Pro-Russia Leader in NATO’s Bulgaria Takes Oath Before Trump

Updated on
  • Bulgarian EU, NATO membership not to be questioned, Radev says
  • Confrontation won’t resolve NATO-Russia crisis, Radev says

A day before U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, another pro-Russian head of state was sworn in far to the east, in NATO member Bulgaria, as questions arise over the future of the alliance amid rising animosity with its Cold-War adversary.

Rumen Radev, a 53-year-old, U.S.-trained general took the oath of office on Thursday in Sofia after defeating the ruling party’s candidate in a November election and triggering an early parliamentary vote. After campaigning to improve ties with the Kremlin and lift European Union and U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and support of separatist rebels in Ukraine, he’ll replace Rosen Plevneliev, an outspoken advocate of the penalties.

Radev’s victory underscores gains made by anti-establishment political forces not just in the countries that make up the core of the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but also among the poorer ex-communist members that joined both last decade. It also prompted Prime Minister Boyko Borissov to resign and put the Black Sea country of 7.2 million people on the path to its third early election in five years.

In his speech to parliament after being sworn in, Radev, a former Air Force chief, sought to dispel concerns that he’s too close to Moscow even as he struck an independent tone.

“Bulgaria’s EU and NATO membership was a strategic choice that should not be questioned,” Radev told lawmakers. “Effective membership entails upholding the national interest in the two families by active participation in joint decision-making. Bulgarian policies should be formulated at home and defended abroad, not the opposite.”

Confrontation, Dialog

The 28-nation EU is facing a challenge from nationalist and populist forces across the region with more than five EU members preparing for elections this year. Trump has questioned continued U.S. support for free trade and European defense.

Increasing confrontation is not the way to resolve the crisis between the EU and NATO on one side and Russia on the other, Radev said.

“I trust that the results of the U.S. presidential election and the new political situation in the world raise hope for the future restoration of dialog,” he said.

The yield on Bulgaria’s euro-denominated bonds maturing in September 2024 rose 2.3 basis points to 1.586 percent at 4:13 p.m. in Sofia, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Limited Powers

The presidential post in Bulgaria is mostly ceremonial, but its holder is the head of state and commander-in-chief of the military. Radev must now appoint an interim cabinet after Borissov’s Gerb party and its ruling coalition partner, the Reformers’ Bloc, refused to form a new government and demanded a snap vote. A political novice who ran for the opposition Socialists, he has to dissolve the legislature and set a date for the vote, which can be held at the end of March at the earliest. Parliament has one week left to work, Radev said.

“We can expect some warming up with Russia, but there will be no change in the country’s strategic allegiance with NATO and the EU, which is supported by all main parties,” Lubomir Mitov, chief economist for central and eastern Europe at UniCredit SpA in London, said by phone. “The president has no influence. Economic policy and everything else will depend on the outcome of the parliamentary elections. The interim cabinet has limited powers and can’t make significant changes.”

Brexit, Populism

The U.K.’s decision to leave the EU and the migrant crisis “put the union to a test, boosting anti-European sentiment,” Radev said. “We’ve gotten used to treating as populism almost every criticism of EU institutions and policies, but as a result, the number of the discontented is increasing. I am convinced that a unified Europe must be preserved at all costs.”

Bulgaria is trying to balance its Orthodox religious, historical and other cultural ties with Russia, which is also its main energy supplier, with the priorities of its western allies. Radev takes office after Plevneliev repeatedly criticized President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy and said the Russian leader is trying to destabilize the EU. Bulgaria, a former communist country, joined NATO in 2004 and the EU three years later.

(Updates with markets in ninth paragraph, analyst comment in 11th.)
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