Bulgaria’s National Assembly has approved the first reading of amendments to the Defence and Armed Forces Act that will make it possible for other Nato member countries to assist in guarding Bulgaria’s airspace.
The Bulgarian Air Force currently has a diminished and ageing number of Soviet-made MiG-29 fighters, the engines of which are being maintained and upgraded through a 2015 contract with Poland. For years, Bulgaria, a Nato member since 2004, has been in a protracted process towards acquiring new multi-role fighters to meet the alliance’s standards.
The Cabinet tabled the bill in response to a recommendation at Nato’s Wales Summit on the need to bolster the guarding of the airspace on the alliance’s eastern flank.
In the first-reading vote in the National Assembly on January 14, the amendments got 122 votes in favour, 41 against and there was one abstention.
Speaking in favour of the amendments, Valentin Radev of the centre-right GERB party – the largest in Parliament and the majority partner in the coalition Cabinet – said that it was to the benefit of Bulgaria and national security to make use of allied solidarity when needed.
The bill was opposed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the second-largest parliamentary group, by Volen Siderov’s pro-Russia Ataka party, which is one of the two smallest parliamentary groups. It also was opposed by socialist ABC, the other smallest parliamentary group, which however is a participant in the governing coalition.
Miho Mihov of ABC, chairperson of Parliament’s defence committee, said that his party would not support the bill, saying that the amendments’ message to Bulgarian Air Force pilots was that “without you, we can protect our airspace with other forces”.
He said that the message to the region was that Bulgaria was “not a factor”, neither on the European continent, nor in South Eastern Europe, and nor could it be a factor regarding the Western Balkans, as a country that could not guard its airspace itself and was on the road to being like countries that never had air forces.
BSP MP Atanas Zafirov said that the bill opened the way to the death of Bulgarian fighter aviation, “and with it part of our national dignity, state sovereignty and identity”.
Krassimir Karachanov, co-leader of the nationalist Patriotic Front, which supports the government in Parliament, said that he agreed with Zafirov about the plight of the Bulgarian military but said that for years “all governments had worked towards the destruction of the military” and when the BSP was in power from 2005 to 2009, the constitution had been changed to shut down national military service. “I didn’t hear that as an argument for national betrayal of the armed forces and the defence of Bulgaria,” Karakachanov said.
GERB’s Vladimir Toshev said, “if any one of you is willing to give 10 per cent of GDP for the military, we will have ships and aircraft and new tanks. But you will have to decide what to cut – education or social services”.
Speaking in the corridors of Parliament after the vote, Defence Minister Nikolai Nenchev said that Bulgaria’s airspace would not be guarded by other countries.
He insisted that it could not be said, as the opposition did, that the Bulgarian Air Force would be destroyed.
“I want to assure you, and through you Bulgarian citizens, that we have no reason to doubt that the Bulgarian Air Force will continue to successfully to protect the air border. We have the resources and opportunities, as well as the available aircraft, which are operational,” Nenchev said, as reported by Bulgarian National Radio.
“We have the right to negotiate commitments, ours and theirs, in the (Nato) treaty,” Nenchev said, adding that Bulgaria had the resources and capacity to continue to guard its airspace on its own, and that was the aim.
“If really it comes to help from Nato allies to guard Bulgarian airspace, that would happen jointly, Nenchev said.
“Beyond doubt they will be subordinated to our national command, Nato command. The decision to use weapons would be taken only by our national authority, in this case, the defence minister,” he said, referring to clauses creating the possibility for aircraft from other forces to use weaponry while defending Bulgarian airspace.
(Photo: Gripen fighters from the Czech Air Force conduct air patrols over Iceland, August 2015. Nato.int)