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Russia-friendly general wins Bulgaria presidential poll: exit polls

14 November 2016, 13:48

Sofia - Bulgaria risked plunging into fresh political turmoil Sunday after a Moscow-friendly general backed by the Socialist opposition won the presidential run-off, exit polls showed.

Ex-airforce chief and political novice Rumen Radev beat the handpicked nominee of centre-right Prime Minister Boyko Borisov by a whopping margin.

Observers say the general's victory might tilt ex-communist Bulgaria, which has long walked a tightrope between Moscow and Brussels, towards Russia's orbit -- a trend seen across eastern and central Europe amid rising euroscepticism.

Nearby Moldova also looked set to elect a pro-Russian president on Sunday.

Radev swept just over 58% of the vote to parliamentary speaker Tsetska Tsacheva's 35%, according to the exit polls.

"It's a victory for all Bulgarian people. Democracy has beaten apathy and fear today," Radev told public broadcaster BNT on Sunday evening.

Borisov, who was re-elected premier for the second time in 2014, has threatened to step down if his pro-European Union candidate failed to win.

"We will not participate in any way in the government if we lose today," the burly premier said earlier on Sunday.

Radev's clear support for the lifting of EU sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and ambivalent statements about the EU and NATO have prompted analysts to speculate that he could pursue closer ties with Moscow.

"I am convinced that the sanctions do not help but only harm... Russia and the EU countries are equally hurt," the jet fighter pilot said during the campaign.

Corruption

The straight-laced Tsacheva meanwhile has failed to sway disgruntled voters seeking to punish the government over its perceived failure to tackle rampant corruption and poverty in the European Union's poorest member state.

"I voted against Borisov because I don't think that he's honest and he hasn't really done anything to improve our lives," said 52-year-old Zora Kardachka, a dry cleaner.

The Bulgarian president's role is largely ceremonial but the incumbent is nonetheless a respected figure and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Borisov's resignation could trigger early elections by next spring. The premier's popularity has waned and opinion polls suggest that his GERB party would fail to win an outright majority in early elections.

Prior to his re-election, the country went through a long period of upheaval involving mass protests and a string of polls.

Despite promised reforms, graft and poverty remain rife while public anger has also grown over thousands of migrants currently stranded in Bulgaria.

The premier appears to have badly miscalculated in nominating Tsacheva, analysts say.

"His threat to step down has mobilised his opponents more than supporters," Zhivko Georgiev of the Gallup Institute told AFP.

Radev's win signals a change in direction from outgoing President Rosen Plevneliev, a strong critic of Moscow.

Deep ties

Russia and Bulgaria have deep historical and cultural ties, and Bulgaria is heavily reliant on Russian gas.

But Plevneliev has warned that Russia was trying to "destabilise Europe" by financing anti-EU ultra-nationalists including in Bulgaria.

"The (climate) is more dangerous now than during the Cold War," he told Austrian newspaper Die Presse in an interview published on Sunday.

Plevneliev, due to step down on January 21, said the Balkans were a conflict tinderbox caught in a tug of war between Moscow and Brussels.

"Those who seek to destabilise Europe, have the best chances of doing so in the Balkans. It's always been this way: this is where WWI was ignited."

Russia and Bulgaria have deep historical and cultural ties, and Bulgaria is heavily reliant on Russian gas.

- AFP

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