Roumen Radev President Elect for the Republic of Bulgaria.
The single image that has lodged in the mind about Roumen Radev, who in January 2017 will become Bulgaria’s next president, and as such will not run the country, is that he used to be a fighter pilot.
This is one of the few things that is clearly known about Radev, who is likely to remain something of a cipher until he takes up his tasks as head of state. After he was elected, on a ticket backed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, one Bulgarian journalist reported with breathless enthusiasm that Radev had logged 1400 hours’ flying time.
The journalist did not say over what period of time Radev, who until his venture in politics was commander of Bulgaria’s rather depleted air force, had done this. Since the start of his career? Last year? Should we not be told?
Perhaps more significant is whether Radev really is the pro-Russia candidate or whether he is, as he claims, an adherent to Bulgaria’s policy of continuing membership of NATO, the alliance of which the country has been a member since 2004.
In a recent interview with one local media, Radev cited conflicting reports about his views on relations, respectively, with Russia and with the West as “sloppy journalism”.
Adding to this some reports about his family matters – one yellow-press article misidentified his wife as a girlfriend, alleging that Radev had been out and about with a mistress while Mrs Radeva – the second to hold that spousal title – was elsewhere. She was not, in fact, elsewhere. She was in the photo with Radev. Meanwhile, media and social networks made much of Mrs Radeva II’s affection for Manowar, the musicians. More recently, there was breathless coverage again of how Mr and Mrs Radevi went to the Opera. Photographers were on hand to record them sitting in the mid-price seats. Next year, as president, Radev will have a nice seat in the centre of the balcony.
In the same interview, Radev mused that “freedom of speech is also the freedom of stupid speech”. May that mean he is not entirely unused to the conventions of politics, not least in Bulgaria?
Radev, to nod to his military background, may prove something of a loose cannon. Or, in the American parlance, his predilection for flip-flopping was shown in the presidential election campaign. He ran against the party line of the BSP that was backing him, on judicial reform, and then when this caused some consternation, appeared to backtrack.
His line on relations with the Kremlin, advocating pragmatism; in one of only two debates before the election, Radev repeated that to be a Europhile does not necessarily mean being a Russophobe, and sounded a lot like the stated positions of pro-Moscow parties like the BSP and ABC, which in turn sound like the advocating of a softer line. Those parties sound as if they are advocating a softer line, because they do. They oppose sanctions on Moscow over its illegal seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.
This was why eyebrows were raised by Radev saying again, more than once, that while Crimea is de jure part of Ukraine, de facto the Russian flag flies there. This is in sharp contrast to the bald and repeated statement by incumbent President Rossen Plevneliev: “Crimea is Ukraine”.
It is also in contrast to the firm line of the Borissov government on the matter – a government that has resigned, because Radev beat the candidate of Borissov’s party in the November 2016 presidential elections. Ultimately, in spring 2017, Bulgaria’s foreign policy will be in the hands of the electorate and the forgers of the next government coalition.
Radev is not above public disputes, most notably with his now-former boss, Defence Minister Nikolai Nenchev – a centrist Reformist Bloc minister – who seems to have done all he can to define Bulgaria’s NATO orientation, by speaking against Russia, and moving against it, notably, by reallocating the business of keeping the engines of the Air Force’s ageing Soviet-made MiG-29s going.
When he resigned as Air Force chief – for the second time; he did so in October 2015 but was talked out of it by Borissov – Radev seemingly could hardly wait to fling slings and arrows in public at Nenchev. The kindest thing he called his former minister was incompetent.
When on December 2 it emerged that the current Defence Chief, General Konstantin Popov, had submitted his resignation ahead of Radev taking office – Popov was quoted as saying that he wanted to the next commander-in-chief a free hand to appoint his own defence chief – some reports immediately emerged that Popov and Radev hadn’t got on for years.
Popov was just getting out of the way, because word was that he was number one on the list of people that the new commander-in-chief intended firing on taking office. One report said that in the military, there had been a joke that the only way Popov would end up saluting Radev, after having been his superior officer for years, was that if Radev got elected president.
As a career military officer, Radev, now 53, had the benefit of post-communist Bulgaria’s new Western orientation. In 2002/03, he attended Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama in the US. In the 2016 election campaign, much was made of this; apparently he did well, placed high, if not top, in his class. Reportedly, Radev’s name is on the Walk of Fame at Maxwell AFB.
A glance at his military career shows a steady series of promotions, from his first commission as a lieutenant in 1987 to general rank in 2007. It was in 2003 he started in senior positions Graf Ignatievo AFB, rising to deputy commander of the Air Force in 2011, and on to the post of commander of the Air Force – through all of those, as above – but always subordinate to Popov.
People who encountered him in his days as an Air Force general officer speak of someone who is personable, with a sense of humour, and with good spoken English.
That’s nice to know, but it is not as if he is to be the chairman of a dinner club. Radev will take office as head of state amid continuing political uncertainty in Bulgaria, which in part he caused, by just by winning election.
Recruited by BSP circles, the subject of expectations about political change that he cannot fulfil – constitutionally, the issues that he emphasised in his campaign, such as a hard line on illegal immigration, are not matters for policy or legislative initiatives by the president – Radev will be the subject of attempts to influence him, from various quarters.
Much will be decided in the parliamentary elections, after which – whenever a coalition is formed – Radev will be faced with an elected government, not a caretaker administration.
Bulgaria’s first four presidents all had some kind of political experience, from the early incumbents who emerged in the post-communist, anti-communist movement, through to Plevneliev, who – though his background was in the private sector – served some months as one of Borissov’s Cabinet ministers.
Radev has no background of political experience, apart from his somewhat boring, vague and unimaginative presidential election campaign ;the success of which was assisted by his rivals’ being even worse.
Still, for reasons that are not clear, Bulgarian provides a transition from president-elect to president equivalent to that in the United States, even though a future POTUS needs one, for the sake of making thousands of appointments and preparing to actually run the country. Radev is presumably using the space to – apart from attending the opera – attending a BSP national council and giving the odd interview, prepare to take up the reins and meet the job description sketched out in the Bulgarian constitution. Bulgaria’s most famous modern-day pilot is on a very, very long runway, preparing for take-off, and we have yet to see the flight plan!
* To see Radev handle a MIG 29 fighter aircraft – this man is an ace pilot!
By Clive Leviev-Sawyer
The Sofia Globe