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Radev’s win brings more worry than glory to Bulgaria’s western allies

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After the dust settled and Rumen Radev (pictured) got re-elected president of Bulgaria, concerns start to emerge regarding his close ties to Russia, writes Cristian Gherasim.

Earlier this week, the United States has expressed deep concern over comments by Bulgarian President Rumen Radev that the Crimean Peninsula annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014 is "Russian".

The socialist candidate Rumen Radev won his second term as president of Bulgaria with 64-66% of the vote, compared to 32-33% for Anastas Gerdzhikov

Gherdjikov , backed by former PM Borisov center right coalition, promised to unite the country, which has been hit hard by crises caused in particular by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising energy prices. Bulgaria is facing the worst political crisis since the end of communism three decades ago.

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In Bulgaria, the president has an eminently ceremonial role, but offers a solid platform to influence public opinion, particularly on the foreign policy arena.

In February 2017, Radev condemned and called for an end to the EU sanctions against Russia, while at the same time describing the Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation as a "violation of international law".

Radev also became the only EU head of state to attend Erdogan's inauguration, stating that his mandate was not given to him by either the European Commission or the Bulgarian Government, but by the Bulgarian people.

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In 2019 he condemned EU’s recognition of opposition forces in Venezuela. Radev further criticised the EU's recognition of Guaido, urging both the country and the EU to remain neutral and refrain from recognizing Guaido, as he viewed such recognition as imposing an ultimatum, which he deemed would only aggravate the crisis in Venezuela.

In a presidential debate prior to his re-election, Radev referred to Crimea as "currently Russian" and called on Brussels to restore dialogue with Russia, arguing that Western sanctions against Moscow were not working. In his victory speech he pledged to keep close ties with Bulgaria's NATO allies, but has also called for a pragmatic relationship with Russia.

In a stamen issued by the US Embassy in Sofia, the US showed that it is deeply concerned by the recent statements of Bulgarian President in which he referred to Crimea as "Russian”.

"The United States, G7, European Union, and NATO have all been clear and united in our position that, despite Russia's attempted annexation and ongoing occupation, Crimea is Ukraine", the statement reads.

Radev's comments on Crimea have prompted protests from Ukraine and strong criticism from his opponents at home. Russian-backed separatists seized a swath of eastern Ukraine in 2014, the same year Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.

This comes on the backdrop of increasing Russian activity in Ukraine’s vicinity. For several days now, Western espionage has become increasingly convinced that Vladimir Putin is trying to break a piece of Ukrainian territory. Moreover, the head of Ukrainian military espionage even advanced the date when Russia would prepare a heavy attack -"end of January or beginning of February" 2022. The increasing belligerent attitude from Moscow can be seen in the light of the new US National Security Strategy that President Joe Biden will present to the US Congress in December. This document could also include an important chapter on Washington's military strategy in the Black Sea region.

Also a week ago a study by GLOBSEC Policy Institute, a Bratislava based thin-thank focused on international politics and security issues shows that Bulgaria is amongst the countries most susceptible to Russian and Chinese influence. The index follows a two-year project backed by the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center, analyzing vulnerable points, targeted by foreign influence, in eight countries: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia.

Serbia is the most vulnerable to Russian and Chinese influence and receives 66 points out of 100. The second most vulnerable is Hungary with 43 points, and the third is Bulgaria with 36 points. It is followed by Montenegro with 33, the Czech Republic with 28, Slovakia with 26, the Republic of Northern Macedonia with 25 and Romania with 18 is the least subject to foreign influence.

“The countries that we assessed are from Central, Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans region. Out of these, the Czech Republic and Romania are the most resilient.”, said Dominika Hajdu, the head of GLOBSEC’s Centre for Democracy & Resilience and one of the authors of the study.

China has been targeting repeatedly the region of Western Balkans trying to increase its clout. According to specialists, Chinese leaders seek to increase influence in states that do not yet enforce EU law.

Beijing in trying to secure various resources even in some EU member states. China's recent actions highlight, for example, the interest in transforming the ports of Piraeus (Greece) and Zadar (Croatia) into hubs for China's trade with Europe. To the same end, an agreement was signed to build a high-speed railway between Budapest and Belgrade, which would connect with the port of Piraeus, thus consolidating the access of Chinese products to Europe.

China’s influence is a growing one, Russia’s is more prevalent in the wider region, being a presence better understood whereas China is an enigma potentially able to disrupt the political and civic systems in the region, the study shows. In the Western Balkans, for example, Russia is more interested in disrupting the EU-NATO integration process there.

“The most vulnerable countries are mostly those that have closer bilateral relations with Russia and have societies that are more pro-Russian and favourable to a pro-Russian narrative,” Dominika Hajdu of GLOBSEC believes.

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