"I know of a few airmen who have become presidents of their countries, but I am not aware of any presidents who have become pilots". With this witty phrase during his first campaign event in August 2016 presidential nominee Rumen Radev took on his critics who claimed that his lack of political experience made him unfit for office.
"To be fond of Europe does not have to mean you have to be against Russia", the ex-chief of the Bulgarian Air Force, nominated by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), told Reuters later. It was a rebuttal against his opponents who accused him of being the main pro-Russian presidential nominee.
Mr. Radev, who had been almost unknown to the general public before he left his position of commanding general of the Air Force in early August 2016, got nominated by two of the main pro-Russian parties in Bulgaria - BSP and the Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV) right after he retired. This made many observers within and outside Bulgaria believe that the ex-pilot would act as a "fifth column" of Moscow in Sofia. Mr. Radev's comments about the status of Crimea ("Yes, we have violation of the international norms. But for a fact, there is a Russian flag flying over Crimea. Are we going to turn a blind eye to that?") and ambivalent remarks about the future of Bulgaria in NATO and the EU ("Our policies need to be developed in Sofia and defended abroad, not vice versa") made many Western news outlets put him in the same basket as explicitly pro-Moscow Moldovan president-elect Igor Dodon.
Although the new president still has much to prove, so far the above conclusion seems to be a bit far-fetched. In his first foreign visit - to Brussels - he muted his previous pro-Russian rhetoric and reiterated Bulgarian commitments to the common European and Euro-Atlantic projects (though he didn't miss the opportunity to say that NATO's deterrence posture needs to go hand in hand with consultations with Russia). What is more, in his choice of caretaker cabinet ministers, he went for a mixed group of people, not giving preferences to nominations of BSP cadres and definitely relied in pro-EU and NATO experts in the foreign affairs and defence ministries. If it wasn't for his choices in the Interior Ministry, who appear to be close to Tzvetelin Iovchev, the infamous Interior Minister in Plamen Oresharski's government (2013-2014), the cabinet could have been regarded as a success.
The pilot, the general, the president
The fifth Bulgarian president was born in 1963 in Dimitrovgrad - the town named after the Bulgarian-born head of the Communist International Georgi Dimitrov - in a family with no links to the Communist party. Mr. Radev can easily claim to be a self-made man - despite of his origin, he graduated the mathematics high school with top scores and then the Bulgarian Air Force Academy in 1987 again at the top of his class. Later on he studied not once, but twice, in the leading Air War College of the USA in Maxwell, Alabama, again finishing in the top of his year. In the meantime, he was gradually climbing the command chain of the Bulgarian military aviation.
Mr. Radev rose through the ranks, starting as a junior pilot, then squadron commanderand, finally, since 2009 - deputy commander of the Air Force. At that time the American embassy described him as a "smart, energetic reformer with international experience" who was expected to provide "continued support and cooperation" to NATO allies, according to a leaked report.
Mr. Radev became Air Force Commander in 2014 and soon after that he pledged to resign because of the permanent lack of commitment by the Defence Ministry and the government towards the Air Force. PM Borissov rejected his resignation and urgently provided emergency funding for the Air Force. This was one of two times Mr. Radev got anywhere close to becoming a public persona. The second time was when he organized the first big air show in Bulgaria after the fall of Communism and did the "Pugachev's Cobra" stunt, flying his MiG-29 for a couple of seconds with its tail ahead.
A year and a half later, though, when Mr. Radev delivered his resignation for the second time, he was already rumored to be the joint nomination of ABV and BSP, who were desperate to find a winning candidate, who would stop the left's free fall of the last decade. The parties were looking for a political outsider, who still had a strong public profile and could win the masculinity challenge against a possible Boyko Borissov nomination. It all developed in a matter of days - Mr. Radev filed his resignation for the second time, citing again his disapproval of the government's attitude towards the Air Force. His resignation letter was strangely leaked first to Russian media, which marked the start of his campaign. A week later he was formally nominated by the Socialists and was the first to hit the campaign trail, more than a month before the other candidates.
A campaign for champions
Several things helped Mr. Radev win the elections. First of all, during the long (for Bulgarian standards) campaign he made very few mistakes. He jumped on the anti-migrant bandwagon, stealing votes from the extreme right; called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia, solidifying his leftist appeal; called for judicial reform and fight against corruption, which attracted center-right voters, and stuck to the basic principles of BSP with regard to big energy projects with Russian companies, lack of social justice and mild Euro-bashing.
What is more important though, his main opponent became the less-than-popular chairwoman of the National Assembly Tsetska Tsacheva from GERB. It is still unclear why Boyko Borissov nominated her for head of state, but next to the charismatic strongman Mrs. Tsacheva stood no chances. In two far from memorable TV debates she threw a few punches at the ex-general, but in the end his position of an outsider and a strong individual prevailed - Mr. Radev won comfortably the run-off vote with 59% to Mrs. Tsacheva's 36%.
Prime Minister Boyko Borissov acknowledged Mrs. Tsacheva's defeat as defeat for GERB and resigned, leaving the freshly elected president, who had not even been inaugurated by that time, to scramble a caretaker government and organize the next parliamentary elections. Probably Mr. Borissov expected the inexperienced new politician to make some grave mistakes in his first days of office, which would cost Mr. Radev and BSP popularity before the early elections. So far, the ex-PM seems to have made a serious miscalculation.
Instead of continuing with his pro-Russian rhetoric, in his first steps as president Mr. Radev took a low profile in forming his team of aides and the caretaker government. He did not give any interviews in Bulgaria for more than two months, but he made sure to talk to foreign media in order to cast aside the West's fear about his geopolitical positioning. His caretaker cabinet choices showed that his emancipation from the BSP, yet there are still some questions marks about him.
First of all, Mr. Radev has some pretty sly influencers around him. Ivo Hristov, a rogue left-wing journalist, stood next to the ex-general during his campaign, wrote his speeches and would definitely exercise a huge degree of influence over the new president. He became his chief of staff in the new administration. Mr. Radev's unfounded position against the Canadian-European trade deal, CETA, is most probably dictated by anti-globalist leaning Mr. Hristov. Secondly, the president's position on Crimea may cause some trouble in Brussels, if his Bulgarian supporters push him to reaffirm it. Last but not least, his cautious and rating-seеking approach might prevent him from taking reformist positions that threaten the status quo. His personal ego, it seems, can't withstand all the dirt which the shady oligarchic and political establishment in Bulgaria is ready to throw at him once it feels threatened. To face that challenge, any politician in Bulgaria needs real conviction,because the attack will be vicious, as former president Rossen Plevneliev can testify."