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F-16 jet fighter deal hangs in the balance to the last

One day after President Rumen Radev imposed a veto on the law on the ratification of the four agreements on the acquisition, from USA, of eight F-16 Block 70 fighter aircraft, the parliamentary committee on defence overruled the veto. This took place with the votes of the ruling forces – GERB and VMRO, and part of the opposition – the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). It would be unrealistic to expect a turnabout in the vote on the veto in plenary on Friday because the law the president is contesting was endorsed by these same political forces.

Nonetheless, the Bulgarian head of state deemed it necessary to make an official statement last night, in which he reiterated his arguments that the price of the deal is high, that the equipment and weapons for the F-16s negotiated are inadequate, that the decision to make a lump sum payment may put a spoke in the wheels of the plans to modernize the land and naval forces. Rumen Radev, who, in his capacity of President is also Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces, says that the deal negotiated by the government has “hidden and unspecified costs which Bulgaria will have to pay afterwards with regard to infrastructure, transport, armaments, equipment, training, services, taxes and fees.” The government is not denying there will be additional costs, but says this is a normal practice in deals such as this, and that covering them is a political decision. But there is one other thing that is political – the president’s argument that the purchase of the F-16s “cannot take place to the detriment of the interests of the Bulgarian citizens, of the dignity and sovereignty of Bulgaria”.

The single-mindedness with which the Bulgarian head of state opposes the deal is an indication that if parliament rejects his veto, as it is fully expected to do, Radev may well impose a veto on the law on the update of the national budget, which the administration is using to pay for the aircraft. Such a veto will, in all likelihood, also be overruled, but would call in question the deadlines for the execution of the deal because the deadline of the American offer is 5 September. Defence Minister Krasimir Karakachanov commented that infringement of the deadline would only push the price up and lead to less favourable conditions in any future potential agreement.

The confrontation over the jet fighters is unfolding against the background of a bizarre political picture in the country. The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party and Volya are against the ratification of the deal, which is as expected, but the nationalist Ataka and National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), which are part of the ruling coalition, are also against.

Ataka party commented that on the question of the jet fighters an exotic coalition had formed – of the ruling GERB party and VMRO on the one hand, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) on the other. Volya on their part stated that “a year and a half before the next parliamentary elections in Bulgaria, a new coalition has been negotiated”. Two days before the vote on the presidential veto on Friday, the bickering within the United Patriots coalition came to a head with the latest failed attempt to hold an extraordinary sitting of its coalition council. VMRO leader Krasimir Karakachanov stated that “The united Patriots coalition no longer exists”, while the leader of Ataka Volen Siderov said he expected Prime Minister Boyko Borissov to take an interest in the matter, as it constituted a government crisis. Whether the prime minister agrees with Siderov that there is a government crisis in Bulgaria is by no means certain. The latest political quakes connected with the F-16s demonstrate, once again, that on fundamental issues of governance, with the help of the DPS, the Borissov 3 cabinet has sufficient political support without Ataka and NFSB. The fact that on its website the Ministry of Defence categorically rejects the criticism of the president, comes as corroboration of this.

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