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Elections in Bulgaria: Are passions running high around Russia?

The November 6 presidential election in Bulgaria did not reveal the winner, which has little surprised experts, however. As expected, two presidential candidates, parliament chairwoman Tsetska Tsacheva (GERB Party) and the socialist-backed candidate, the former Air Force Commander Rumen Radev (BSP Party) will be competing in the runoff today, on November 13. The latter received by several percentages more votes than his rival. Although the events in Bulgaria cannot be compared with the presidential election in U.S., the outcome of the Bulgaria presidential election must not be neglected, as it will show if Bulgaria will revise its relations with Russia or it will keep on waging anti-Russian policy.

It is no secret that the president in Bulgaria is a politically weak figure, as the prime minister is the de facto governor in the country. The president has a right to veto some laws, appoint officials to a range of government positions and carry out some ceremonial functions. His role in the country’s public and political life is not significant either. During the recent years, Bulgarians have been facing great difficulties when forming the government and any statement or actions of the president may seriously affect the political situation in the country.

In Sofia, they are well aware of that. That is why the ruling elite have repeatedly said that in case of Radev’s victory, the country will face a governmental crisis. They say the BSP candidate with his allegedly pro-Russian policy may ruin everything that the Bulgarian authorities have been creating for years. Even incumbent President Rosen Plevneliev who did not run for the second term officially joined the presidential race just before the elections reminding that Russia is the cause of Bulgaria’s all troubles while Radev is advocating for normalization of the relations with Russia. He said, “Moscow is now trying to make Europe weaker, split it and deprive us of our independence,” and Putin’s goal is “not to unleash a large-scale war and shell the adversary’s positions, but make European countries dependent on the Kremlin.” Here are the sentiments in Bulgaria’s political quarters. They fear not so much the improvement of the relations with Russia as the response of their Western bosses to it. Will Bulgaria really turn to Russia, if Radev is elected president? At first sight, this is quite possible, as the opposition candidate has repeatedly said that his country needs to restore the friendly policy towards Russia.

As former commander of the Air Force have repeatedly said Bulgaria lost “after Russia was declared enemy to a greater or lesser extent,” so Bulgarians should not support the sanctions against Russia (“against the country that liberated us”). In addition, even the scandal over Radev’s resignation showed that he was opposing the country’s growing dependence on NATO and EU. Then, the major general declared officially that he was leaving because of the defense ministry’s plans to agree with Poland over mutual defense of Bulgaria’s air space. Actually, even the recent agreement between Sofia and Warsaw shows that Bulgarians started acting in the field despite any logic. Under the agreement Poland pledges to repair and serve MiG-29 jet fighters of the Bulgarian Air Force. The then minister of defense of Poland Tomasz Siemoniak called the agreement as Bulgaria’s “geopolitical choice.” Though, as elections showed, it was an untimely statement and the country does hesitate if it is worth further deteriorating the relations with Russia for some uncertain ambitions of the local and Western politicians. All the aforementioned things suggest that Radev may really try its best to restore the erstwhile relations with Russia, the more so as the country’s economy, including the energy security, greatly depends on Russia (the notorious South Stream gas pipeline project is “interesting” to Bulgarians, first). However, things are not that simple.

The point is that the ongoing conflict of the two rivals just seems hardline. An insight into the programs of the presidential candidates will show that no tangible changes will appear in Bulgaria anyway. Besides, Bulgarian analysts say many of Radev’s pre-election promises are populistic, since he lacks sufficient political experience to implement them. The only true difference between Radev and Tsacheva is perhaps their attitude towards Russia. Yet, there is quite unpleasant circumstance i.e. advocating for the normalization of relations with Moscow, Radev has not said how he is going to do it if elected. The socialist-supported candidate spoke much and quite confidently scoring political points due to the still warm attitude of a significant part of Bulgarians towards Russia and their general unwillingness to participate in Europe’s refugee problem. However, he has no action plan so far. This is not only because the president in Bulgaria has limited powers, but also because in the current political situation in the country no politician has real chances to make any tangible changes. Otherwise, the country will face an acute crisis. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has already said he will not work under Radev and all the GERB members will follow his example. The new president will have to ways to act: either to plunge the country into political chaos or make a deal with the ruling elite. After all, no one of the current politicians speaks seriously of halting the European integration process and leaving NATO, which means that the next president, whoever it is, will have to act under strict supervision of the Western partners. Altogether this means that Radev’s promise to start a new phase of cooperation with Russia will remain only words if he is elected. He is yet to win and it is not clear whom the supporters of the candidates that were left out of the presidential race will vote. As the presidential election in U.S. showed, these voters are unpredictable.

Of course, if Radev wins, some positive changes will happen in the relations with Russia, as formally the president determines the major foreign policy directions. Besides, in Southern Europe, they more and more speak about the need to lift the sanctions against Russia and restore the erstwhile relationships with Moscow. However, one should not expect Bulgaria to thwart its post-Soviet history that closely connected with the West, at least as long as Bulgarians have what to eat and where to work.

Yuri Pavlovets for EADaily

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