Shortly after Rumen Radev’s victory was confirmed in Bulgaria’s presidential election run-off, the United States voiced its “deep concern” on Monday (22 November) over Radev’s comment in a televised debate last week that “Crimea is Russian for the time being”.
On Sunday, Radev celebrated his victory in the second round, where he defeated Anastas Gerdzhikov, the candidate put forward by the centre-right GERB party, by 66.7% to 31.8%.
But on Monday, the US embassy in Sofia issued a statement saying that “the United States is deeply concerned by the recent statements of Bulgarian President Rumen Radev in which he referred to Crimea as Russian.”
“The United States, G7, European Union, and NATO have all been clear and united in our position that, despite Russia’s attempted annexation and ongoing occupation, Crimea is Ukraine,” the embassy said.
“All of us, including Bulgaria, declared at the Crimea Platform Summit in August that Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine and that we do not and will not recognize Russia’s efforts to legitimize its illegal seizure and occupation of the peninsula. In recent days we have communicated our deep concern to the Bulgarian government in Washington and Sofia.
The ‘Crimea Platform’ is an initiative by Kyiv to keep the issue of the occupation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia in the minds of the international community.
During the only televised debate Radev had with Gerdzhikov on Thursday (18 November), his opponent challenged him to state his position on Crimea.
Radev started by saying that the Western sanctions against Russia did not bring a result.
“For many years, there has been no change in Russia’s policy. A more pragmatic policy is needed,” he said.
After a brief interruption by his opponent, Radev continued: “For the time being, Crimea is Russian. Isn’t it?”
Ukraine was the first to react, summoning the Bulgarian ambassador in Kyiv on Friday and asking for a rebuttal from Radev.
On the same day, Radev tried to minimise the incident.
“There is no drama. The issue is crystal clear. The annexation of Crimea is a violation of international law, and as I said during the debate yesterday – there are facts in politics, and for the time being, Crimea is Russian,” he said on the last day of his campaign.
Bulgarian Vice president Iliana Iotova also commented, saying that Radev and herself were among the European leaders calling for a resumption of EU-Russia summits. The summits used to take place twice a year but were put on hold in 2014, after the Crimea annexation.
During his first five-year term, Radev was constantly accused by his opponents of being pro-Russian.
Radev called for a pragmatic approach of the EU towards Russia and a possible lifting of the EU sanctions.
But he was vocal on other Russia-related issues, such as an alleged Novichok-type attack against Bulgarian businessman Emilian Gebrev, which according to Bellingcat was perpetrated by Russian agents, while Prime Minister Boyko Borissov largely neglected the incident.
Radev has also denounced the Borissov government’s involvement in recent spy cases, which exposed Bulgarian officials delivering confidential information to the Russian embassy in Sofia.
In the end, the ‘Crimea’ blunder did not dent voters’ confidence in Radev, who is seen as a strongman with the ambition to dismantle cronyism and organised crime in Bulgaria.
Moscow was delighted by Radev’s Crimea comment. The Russian state-owned RIA-Novosti announced that the leader of the Bulgarian community in Crimea warmly invited Radev to visit “Russian Crimea”.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]