Bulgaria has elected Rumen Radew as the new President. The socialist party’s opposition candidate won the election rather surprisingly. Radew is a newcomer to the political scene; before being elected President, he was Chief of Bulgaria’s Air Force and worked closely with NATO. Nonetheless, the new President is seen as Russian-friendly and is openly calling for an end to the sanctions against Russia. At first glance one might suspect the Bulgarians to be veering towards Moscow with their election, playing right into the hands of Russian President Putin. After a more careful examination, it has become clear that there are other reasons behind the Bulgarian vote.
This eastern European country is struggling with massive corruption and poverty rates. According to Transparency International, compared to the rest of Europe, Bulgaria is among those countries with the highest incidents of corruption. With about 46% of the average GDP per capita, Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU. The increase in the standard of living that the Bulgarians hoped to have after joining the EU in 2007 failed to materialize. The opposite was actually the case; the economic crisis hit Bulgaria and caused the local growth rate to fall, and the continuing disparities between Bulgaria and the other EU countries remain considerable. After an almost 10-year membership in the EU, disenchantment is spreading among the Bulgarians. On the one hand, the EU is losing its luster, and on the heels of this fact comes the accusation that the weakest members of the Union are falling by the wayside. On the other hand, there is a growing sense of mistrust among the people regarding Bulgaria’s political class, due to nationwide income inequality. The vote for the political newcomer Rumen Radew is also a vote against the existing political hegemony that has disappointed the public in the last few years.
A representative Gallup poll conducted this year supports these statements. Accordingly, the majority of the Bulgarian population hopes to see a rise in living standards. Furthermore, the trust of the Bulgarian people has reached an all-time low since joining the EU. Nevertheless, the majority does not want stronger ties to Russia. The vote for an inexperienced candidate from the opposition party is therefore more a decision against the existing political elite and against the EU, as opposed to a nod to Russia.
Even so, Russia is important for Bulgaria. As a supplier of raw materials, Russia is one of Bulgaria’s biggest trade partner. In calling for a stop to sanctions, Radew’s aim is to make sure Bulgaria doesn’t have to decide for or against Russia. According to his statements, Radew wants Bulgaria to continue on its geopolitical path geared to the West. However, Radew’s pro-Europeanism doesn’t equate to an automatic phobia of Russia. In fact, an anti-Russian rhetoric harbors unnecessary risks for him.
In this respect, Radew is more of a pragmatist than pro-Russian, who doesn’t want to bash Russia for the sake of Bulgarian security, but who rather aims to strike conciliatory tones. Where opposite paths can lead has already been demonstrated in the Ukraine.