By Evelina Gecheva
Published on 23 January 2018
For a year in office, President Radev has formed a government, vetoed several laws, piloted a fighter and maintained 60% approval. So what?
The first anniversary of President Rumen Radev’s term was diluted by political arguments in the National Assembly, the many occasions for protests in Sofia and the country and media scandals. That is probably coincidence but the stocktaking of the head of state’s one year in office should not be neglected if that institution is still important for the public.
Radev’s taking office did not pass without scandals. First it was his private life: something that the Bulgarian media always raise to a crescendo. As early as during his election campaign we learned that he was married twice, we learned a lot of things about his two wives too but we did not learn much about what he was going to do as president.
His first days in office required from the newly elected president extreme haste. On January 22 he took office and on January 25 he announced the composition of the interim government. We should recall that the state was in a long and quite unpleasant political crisis.
At the same time at the beginning of Radev’s term the media drew a bead on the president’s team and close surrounding. For quite a long time they discussed the question of why Elena Yoncheva was leaving the president’s office and the projections were for a looming media vacuum in which Radev would fall. The head of cabinet Ivo Hristov was also involved in the scandal with accusations he had read classified information without having the right to – something the prosecutor’s office later dismissed. The negatives of “a president backed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party” followed Radev everywhere. There was even friendly fire from the Left.
Rumen Radev is hardly so naïve to have not supposed he would be faced by scandals. But even if he did suppose, he was not well prepared for them. His wife Desislava Radeva attracted lasting public attention with her series of spontaneous comments in Facebook. Her clothing was also a topic to be continued in many media. So no matter how serious the president as a military man, he created the impression that there was nobody around him to fine-tune his public image. But, as the saying goes, if they are dealing with his wife, obviously they can find nothing in him to criticize.
The real actions of the head of state were connected with conflict issues, even publicly painful issues. The transcripts of the meetings on Corporate Commercial Bank were the first acid test. The appeals that they should be immediately declassified came exactly at the time when Radev had to form his team and appoint an interim government. He refused to declassify them before acquainting himself with them. Thus for some time he incurred on himself the bad image of a person who did not excel his predecessor. Or of a president who placed too generously his trust in his aides.
Later the transcripts were declassified but did not actually reveal much. For the public it was more important to understand why meetings on issues of high public interest had been classified at all. But there was no one to answer that question.
The first veto that Radev imposed was on the Concession Act. There is hardly a politician who is not aware of the “eternal” concessions. The president’s attempt to boost control on the part of the state failed: only the BSP and Volya backed him. With its habitual flexibility the Movement for Rights and Freedoms supported the ruling coalition and concessions retained their lobbying-friendly form.
The new president came into frontal collision with the status quo on the question of corruption too. The GERB-dominated National Assembly decided to establish an anti-corruption body which it would control, Radev imposed a veto and the legislators voted again what they wanted.
The Consultative Council on National Security that was summoned over the topic of corruption failed because of more urgent engagements of its participants. It had to be summoned again and after it was finally held it did not make much difference.
The neglecting of the council by the government is political hooliganism but a large part of the media preferred to side with the government and did not find problems either in the first failure, or in the inadmissible late comings and early leavings from the meeting. With them, Prime Minister Borisov and the missing Ministers Karakachanov and Zaharieva actually showed that the Consultative Council on National Security meant nothing to them.
The purchase of new fighters also threw the president into a conflict. Sometimes with hints and sometimes directly, he was accused of lobbyism: something that is the specialty of his accusers.
As concerns foreign policy, the president did not produce a scandal: expectedly he supported Bulgaria’s entry into Schengen and the eurozone.
Also expected was his appeal for lifting the sanctions against Russia. The public was well aware in advance that a BSP-backed president could not speak differently about Russia.
Summarizing the first year of President Radev, we cannot miss his piloting a fighter. Whether that is OK for Bulgaria’s image in the world, only diplomats can say. The public was left with the impression that the way Borisov brags about his tennis playing, Radev brags about his piloting. The bitter taste still remains from the fact that President Macron did not honor with his presence the aviation show with the participation of the Bulgarian president.
A lot can be desired from the current head of state: a more critical position to the government, more insistence when defending his theories and some more productive foreign policy. On the whole, Radev’s idea of being a counterpoint to Borisov seems to be successful. It turns out that having a figure that is not commercial and at the same time holds a high-level office is a mission possible in Bulgaria. That is probably why the pro-government circles are busy attacking Radev with dirt and accusing him of lobbyism about the fighters.
Opinion polls however show that Radev has the highest rating among politicians at present: nearly 60% approval. The question is, so what? According to the Bulgarian law the head of state has quite limited powers. For that reasons, and because of his poor political manifestations, the current president is no alternative to the status quo. For now. It is one thing to be a counterpoint to a government that is already compromised in Europe. It is another thing to be an alternative with a pragmatic structure and public support.
The picture would not be complete if we do not mention the work of the vice president. Iliana Yotova tried to put more meaning into this institution. She visited a lot of Bulgarian centers abroad and showed concern for the Bulgarian diaspora. If nothing else, that activity did not bring her any negatives.
The attempt of both to stay away from the current scandals that the BSP is producing is successful so far. On the other hand, BSP’s attempt to monetize its support for Radev may also turn out successful. That is probably what is at the root of all attacks against the president.
If there are any strategists in BSP, they should be aware that this is not a winning policy and that support is not mechanically transferred. But BSP’s strategists are another topic.