Two months before the Presidential elections, Radev is the only candidate, and with an approval rating soaring above 65%, he stands a good chance of being re-elected. Supported by parties opposing the local politics status-quo, Radev is trying to build a stronger persona and a long-term presence on the political scene
“I am not so important…I am the President”
The political turbulations Bulgaria faced between 2020-2021 have turned President Rumen Radev into a different figure: one who manages to side with the societal unrest and find a dialogue among politicians who hardly speak to each other. And that brought him into the spotlight, in a country where the Constitution grants the President rather symbolic powers, and the media focuses almost exclusively on the Prime Minister.
For the first three years of his mandate, Radev was content in the role. “I’m not that important”, he said in a viral video to a tourist from Brazil who randomly met him during a public event and asked why everybody was paying attention to him. When pressed, a hesitant Radev eventually said “I’m the President”.
His public figure lacked an aura of leadership but the President played well his cards with the anti-establishment protest wave in 2020 against the cabinet of GERB and United Patriots, plus Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, all of whom are in open conflict with Radev. He openly endorsed the protests and even called the previous government “mafia” in 2020 and criticized the failure to set up a ruling coalition in 2021.
With less than two months to go before the joint Presidential and parliamentary elections on November 14, Rumen Radev is running for re-election and is surprisingly the only candidate for the post. He announced his intentions on February 1 and in the seven months that passed since not even one contender has stepped forward.
Radev will run as an independent candidate with an initiative committee, supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), just as in 2016 when he stood against GERB’s Tsetska Tsacheva in the second round and won with 59.37 per cent.
After more than a decade of Boyko Borissov and GERB dominating Bulgarian politics, the 2021 brought seismic changes amid which Radev stands surprisingly stable and only growing in status.
Political stalemate in Sofia
The Presidential and the parliamentary elections will overlap after two consecutive polls since the spring were followed by disagreements in the parliament, ego wars and failed expectations. Amid the chaos, no party managed to muster a majority despite the seemingly perfect moment for a new chapter in local politics to be opened.
The first inconclusive elections in April brought an uncertain win for GERB and surprisingly big support for the so-called “parties of the protest” – newly formed There’s Such a Nation, led by the hugely popular talk show host and singer Slavi Trifonov, Democratic Bulgaria alliance, which became a major force in Sofia, and “Stand Up! We’re Coming!”. After no coalition was formed, Bulgaria braced for elections in July, won by There’s Such a Nation with 24.8 percent of the popular vote. Instead of siding with the other opposition parties, the party offered a cabinet of political unknowns, entirely by their own choosing and without the input of their potential partners, which angered the parliament and disappointed many of the party’s voters.
In the process, Radev stayed loyal to his partners from the Bulgarian Socialist Party and twice gave them the third mandate (by law, if the first two parties fail to muster a majority, the third mandate is given by the President to a party of his own choosing) - which meant that on both times Radev killed any chance for Democratic Bulgaria to try to find common ground with the other opposition parties and handed the mandate to a party which obviously would not find support. Although in opposition to GERB in the parliament, BSP are not seen as a reliable partner by the others because of the unsolved relationship with their communist past and their alleged Moscow-ties.
How the political deadlock in Bulgaria actually works for Radev
Through the months, the heated exchanges in the parliament only made the solid President-appointed interim cabinet increasingly gaining trust. According to research by Market Links in July, 50 percent of the society is content with the expert team’s policies and this number grew to 54 percent in August.
Meanwhile, as the caretaker cabinet grew in reputation over critical revisions of the previous government and enthusiasm for reforms, this also worked for Radev’s own status. In all polling agencies’ reports, Radev’s rating skyrocketed through 2021.
According to a report by Gallup International from September 17, 65.5 percent of the society approves the current President.
On September 16 Radev appointed the second caretaker cabinet, which to a large extent was the same, however, with a few noticeable changes – former Ministers of Economy and Finance, Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, were not part of it and on the same day announced their own party – “We Continue The Change”, expected to gain enough turnout to be part of the next parliament. This was the first time the political power has been transferred from one interim government to another. “The caretaker government proved a successful example, a step forward in overcoming the political prejudices that are blocking the development of the country,” Radev said during the announcement. “Unfortunately, the political class did not accept the model of the caretaker government and society’s pleas.”
On Monday the caretaker cabinet approved the budget for the double elections - 123.8 million leva (63.3 million euro).
Where does Radev actually stand politically?
This is actually a hard question to answer.
Born in 1963 in Dimitrovgrad, a planned workers town established according to the socialist model city standard of the late 1940’s, he studied in the nearby town of Haskovo and eventually graduated from the Georgi Benkovski Bulgarian Air Force University in 1987. Later he became a Doctor of Military Sciences with a degree in the field of improvement of tactical training of flight crews and simulation of air combat. In 2003 he also graduated from the US Airforce’s Air War College. Radev was the commander of the Bulgarian Air Force between 2014-2017. He did not have political affiliations or known ambitions before his socialist-backed campaign in 2016.
As of 2021, Rumen Radev is careful with his public image and does not fall easily into categories – he hasn’t expressed exclusively pro-EU or pro-Moscow sentiments, pro-liberal or pro-conservative opinions, despite being backed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, a direct successor to the repressive Bulgarian Communist Party which dissolved after 1989.
However, during interviews in 2017, he opposed EU’s sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. In an interview for “France 24” from the same year he also played down Russia’s potential influence in the region through the construction of gas pipeline Balkan Stream, saying that if the prices are low, it’s all for the best. Over social media, in Facebook groups praising Boyko Borissov and opposing the 2020 protest wave, the rhetoric that only a Communist-like and Russia-influenced government is about to follow, is strong: and in these sentiments, Radev is increasingly painted as a proxy of the Kremlin. However, Radev has not made a statement sympathizing with totalitarian regimes and has not recently commented on Putin’s policies. At the same time, he also stayed silent on the controversy with the uncovered Russian spy-ring in Sofia, which was used by Borissov to again paint Radev as a sort of a Moscow agent himself.
Another point of discussion is that for months Radev did not disclose whether he’s vaccinated and whether he approves of mass inoculation - a hot topic in Bulgaria, where antivax sentiments are prevalent and so far only little over 1.2 million are vaccinated (the numbers are also increasingly disputed as over the late summer several locations producing fake vaccine certificate were found and closed by authorities). On August 28 he finally said to local media he has been vaccinated without commenting further on the subject.
In October 2020, the President raised some eyebrows when he flew and attended an investment forum in Estonia, despite knowing he was in contact with a COVID-19 positive person in Bulgaria.
Radev vs Borissov
Meanwhile, Radev’s crossfire with Borissov is showing no signs of slowing down. While Radev repeatedly accused GERB of corruption and formally withdrew confidence in the government as early as February 2020, Borissov has also passionately criticized the President. This has even included accusations that Radev is stalking him through a drone, a suspicion Borissov expressed when photos of him laying naked in a bed next to a pistol and gold bars were leaked to the media in the summer of 2020. During the days of the largest protests, in July 2020, Radev demanded for the government to resign, something which GERB claimed was not an option.
In the past year alone, Borissov has called Radev a dictator, dirty old-hag and in a leaked phone conversation – “a dumb aviator”.
Radev has also criticized Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, seen by the protest voices and the new parties in the parliament as a figure which blocks investigations targeting the previous government and acts as a guardian of the status-quo. In late 2019, Radev refused to sign the decree appointing Geshev and vetoed the choice, explaining he took that decision because there were suspicions that the process is government-controlled. Geshev, the sole candidate for the post, was eventually elected again. In April 2020 the Prosecution released recordings of Radev’s conversations without much background over the eavesdropping. Around the announcement it became known that Geshev had appealed to the Constitutional Court of Bulgaria to have Radev's legal immunity revoked in order of investigation over a crime related to conflict of interest. The case was eventually dropped by the authorities. “The prosecution devalues two important concepts for the protection of statehood – ’treason’ and ‘violation of the constitution’ by using them for sensationalist purpose. The attacks against me and my family are already taking on an ugly dimension and are being carried out regardless of the means,” Radev said at the time.”
In July 2020, the Prosecution and the police entered the Presidency without a clear explanation, after which Radev asked for Geshev’s resignation.
Who can stand against Radev?
The Presidential elections seems as another facet of Bulgaria’s unpredictable 2021.
Slavi Trifonov of There’s Such a Nation, the winners of the July repeat elections, surprisingly said in a rare TV interview in August that the party will also stand behind Radev and won’t come with its own candidate. This was seen as an unexpected move, as Trifonov has previously been critical of both the BSP and the caretaker cabinet.
On Sunday the newly formed party “We Continue the Change”, created by the two former Radev-appointed caretaker ministers, also said that the President answers their values but demanded not to be seen as a project influenced by him.
GERB are supposed to come up with their own candidate until the end of the month which according to the words of party member Tomislav Donchev, won’t be former long-time PM Boyko Borissov. He also added that the person will be “rather a man than a woman”.
Ironically, so far the clearest answer has come from Bulgarian boxing star Kubrat Pulev, who said “Why not?” after being asked during a TV interview in June whether he thinks about entering politics and running for President. However, Pulev later said that he has still much to offer in his boxing career and downplayed the speculations.
As elections approach, Radev enters the ring in the spotlight but without a clear view over the other contender.