A decision on choosing new fighter jets requires a balance between technical and political criteria, Bulgarian President Roumen Radev said in an October 12 television interview – and went on to say that the Bulgarian government had failed to achieve this.
The pre-recorded interview with Radev was shown on public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television, dwelling on this week’s failed meeting of the Consultative Council on National Security, his tense relations with Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party, and the fighter jet acquisition process.
Radev, who was Air Force commander before resigning to stand in the 2016 presidential elections, said that the choice of fighter jet was not predetermined.
He said that three shortlisted fighter jets had all met the requirements, “otherwise why would they stay (on the shortlist)?”.
Radev described the issue of the choice of a new fighter aircraft as very complicated. “This is not a water processing plant in Dobrich or a section of motorway,” he said.
The process of preparing the report on the bids had involved meetings with experts and a process that had been prepared according to world standards.
“We need to look for the optimal, not a biased, solution,” Radev said. Those in power had displayed “wretched incompetence” on the issue, according to Radev.
“As for the ambassadors, I absolutely do not accept their interference,” Radev said. Foreign ambassadors should not express an opinion on the work of the Bulgarian institutions, especially when they represent an interested party, he said.
The important thing in making the choice was to find a balance, between technical and political considerations, he said.
“I can give an example from a civilised country, Switzerland,” Radev said. There, the military had ranked the bids from one to three, but “the politicians said, thank you, we choose number 3 because it is more profitable financially and economically”.
Security was an unchanging priority, especially in precarious times, he said.
It was easy and profitable to talk about pensions during elections, but the elections had passed and promises remained unfulfilled. “They (pensions) are important, but to have pensions, a country must be stable and sovereign”.
Bulgaria was very late with its military modernisation, Radev said. He told the interview that he was not defending an individual aircraft, but a method of choice that had been honest and unbiased.
In Parliament, Radev was the subject of allegations of corruption by now-former GERB MP Anton Todorov, who alleged that he had been involved in graft to support the Gripen bid. These allegations are rejected by Radev and by Saab.
The allegations by Todorov came as the National Assembly debated a report by a special parliamentary committee that claimed that the process leading up to the expert report ranking Gripen top had “serious shortcomings” and recommended that the Defence Ministry restart the process.
In the same parliamentary debate, GERB parliamentary leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov emphasised how Bulgaria’s neighbours in the region, fellow Nato members Greece, Romania and Turkey, had US-made F-16s, while he derided Gripen. This led to allegations of open lobbyism on Tsvetanov’s part.
Figures close to GERB have spoken of the need to take into account “geopolitical considerations” in the choice of aircraft, code language for favouring the bid to supply Bulgaria with F-16s for the sake of good relations with Washington.
Earlier in 2017, Borissov had told his Swedish counterpart that negotiations on acquiring Gripens would begin “within weeks”. But after that, there was an about-turn, with GERB initiating the committee to investigate the run-up to the presentation of the expert report to the Gerdzhikov caretaker cabinet.
Radev said in the interview, referring to the allegations against him: “There are unscrupulous allegations about lobbying and corruption, but you see that no one dares to go out and bring charges, because they know that they will be rejected in court”.
Radev said that the overhaul of the Bulgarian Air Force’s MiG-29 engines should proceed, “but after choosing a new aircraft”.
“If we now give the money for the MiGs, it will consume the money for a new aircraft,” he said.
Radev acknowledged the tensions between him and GERB. “Tensions can hardly be hidden when it is forbidden to pronounce the president’s name,” he said – a reference to orders to the GERB group from its leadership to cease public attacks on Radev.
“You see that a whole parliamentary committee was thrown against the presidency,” he said, referring to the special parliamentary committee on the fighter jet acquisition process, which when it was formed in June was described by Radev as a “tribunal” against him.
He said that he appreciated the mediation efforts by Prime Minister Borissov, but apparently for Borissov, it was very difficult to outshout his party colleagues, Radev said.
At the same time, he said that there was a “very correct and working dialogue between me, Borissov and many of his ministers”.
Asked in the interview if a good cop-bad cop scenario was being played out between the governing majority and the Presidency, Radev said that he did not accept “the play about the good and the bad cop, the good prime minister and the bad majority”.
It should be very clear who was speaking in the name of the government and what he was saying, and the institutions should work well with each other, Radev said.
On the failed Consultative Council on National Security meeting, which he had called to discuss the fight against high-level corruption, Radev said that to him, the “very fact that politicians dropped out of a meeting which by law they have to attend is indicative”.
Borissov and GERB have denied that they purposely scuttled the meeting. Borissov was 90 minutes late, one deputy prime minister was absent (on an official visit abroad) while Tsvetanov and the finance minister left before the meeting ended, to keep other appointments. Radev has called a new meeting next week to go over the same topic.
Radev told the BNT interviewer that the topic of fighting corruption was important to Bulgarian society “and so it must be a priority of our politicians, regardless of their (other) commitments”.