Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party is to propose setting up a special parliamentary fact-finding committee on the fighter jet acquisition process and is levelling suspicions at President Roumen Radev of interfering in the process.
This emerged from a special news conference by GERB on June 25, just two days after Borissov said that negotiations were to go ahead with Sweden on acquiring new Gripen fighters, and then with Italy on their offer to supply Eurofighters.
Borissov and Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov – a co-leader of the United Patriots minority partner in the government – have confirmed that Portugal’s offer of second-hand F-16s had been disqualified.
Recent months have seen several twists and turns regarding the fighter jet acquisition process.
A notable moment was when, in its closing days in office, the Ognyan Gerdzhikov caretaker cabinet scrutinised a report by a military expert committee that ranked the Gripen offer as the best. It was in the course of examining request for proposals that the F-16s were eliminated from the process.
Radev, a former Bulgarian Air Force commander and highly-skilled fighter pilot who won election as head of state in late 2016 on a ticket backed by the socialist opposition, is widely believed to favour the Gripen bid.
General Konstantin Popov, a GERB MP and head of the National Assembly committee on defence, told the Sunday afternoon news conference about the proposal to set up the special parliamentary committee of inquiry about the jet fighter acquisition process.
Popov is himself a former Air Force commander and was Chief of Defence, resigning from the latter post soon before Radev was inaugurated as President and commander-in-chief of the Bulgarian armed forces.
According to Popov, the goal was openness, transparency and clarity about the process towards acquiring the new multi-role fighter.
GERB wanted all parliamentary groups to be aware of what the funds would be spent on. Were this not done, there would be accusations of Parliament being marginalised from the process, Popov said.
GERB parliamentary group leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov told the news conference that the party had sufficient suspicions, based on information in the public domain, that Radev had been behind the decision to buy the Swedish fighter jets.
According to Tsvetanov, this had happened at a time when there was still no final decision by the caretaker cabinet.
“We want to check, through parliamentary mechanisms, how this conclusion was reached, to that decision, and whether there was sufficent information to disqualify one of the official participants,” Tsvetanov said.
Tsvetanov said that there would be full co-operation by all those who had participated in the process and who would be at the meetings of the ad hoc committee on the facts and outcomes regarding the acquisition of a new combat aircraft.
He said that the truth should come out, to ensure transparency.
“In any event, we will not allow there to be playing with the national interests and the security of the country,” Tsvetanov said.
He said that GERB wanted to know whether there was pressure, and why there was a “hurry” to make this decision.
“Why was this conclusion reached and why was one of the participants disqualified?” Tsvetanov said.
The GERB Sunday afternoon manoeuvre is the latest is the series of sometimes perplexing developments in a fighter acquisition process that has gone on for about a decade without any genuine clarity being achieved.
While military experts favour the Gripen bid, which also has advantages regarding the proposed financial payment terms, several figures in or close to Borissov’s GERB seem to have the idea that turning down US-made F-16s – albeit ageing ones – would run the risk of alienating Washington.
Former president Rossen Plevneliev – who has no role or apparent influence in the process – said in an interview some months after leaving office that not only financial but also “geopolitical” factors should be taken into account in making the decision.
Another complication in the process was allegations in 2016 that, behind-the-scenes, bid requirements had been altered to favour one particular bidder. Whatever the truth, if any, of this, Gripen nonetheless came out as top-ranked in the report scrutinised by the interim administration in early 2017.
Borissov himself in recent months has sent contradictory messages, though most recently he has been publicly more positive about proceeding with the acquisition, provided that the payments are stretched out for as long as possible. He did not omit to also underline that GERB had other election committments to meet, regarding salaries and pensions, among other items.
On June 23, Borissov enigmatically referred to the choice of Gripen as “pre-determined”, though whether he was regarding this as a matter of merit or taking a political sideswipe at Radev was not fully clear. At the time of the Gerdzhikov cabinet, there was also talk by the caretaker prime minister about the choice not being pre-determined, comments later echoed by Borissov.
In the first months of 2017, Borissov and Radev have seemed to be at odds about the military modernisation process, including about the fighter jets, though after a Consultative Council of National Security meeting, the Prime Minister and President denied that there were differences between them on these issues.
Gripen has said that it hoped to be invited to negotiations around the end of summer 2017.
Borissov, after talks on June 23 with his Swedish counterpart Stefan Löfven, said that he had told him that negotiations about Gripen would begin “within weeks” and that talks with Italy about the Eurofighters would follow. Borissov indicated that he had told Löfven that investments and offsets would be an important factor.
A report by Karakachanov on Bulgaria’s military modernisation projects, which envisages a total bill of about 3.5 billion leva for the fighter jets, two naval patrol vessels and armoured vehicles for the infantry, is expected to be discussed by the Borissov Cabinet either on June 28 or July 5, at one of the two scheduled weekly meetings.
Given the scale of the spending, the acquisitions process will require the consent of the National Assembly. The President is not a member of the executive and has no role in the decision-making process on the acquisitions, meaning that the GERB June 25 afternoon news conference is an indication that treating the process as a matter for political point-scoring is far from over – and nor will politics, apart from objective considerations, be excluded in the making of decisions.
(Photo, of a Swedish JAS-39 Gripen in 2013: US Air Force)