Bulgarian President Roumen Radev congratulated Vladimir Putin on his re-election as president of Russia, Radev’s office said on March 19.
Putin, who has been in power either as president or prime minister since 1999, gained a fourth term as president in a March 18 process widely seen as flawed and dismissed by critics as fake.
The internationally-recognised OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission (EOM) said that the elections were conducted in an overly controlled legal and political environment, marked by continued pressure on critical voices.
Radev, in office since January 2017 as head of state after winning election on a ticket backed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, expressed hope to Putin that “we will work together to use the existing potential for mutually advantageous co-operation in a variety of areas in the best interest of the two peoples”.
There was centuries-old historical and cultural closeness between the people of Bulgaria and Russia, Radev said.
His statement, and Putin’s victory in the March 18 event, came a few weeks after tensions over relations between Bulgaria and Russia following a visit by Russian Patriarch Kirill, who was offended by Bulgarian leaders who expressed acknowledgment to other countries, in addition to Russia, for their role in the 1878 Russo-Turkish War that opened the way for Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule.
Radev was caught up in this controversy, with political critics demanding that his office release a transcript of his talks with Kirill, who had sought aggressively to lecture him on Bulgarian history. Radev’s office said that there was no transcript.
Radev was among the first leaders to congratulate Putin, with reports noting something less than a rush to do so. The first to issue congratulations to Putin included the leaders of Serbia, Cuba, Venezuela, China and of former republics of the Soviet Union.
Within the corridors of power in Bulgaria, there are ongoing discussions about a visit by Putin, possibly in the first half of 2018 while Bulgaria continues to hold the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU.
“While candidates could generally campaign freely, the extensive coverage in most media of the incumbent as president resulted in an uneven playing field,” the OSCE observers were reported by the Voice of America as saying. “Choice without real competition, as we have seen here, is not real choice.”
A statement by the EU’s External Action Service noted that the OSCE/ODIHR EOM recorded restrictions on freedoms of assembly, association and expression, as well as on candidate registration, which limited the space for political engagement, resulting in a lack of genuine competition.
As also noted by the observers, extensive and uncritical coverage of the incumbent by the media resulted in an uneven playing field, efforts to increase the turnout predominated over the campaign of the contestants, and a number of activists who questioned the legitimacy of the elections were detained.
Overall, the OSCE/ODIHR EOM recognised that elections were administered efficiently and openly by the Central Electoral Commission and, on the day, conducted in an orderly manner despite shortcomings related to vote secrecy and transparency of counting.
“We expect Russia to address the violations and shortcomings reported by the OSCE/ODIHR EOM, as they run against Russia’s OSCE commitments and other international obligations,” the European External Action Service statement said.
The European Union does not recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by the Russian Federation and therefore does not recognise the holding of elections in the Crimean peninsula.
The OSCE/ODIHR observers did not conduct any activities in these illegally-annexed territories, participation of EU member states’ diplomats in observation activities within the framework of the OSCE/ODIHR EOM was also limited to the recognised territory of the Russian Federation.
“The EU remains unwavering in its support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine,” the statement said.