With more than two months to go before Bulgaria holds early parliamentary elections, the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has pledged to work to forge closer relations with Russia.
BSP leader Kornelia Ninova, speaking in a January 20 2017 television interview the day after Roumen Radev – her party’s winning candidate in Bulgaria’s presidential elections – was sworn in as head of state, was equivocal on the question of to which country Crimea belongs.
She said, “whatever its citizens feel” – an answer open to interpretation as endorsement of the questionable 2014 referendum in which 90 per cent of the population were reported as having voted to join Russia.
The EU and Nato were partners of Bulgaria because the country is a member of these alliances, but her party would work to forge closer relations with Russia.
Ninova said that Radev would work to improve relations with Russia, while he had confirmed European values in his speech.
Bulgaria’s centre-right government headed by Boiko Borissov, in power since November 2014 and soon to depart to make way for early elections, as well as outgoing head of state President Rossen Plevneliev, have backed sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. Bulgaria’s foreign policy has been to condemn Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
Borissov has qualified these statements by calling for world powers to resolve conflicts given the economy hurt that sanctions against Russia, and the Kremlin’s counter-sanctions, have meant for his country’s economy.
Plevneliev, elected in 2011 on the ticket of Borissov’s party, has been firmly direct about Crimea, repeatedly baldly stating that it is part of Ukraine. He has been critical of his successor’s stance on the issue.
Radev, a former air force commander who quit his generalship to stand as the socialist-backed candidate last year, made statements during the election campaign calling for the lifting of sanctions on Russia because of the harm they were causing to Bulgaria’s economy, in particular in tourism and agriculture.
Radev also has said repeatedly, both during the election campaign and in successive media interviews after it, that while Crimea is de jure part of Ukraine, de facto the Russian flag flies over Crimea.
He has said that to be pro-European should not necessarily mean being anti-Russian, and has foreseen the lifting of EU sanctions on Moscow.
In a mid-January 2017 interview with France 24, Radev said: “The decision of the EU to lift the sanctions must be unanimous, solidary. This is the policy that Bulgaria will pursue.” He added: “Of course, we want to see these sanctions removed.”
Addressing Bulgaria’s National Assembly on January 19, after being sworn in, Radev said: “There is obviously a crisis between the EU and Nato on the one hand and Russia on the other, but an escalation of confrontation is not a solution”.
He told MPs that he saw the role of the president as to help to resolve the crisis through the existing mechanisms of the alliances of which Bulgaria is a member.
Radev, after his inauguration on January 22, will appoint a caretaker cabinet and decree a date for early parliamentary elections.
Ninova’s BSP has called for this date to be March 26, while Borissov’s GERB party favours April 2. Ninova said that she did not know which date Radev would decree.
The BSP is currently the second-largest party, some distance, in the Bulgarian Parliament. Opinion polls claim that support for it has risen significantly in the past year, bringing it not far behind Borissov’s party, but whether this is true remains to be seen in the spring.
The Bulgarian Socialist Party is the lineal successor to the Bulgarian Communist Party, which held the country in its thrall from just after the end of the Second World War until the beginning of Bulgaria’s transition towards democracy with the end of the Cold War. The BCP regime maintained Bulgaria as a loyal servant of the Kremlin.
Borissov’s candidate was defeated by Radev in the presidential elections, prompting him to announce the resignation of the coalition government he formed two years earlier. He has signalled that he envisages, in the event of a GERB victory, a formation of a minority government.