EXCLUSIVE / “Bulgaria’s choice of the EU and NATO is strategic and should not be called into question,” the country’s new President, Rumen Radev, told euractiv.com in an exclusive interview as he arrives in Brussels today (30 January) for his first visit abroad.
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 point 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, a few days before his Brussels visit.
Mr. President, we talk at a very busy time for you, when you are composing a caretaker government, the main objective of which according to the Bulgarian constitution is to ensure good conditions for the holding of parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for 26 March. You have also already nominated prof. Ognyan Gerdzhikov for caretaker prime minister. You are not a professional politician. How did you choose the prime minister? What are your criteria for selecting the ministers? Are you getting advice from political forces?
The composition of the cabinet proves that it is non-partisan and expert. I entrusted the post of Prime Minister to Prof. [Ognyan] Gerdzhikov, one of the rare Bulgarian politicians sent with a standing ovation from his post as chairman of the National Assembly.
Gerdzhikov is a reputed lawyer, a man with a sense of responsibility. The political parties watched anxiously if the cabinet will be set up without their participation. This is what happened.
The ministers in the cabinet are seen as centrists and experts. The foreign and defence minister [Radi Naydenov and Stefan Yanev] are pro-European and pro-Atlantic professionals. Perhaps with these nominations, you sought to contradict those you label you as “pro-Russian president”? And what is your position on EU sanctions against Russia?
Labelling people is a simplistic political practice. Some European media willingly allow being involved in internal political intrigue, by using labels.
I have already stated in my speech to parliament that Bulgaria’s choice of the EU and NATO is strategic and should not be called into question.
As for the sanctions [against Russia], I do not see what is the practical use of them, as the losses are obvious. I fear that the new US administration will restore the dialogue with Russia and the EU will remain hostage to the sanction war.
How would you describe the main problems facing Bulgaria today? Bulgarians have elected you with a remarkably large majority. Obviously, many people are looking for change. What kind of change? Perhaps more justice? Perhaps a more effective judicial system?
You are absolutely right. Injustice and low incomes are the main problems. The demographic collapse [the immigration of Bulgarians to wealthier countries] is derived from them. Restoring fairness is the answer to these problems.
The judicial system is a pillar of fairness which needs reform. A good justice creates a more secure environment for investment and naturally contributes to solving the problem of low income.
It’s no secret that corruption is also an inherited problem. The recommendations in the latest monitoring report [from the Commission] will be taken into account by the next Bulgarian Parliament, which, hopefully, will put in place a stable executive.
People’s rejection of corruption and injustice is growing and it will inevitably lead to needed changes.
Voters are looking for new faces, not only in Bulgaria, but in other countries too. Your election coincided with Donald Trump’s inauguration, which is creating panic in Europe, perhaps because a number of leaders publicly spoke out against him during the campaign. What relations will you try to have with Trump, Putin, or Xi Jinping?
During my election campaign, I said many times that Bulgarian foreign policy should be formulated in Bulgaria and enforced in the outside world, not the other way around.
In recent years, this has not always been the case. The existence of several geopolitical centers should be another incentive for the EU to seek to preserve its unity, because only a united EU can play on par with other major actors. As far as I’m concerned, I hope to establish pragmatic and mutually beneficial relations with the leaders of the USA, Russia and China.
Bulgaria will hold the presidency of the EU Council in the first half of 2018. Surely its preparation will be among your priorities. Your predecessor warned of the danger that the presidency could be taken away if Bulgaria does not contribute to unity in the EU. What is your reaction?
I reject categorically the suggestion that Bulgaria risks losing the presidency. On the contrary, I am convinced that it will proceed fruitfully.
In the caretaker government, I made the decision to appoint a Deputy Prime Minister [Denitsa Zlateva] for the preparation of the Bulgarian presidency of the EU, which will allow the effective coordination of the activities of the Presidency’s organisation.
The existing teams [preparing the presidency] will be kept.
On 30 January, you will make your first foreign trip as Bulgaria’s head of state. Unsurprisingly, you chose Brussels as your first destination. What do you expect from this visit?
With this visit, I intend to follow-up on my election commitment and establish working contacts with Mr Juncker, Mr Tusk and the newly elected President of the European Parliament Mr Tajani.
Together with them, I want to discuss relations between Sofia and Brussels and the future of the European Union, which in my opinion should be preserved at any cost, despite the difficulties, because its erosion would mean and unforgivable waste of historical time. I will also have a meeting with [NATO chief] Mr Stoltenberg.