SOFIA, June 23 (Reuters) - Bulgaria is to start talks to buy new Swedish Gripen warplanes to replace its Soviet-designed MiG-29s but will expect Sweden’s commitment on investments in the Balkan country before signing a deal, the prime minister said on Friday.
The question of which warplanes Bulgaria should buy has been bounced around successive governments for more than a decade.
Talks about the Sweden planes had looked to have been ditched last month when Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said an interim government should not have announced in April it would enter into negotiations.
The interim government pledged to enter talks to buy eight new Gripens, made by SAAB, after approving a Defence Ministry-produced ranking which picked the Swedish jet over an offer from Portugal for secondhand U.S. F-16s and an Italian offer of secondhand Eurofighter Typhoons.
But when Borissov took power, he said the previous government should not have made the call on a deal worth an estimated 1.5 billion levs ($858 million) as “the plane is not the most important thing in an army”.
Magnus Lewis-Olsson, Saab’s head of Europe, told reporters in Sofia last week it expected to enter into talks with Bulgarian within months, suggesting the deal was still alive, as confirmed by Borissov on Friday.
“Either next Wednesday or on Wednesday thereafter we will decide when to start negotiations (with Sweden),” Borissov told reporters after meeting Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven in Brussels.
“I told my Swedish colleague: we are making a decision, we are negotiating with you first, then with Eurofighter,” he said, adding Bulgaria would sign the deal only after commitment about Swedish investments in the poorest European Union member.
Lewis-Olsson said last week Saab was ready to discuss different financing options, including payments over a long period.
Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov said on Friday Bulgaria would not buy the used F-16s from Portugal because the payment instalments in the first years were higher than expected.
NATO member Bulgaria has said it wants to seal a deal by the year-end to acquire eight new or secondhand fighter jets between 2018 and 2022 in order to modernise its fleet and improve its compliance with the military alliance’s standards.
Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union three years later. ($1 = 1.7483 leva) (Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Alison Williams)