In a wide-ranging interview, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, whose country takes over the EU’s rotating six-month Presidency in January, discussed European policies, the upcoming Bulgarian Presidency, and his contradictions with Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
Rumen Radev, a former military pilot and chief of the Bulgarian airforce, won the presidential elections by a landslide on 13 November, as the candidate of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party. Often labeled by foreign media as “pro-Russian”, he usually responds by pointing out that he was a NATO military pilot who risked his life almost every day to protect his country.
Radev spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev, who is also the publisher of BulgarianPresidency.eu, a journalistic project to monitor the upcoming Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU (the interview published on BulgarianPresidency.eu also contains the original text in Bulgarian).
Mr. President, we are speaking hours after the Chairman of the Bulgarian National Assembly was changed in a very dramatic way. What is happening in Bulgaria? [The PM Boyko Borissov asked the Chairman (Parliament Speaker) Dimitar Glavchev on 17 November to resign, to avoid a political crisis.]
I recently said that democracy is in retreat. The expulsion from the podium of the opposition leader for criticising the prime minister and the government is the epitome of this thesis. However, the resignation of the President of the Parliament has shown that there is some threshold of self-preservation of parliamentarianism and that this threshold has worked. This move brings the opposition back to the plenary hall and I hope that dialogue and the normal work of the National Assembly will resume.
The resignation came after the demonstrative intervention of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. And the Bulgarian Parliament, as the highest political body in a parliamentary republic, should be independent, it should regulate its internal conflicts and control the government and not vice-versa. So the crisis has passed, but my anxiety remains.
The impression of an external observer like me is that Prime Minister Borissov does not control his people well, and when one of them overdoes it, including by attacking you, he takes action, often with a delay, by removing those people from posts, by firing them or forcing them to reign. Do you agree?
Whether the prime minister manages to control his own party in the parliament is a question you should ask primarily to him …
I have asked for an interview with the Prime Minister and I expect he will give it to me.
… I stand for openness in politics and I do not accept that we shake hands above the table, while under the table something else is going on. Such attitude does not lead to constructive relations.
I have contradictions with the government in terms of values, which sometimes create tension. For example, for me and for the vast majority of the Bulgarian people, the fight against corruption is a priority. And I would like to see real, comprehensive and effective measures on the part of the ruling majority. No anti-corruption declarations in the past tense, like a revision of privatisation from 20 years ago. I would like a revision of major public procurement in recent years, of the way EU funds are spent, and above all to create clear mechanisms to ensure the detection, the curbing, the investigation and the criminal prosecution of corrupt practices now and in the future. This can restore justice in society, not just the confiscation of illegally acquired property, which is the basic idea of the new anti-corruption law sponsored by the government.
That’s fine, but the government attacks you by suggesting you have taken some money for some planes … [New fighter jets are badly needed to replace an ageing Russia-built fleet to defend Bulgaria’s airspace. In his previous capacity of head of the air forces, Radev was in charge of a tender procedure.]
These staged attacks began when I stated that there was no political will to fight against high-level corruption in Bulgaria, and effective measures were needed to discipline the political class.
The majority has even set up a special parliamentary committee aimed at badmouthing me and at revising the opinion of military experts on the choice of a new aircraft. The work of this parliamentary committee ended ingloriously – with an irresponsible and inappropriate opinion, but with arrogant and groundless suggestions. Of course, no one dared to come up with specific charges because they know they will be overturned in court.
No funds have been spent on the project [to replace the fighter jets] so far, while 2 billion leva [€1bn] have been disbursed on the national rehabilitation programme [of ageing communist-time housing] initiated and carried out by the government in their previous term of office – with way over-inflated prices, lack of quality control and despite multiple reports of wrongdoing. I suggested to the same people who set up the fighter jets committee to organise a parliamentary committee to investigate the dubiously spent 2 billion on rehabilitation, but in response I have total silence.
In fact, the attacks on me have increased particularly since the public debate began on who should appoint the leadership of the new anti-corruption body – whether it would be the president or the parliamentary majority.
This case is indicative of the use of the Bulgarian parliament against the presidential institution in the pursuit of narrow party goals. I would like to see a truly working Bulgarian parliament that enjoys the trust of society. But for this the Parliament needs to be guided by the interests of this society. The parliament should give birth to laws, not to scandals. The Parliament should be the arena of meaningful political debates, not of personal attacks.
Prime Minister Borissov recently developed the theory, including in front of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, that Europe needs to decide what defence forces it needs, including from combat aircraft, and that this issue should not be tackled piecemeal, at national level. Is it right?
We can not pass on to the European Commission the responsibility for resolving our pressing problems in the defence sphere.
Prime Minister Borissov should be worried above all about the fact that Bulgaria is still lagging behind in building military capabilities. Bulgaria is moving away from the requirement of Article 3 of the NATO Treaty to develop its own defence capabilities, as well as the Lisbon Treaty, obliging EU member states to improve their military capabilities.
The full integration of Bulgaria into the EU, as is the government’s broadly stated goal, cannot be done selectively – only in areas of our choice, such as Schengen and the eurozone. There is also a need for security integration, which is a priority for the Union.
To provide answers on social issues mentioning security costs – this is populism. Security is a prerequisite for prosperity, and social systems are an element of security.
You are being attacked on another account – that you are pro-Russian. But as far as I remember, it wasn’t you who gave Putin a puppy …
(Laughs) This is a fashionable media claim across Europe, and not only there. I am guided by the interest of Bulgaria and Europe. Do you think warlike rhetoric against Russia is in our interest? It exacerbates tension, it raises the risk and divides the continent just when we have to stand united against global terrorism, the invasion of radical Islam, the rise of confrontation.
Chancellor Merkel recently said we cannot talk about security in Europe without Russia. Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel very rightly pointed out that we should stop talking about Russia and that we should start talking to Russia. I am in favour of dialogue, not confrontation. I may be a general, but I don’t like warlike rhetoric. Besides, those who use such rhetoric are politicians without military experience. Bulgarians have deep historical ties with the Russian people, and Bulgaria can help with this dialogue.
There is big contrast between you and your predecessor, Rossen Plevneliev, in the public discourse about Russia …
In my actions I’m not guided by the positions of my predecessors, but by the political reality.
I want to ask you about the new education law in Ukraine. Hungary finds it outrageous, Bulgaria responds calmly. Why?
The systems of studying the mother tongue by the Bulgarian and шге Hungarian communities in Ukraine are very different. I had a meeting with President Poroshenko during the session of the UN General Assembly and very clearly I raised the issue of the linguistic rights of the Bulgarians and the study of Bulgarian language in Ukraine. I received personal guarantees from President Poroshenko to preserve their volume and even to significantly expand the study of Bulgarian. And in this regard, we agreed with the Minister of Education of Ukraine, along with representatives of our community and teachers of Bulgarian language in Ukraine, that a visit to Bulgaria will take place and together with our Ministry of Education we would work in detail on the curricula and programmes so that our interests are definitely protected. This meeting is scheduled for the end of January. I hope the government will finish the process. In my opinion, we have to solve the problems in constructive dialogue, not confrontation, from which both sides could only lose.
What are the geopolitical risks during the Bulgarian Presidency?
Europe’s biggest risk is to place itself aside from the global dynamic processes. When I say “aside”, I mean not only the decision-making and expressing positions, but also the involvement in finding solutions, as well as in taking certain actions.
With the Rome Declaration, Europe has made a claim for high ambition. The declaration speaks about a strong Europe on the global stage. If we want this to be more than a slogan, Europe has to take a new course. Greater activity is needed in terms of global processes and crises. We need mechanisms for a faster and more consolidated response, for greater determination in action, for overcoming inertia, for defending our own interests. We see dynamic events being controlled by other global players – USA, Russia, China. And Europe is often out of the process, which is not in our interest.
Here I find you in agreement with Boyko Borissov, who said days ago: Putin and Trump discussed Syria, Europe is not present, Putin and Erdogan discussed Syria, Europe is not there again …
Presidents Putin and Trump make decisions or discuss issues that concern Europe directly, and Europe is not involved.
The ambition of being present on the global stage cannot be realised with the “soft power” toolkit only, while other global players develop substantial military power. Let us imagine for a moment how NATO would look without the military power of the United States, Turkey and Canada?
OK, but there is an embryo already, PESCO… [the Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence]
The idea of a Common European Defence is not new, but it has only been gaining momentum since recently. What is important is that the views of European leaders on the importance of European defence have evolved considerably. If, years ago, this idea was tightly stranded within the limits of the military paradigm, and it was mainly associated with the response to threats, recent actions by the united Europe reveal a significant evolution and consider European defence as an essential factor for the future development of the Union: by giving a new impetus to the common European project, as President Macron sees it, by integrating efforts in the area of high technology and the defence industry, by achieving the level of ambition for a strong Europe.
Of course, there are difficult challenges on this road: the military construction of the Common European Defence, which should not duplicate NATO; the strong fragmentation of the European defence industry; the strong competition of countries and companies in this industry – the forced attempt to reunite them will come into conflict with the fundamental principles of the free market.
In this regard, the big debate about the Common European Defence scenarios is yet to come. This is where the European Commission has taken forward-looking steps. Rather than indulging in the endless debate about the construction of Common European Defence, the EU executive banked on PESCO and on generating capabilities – alongside them one day the future forces would be generated. Instead of sinking into unsolvable disputes about the unification of the defence industries, Mr. Juncker has put the focus on pooling efforts in research and development – the latter being much more flexible. They are at the heart of the modern high-tech industry and one day will lead to its unification. This is how the idea of the European Defence Fund was born.
You mentioned the Rome Declaration, in which you were involved. Tell me something interesting about its adoption …
It is normal to worry about the future of the EU, but I believe that we must make every effort to preserve and develop the Union. Its collapse would mean conflicts and the economic sunset for the countries of the continent, which will hardly be able to compete with the new economies in Asia.
I am convinced that we must return to the founding principles of the Union, and above all, solidarity. That is why I proposed and insisted that cohesion policy should be an integral part of the Rome Declaration of the EU. During the caretaker government, I represented Bulgaria in the EU Council, and when we discussed the draft of the declaration at the beginning of March, cohesion policy did not appear in it. I thank the other leaders for their understanding and support, and especially Council President Donald Tusk. I believe this to be a fundamental issue, because without leveling in development, Europe is doomed to large-scale internal migration and polarisation that systematically weakens it.
What role will the president play during the Bulgarian Presidency?
I can tell you that with regard to the EU, we are working together with the government with a view to the upcoming European Presidency. It is also important that Bulgaria’s European commitment is shared by all parliamentary political forces.
The presidential institution is actively involved in the debate on the priorities of the EU presidency. Not only for Bulgaria but also for the troika as a whole. On this topic, I held meetings and liaised not only with the presidents of the other trio countries – Estonia and Austria, but also with the Romanian President, whose country will take over from Austria [on 1 January 2019]. Continuity between countries is important and we hope that our discussions will continue on Bulgarian soil during our presidency. Bulgaria is taking over from Estonia the theme of the digital future of Europe, where we have a great potential for progress, and the responsible Commissioner is from Bulgaria. I am also convinced that Bulgaria, Austria and Romania can activate and develop the Danube Strategy substantially.
I have fruitful meetings with a number of European Commissioners; some of them already have practical results. As a result of our February talks with Mrs. Elżbieta Bieńkowska, Commissioner for the Internal Market, Industry and Entrepreneurship, we decided together to hold a conference in Bulgaria on the European Defence Fund under my patronage. This conference took place only a week after the EC decision to set up the Fund in July this year, and it was a great success. A number of issues related to the mechanisms for participation in the fund, the opportunities for Bulgarian science and industry, the ways for countries like Bulgaria to integrate into common European projects were discussed. And this is the biggest benefit of this fund – not just to allocate funds but to help the integration of European countries in the field of research and high technology in the field of defence.
I am also actively involved in the debate on education, innovation, research, digitaliisation. Europe must unite around them because these issues will dominate in the future.
So far, we haven’t even mentioned two-speed Europe. Is not that a problem for Bulgaria?
A Europe of different speeds exists and that is a fact. Our ambition is not to undo this using slogans, but with creative policies and initiatives. We must mobilise our efforts to participate actively in as many enhanced cooperation as possible, as those will give the impetus to Europe’s development.
I work actively with the Bulgarian government so that during the presidency we can insist on clear rules for participation in these enhanced cooperations, and the criteria should not change during the game. In this respect, the odyssey on our way to Schengen is revealing, because during the process the rules were changed and new political criteria emerged.
I want to ask you about this statue of a lion, which appeared in the place of the monument “1300 years Bulgaria”. The lion is holding a shield with San Stefano Bulgaria, which apparently raised eyebrows in Greece. First, why do such things happen, especially at an inappropriate moment, and secondly – what solution would be possible?
I was neither informed nor invited to this event.
But would you describe it as a blunder?
You need a very good knowledge of history when taking such steps. The statue is part of a large memorial complex consisting of memorial walls with the names of thousands of Bulgarian officers and soldiers who died for our national unification. Therefore, the lion himself, alone, without the most important part of the memorial complex – the walls with the names of the perished, gives rise to claims. Let everyone, however, know that we are a people who have given numerous and dear victims for our freedom and that we respect our history.
With regard to the desecration of Russian monuments, there have been many comments that there is something hybrid and questionable behind those deeds. Who defiles them, for what purpose?
This has been happening for 30 years, not since yesterday, so the so-called hybrid explanations do not make the fact less disturbing and outrageous. The worrying thing for me is that we see more swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans. This is a sacrilege. In our centuries of history, Bulgarians have proven to be tolerant of other religions and ethnicities, and we must preserve this spirit. It is unacceptable to desecrate monuments, and even worse with swastikas. It is also unacceptable that someone from the outside should distort our story.
You made a statement and you were clear enough that Bulgaria saved its Jews …
The Bulgarian people saved their Jews and this is one of the bright pages not only in Bulgarian but also in European history. This act is an example of true consolidation – the people, the politicians, the intelligentsia, the church – all together, united by a highly humane cause.
Isn’t it better if the perpetrators were captured, interrogated and punished?
Of course. This applies not only for Bulgaria. Such cases have multiplied across Europe. Yes, our story has gone through many periods, dramatic with their contradiction, but this is our story and we must respect it.
Are we ready for provocation during the presidency?
It depends what you mean by the word provocation. It has many dimensions.
Are our nationalists a risk? They are present in the government, in theory some of them could chair EU council meetings …
What is important for me is not the label, but ideas and politics. Throughout Europe we are seeing an alarming increase in nationalism. French President Mitterrand said that nationalism meant war. The historical experience of the twentieth century confirms this thesis. The EU has an indisputable achievement and this is the pacification of the continent for seven decades. This is a good that modern man understands, because most of our contemporaries in Europe were born and grew up in peace.
But the growth of nationalism is a sign of dissatisfaction. It is a signal that we need to listen to people, we need to speak their language, solve their problems, from which we have become distanced.
This is actually your task as a president.
This was also one of the main commitments in my election campaign: to be the voice of the Bulgarian people and to be guided by their interests. This is the reason for the public support for my positions, which often give rise to political tensions. I accept this price.