between him and Borisov, who accused him of having been “a political figure within the military,” a “no real opponent”, and a less important kind of pilot (“civil aviation pilots at least have a responsibility of all passengers”), seeking to downplay his capabilities. Radev did not turn a deaf year on thiese comments and lashed out at him for having merged his GERB party with state institutions not matching the challenge to run himself, which the former air force chief announced in August.

Part of Radev's vision for the challenges ahead of Bulgaria does not substantially differ from that of Borisov and his GERB party, even when each of them presents them in their own way. None of the two candidates would like to raise tensions with Russia and in practice advocate a milder tone for the sake of Bulgaria's economic interests. Both have shown their understanding that Bulgaria needs to pursue its own policies, taking into account the regional and wider context. Both see a threat to national security in a situation where thousands of migrants might get stranded in Bulgaria when Serbia steps up border control. Only the words they use are different.

However, the former commander's first steps in politics have been marked by controversy as he looks for a way to muster support among the BSP's partly Russophile electorate. He kept a stiff upper lip during a provocation organized at a Russophile event in the summer (attended by him), where flags of EU and NATO were desecrated by a group of hardline backers of the “Eurasian Union”. Seeking to appease conspiracy theory lovers among socialist members and supporters, he asserted at an event that, while there was no evidence of the existence of “chemtrails” (chemicals left in the air by airplanes which are allegedly used to control the minds of people) and of their use in Bulgaria, he would order an inspection of elected President, in case there is popular demand for it. His statements come at a time the BSP is struggling to position itself as the authentic socialist party of Bulgaria, amid dwindling support and rivalry with ABV. 

Radev has repeatedly denied any accusations of being "Russophile", stating his pride in the fact that he served in the armed forces of a NATO state and received part of his education in the United States. Asked what language he would use to address Russian President Vladimir Putin if he meets him, he replied: "In Bulgarian." In Radev's words, Bulgaria should produce its own foreign-policy decisions, not allowing to take instructions either from Russia or from the West, but should clearly act guided by its EU and NATO membership which should not be called into question.

His running mate, Iliana Iotova, is an active MEP who worked at the Bulgarian National Television (1990-1997) before joining the press office of the Bulgarian Socialist Party after quitting the broadcaster.

She kept the office until 2007, when she was elected MEP from the S&D group. In 2000, she entered the BSP's supreme council. She had a two-year term as a Bulgarian MP before gaining a seat in Brussels.

Iotova has been considered one of the most active defenders of the BSP's policies.

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Tags: Rumen Radev, BSP, Russia, NATO, aircraft, Bulgarian Air Force, Presidential elections

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