Bulgaria’s National Assembly approved on October 5 a report by a special parliamentary committee recommending that the country go back to square one in its fighter jet acquisition process, with the committee saying that the process that led to a report ranking the Saab Gripen offer as the best had serious shortcomings.
The vote, by 127 to 64 with five abstentions, came after an explosive debate that included an MP for Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s party hinting that President Roumen Radev – formerly the commander of the Air Force – had taken a bribe to support Gripen.
Radev was on an official visit to Poland on October 5 and his office told the media that it had been following the debate in the National Assembly. However, it was not immediately clear whether Radev’s office would release an official reaction to the allegations.
The GERB MP, Anton Todorov, apart from alleging corruption on the part of Radev, also alleged that the State Agency for National Security (SANS) was conducting an investigation in the Presidency into claims that Radev’s chief of staff, Ivo Hristov, had read classified information in spite of not having a security clearance.
Todorov’s allegation about Hristov led to demands from the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) that prosecutors investigate whether Todorov had broken laws on classified information, and asked how Todorov could have access to information about the purported investigation by SANS.
Todorov – recently in the headlines because of the withdrawal of the intention to nominate him as the new head of the Dossier Commission because of controversy surrounding him – went on to level defamatory allegations against Radev’s wife.
BSP leader Kornelia Ninova said that GERB was using the ad hoc committee as a “club” to strike against Radev as part of a scheme to bring down Radev and have Borissov elected as the country’s president.
The ad hoc committee was set up in June, at the initiative of GERB, to investigate the process that led up to an expert report, presented to the Gerdzhikov caretaker government in early 2017, that rated the Gripen offer as the best.
At the time, Radev said that the committee was intended to be a “tribunal” directed against him.
GERB parliamentary group leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov told the House in the October 5 debate that it was the BSP itself that had created a bad image of Radev.
According to Tsvetanov, the sole purpose of the parliamentary ad hoc committee had been to “get the truth out”.
“Bulgarian taxpayers have to pay 1.5 billion leva for the purchase of the aircraft,” Tsvetanov said.
He went on to call for caution in speeches in Parliament regarding the presidential institution.
“Whether we like it or not, I think everyone recognised the election result when the elections were over,” Tsvetanov said. (The victory by Radev, on a ticket backed by the BSP, prompted Borissov to bring down his government and prompt early parliamentary elections).
BSP MP Zhelyu Boichev said that Nikolai Nenchev – the defence minister in the second Borissov government – had created “regulatory chaos” in the process of selecting a fighter aircraft.
Boichev said that the ad hoc committee’s report was proof that modernisation of the Bulgarian armed forces would never happen. “Once again you lied,” Boichev said, addressing himself to the government benches.
He said that the committee had been intended as a shot aimed at Radev but “with the conclusions of this report, you shot yourself”.
The BSP would vote against approval of the committee’s report, Boichev said. “Let the refusal to modernise the military be on your conscience,” he said.
The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the National Assembly’s fourth-largest group, said that it would support the report, while Vesselin Mareshki, leader of the smallest group, Volya, said: “I think that this is all just talk. It is clear that no aircraft will be bought at all”.
Ahead of the debate, Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov – a co-leader of the United Patriots, the nationalist grouping that is the minority partner in the current Borissov government – said that he saw “no need to hurry” in the acquisition of a new fighter jet.
Karakachanov said in a television interview that a “rapid” deal would create suspicions of corruption.
In 2017, Prime Minister Borissov has flip-flopped on the issue. Soon after taking office, he told his Swedish counterpart that negotiations on the acquisition of Gripens would begin “within weeks”. But after that, Borissov changed his tune.
In the October 5 debate, Tsvetanov listed the numbers of F-16s in use by the air forces of Greece, Turkey and Romania, while levelling slights against Gripen.
“I think that when making important political decisions, it is important to take into account the compatibility that is line with Nato standards,” Tsvetanov said.
The BSP’s Dragomir Stoynev said that the reason the ad hoc committee had been formed was so that Bulgaria would get the F-16s.
The ad hoc parliamentary committee recommends that the Defence Ministry goes back to the bidders that submitted offers in 2016 – Saab with Gripen, Portugal with second-hand F-16s and Italy with second-hand Eurofighters – and restart the process.
Towards the close of the debate, Tsvetanov apologised for members of his parliamentary group having made personal attacks on the President and the President’s wife.