Robert Harneis –TDO-(FRANCE) Bulgaria is about to scrap plans to buy Saab Gripen fighters, but Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and President Rumen Radev are arguing over the issue and a parliamentary committee is investigating the procedures employed by the government to select the supplier. This has delayed the decision on the purchase of new fighter jets, forcing Sofia to rely on the Soviet-made MiG-29 jet fighters currently used by its air force.
Radev is the former chief of the Bulgarian air force and an advocate of good relations with Russia. He was elected President in January this year. Prime Minster Borrisov is said to be an admirer of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
On April 26, the then caretaker government confirmed the recommendation made by a working group and made a non-binding decision to purchase Gripfen Swedish fighters moving away from its reliance on older Russian technology.
Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and undertook to have their MiG’s retired and purchase eight new fighters by 2016. The last three of their MiG-25s were retired last December.
Representatives of Russian aircraft company MiG are now holding talks with Bulgarian officials on the repair of the Bulgarian air force's old MiG-29s, Defense Minister Krassimir Karakachanov told journalists after a September 19 parliament hearing on the government’s plans to buy new fighter jets.
“When you have enough fighters you can repair them, but keeping them in the hangars makes no sense. We must also pay attention to the fact that the two processes [buying new fighters and repairing existing ones] must run in parallel,” Karakachanov said, weighing into the dispute between Borissov and Radev. He added that the delay in buying fighter jets is not critical, since the country can repair its existing Russian jets.
He made the announcement at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and NATO, as Russia and Belarus engage in their largest military exercise in years. The week-long exercise, codenamed ‘Zapad’, or ‘West’, will see the two eastern armies train according to a number of strategies in a hypothetical conflict with NATO.
However, Karakachanov argued that Russia was not ‘an immediate threat’ to national security, because “one can negotiate” with Russia.
In 2015 then Bulgarian Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev and his Polish counterpart, Tomasz Siemoniak signed a letter of intent, under which six of Bulgaria's Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter jets would be modernized and serviced by Polish state-run plants. As a result, the aircraft's manufacturer, RSK MiG, sent a letter of protest to the Bulgarian Parliament's Defense Committee. In the letter, the Russian manufacturer warned Sofia against performing aircraft maintenance activities in Poland, claiming that Polish defense companies are not officially authorized to repair MiG fighter jets.
The Bulgarian Defence Ministry responded by saying that Poland's offer was ‘two times lower’ than what Sofia was offered by Russia.
It is clear that the Bulgarian government and parliament is split over whether to comply with NATO’s wishes and completely abandon its traditional reliance on Russia for much of its military supplies. However, there is equally little doubt that the nations finances are a factor.
According to the Bulgarian Media pool, the parliamentary defense committee is expected to recommend the government resume the procedure from the point of bidding. The committee found irregularities related to a change in the selection procedures during the process.
In December 2014 Russia cancelled the Black Sea Southstream gas pipeline after the Bulgarian government gave in to EU, NATO and United States pressure to obstruct the project. The surprise cancellation meant that Bulgaria lost valuable transit fees and the benefit of the construction contracts to build the pipeline.
President Radev was elected on an anti-immigrant, anti-corruption platform. He has said he will keep Bulgaria in NATO but has affirmed that ‘being pro-European does not mean being anti-Russian’.