“Always with Germany and never against Russia”: this famous quote by Bulgaria’s last king Tsar Boris III (1894 – 1943) characterised the election campaign for the fifth president of Bulgaria, which culminated last Sunday, 13 November. Major General Rumen Radev – backed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) – overwhelmingly won the run-off vote against Tsetska Tsacheva, the candidate of the center-right party GERB, which holds the parliamentary majority in the ruling coalition. Aware that his candidate’s loss meant above all, a lack of support for his party, Prime Minister (PM) Boyko Borisov handed in the resignation of his cabinet on the following day.
Rumen Radev, the former commander of the Bulgarian Air Force, will be the second general in Bulgarian’s political leadership after General Boyko Borisov. Even though West-European media insists on presenting him as the pro-Russian choice, Radev is non-partisan and is expected to balance relations with Russia, NATO and the EU without alienation. Indeed, he would seek to lift EU sanctions against Russia in an attempt to deepen Bulgaria-Russia business and trade relations, and would revisit Russian-backed energy projects, such as South Stream. Radev has also announced that he would challenge the recently signed EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) in the Bulgarian Constitutional Court, even though Bulgaria managed to obtain visa liberalisation with Canada as part of the deal. However, as a graduate of the US Air War College in Maxwell, Radev has stressed that all this doesn’t mean Bulgaria won’t be a fully devoted member of NATO and EU.
The president of Bulgaria has more than just a ceremonial role. It is a key figure in Bulgarian diplomacy, has the right of veto and the mandate to appoint caretaker governments.
The latter is especially relevant after PM Borisov’s resignation. GERB has been part of the Bulgarian political leadership for almost 10 years. Its loss in the latest elections indicates that Bulgarians want change. They want to put an end to corruption associated with the political elite that has been in power since the establishment of democratic rule in 1989. Above all, they want to raise their standard of living and see the completion of necessary reforms, such as in the judicial system. As a person outside of the political establishment, the well-spoken and respected General Radev is seen as someone who can bring change despite uncertainties including his lack of political experience and association with the Socialist Party – which is largely unpopular among the young generation.
Borisov’s resignation, his second in three years, means yet another political crisis where the outgoing President Rosen Plevneliev needs to appoint an interim cabinet whose role will mainly be to organise general elections in winter-spring of 2017. The PM is leaving in the middle of several unresolved issues, such as budget 2017, the building of the Belene nuclear power plant, and the replacement of the Bulgarian Commissioner Vice President Kristalina Georgieva, who resigned on 28 October 2016 to become the first CEO of the World Bank. The lack of an elected Prime Minister and the ongoing political crisis are likely to delay the Bulgarian nomination: the choice of a new Commissioner might depend on deals made among all parties represented in the parliament and a consultation process led by president-elect Rumen Radev.
Mariana Varbanova is Senior Consultant at FTI Consulting in Brussels.