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Bulgarian presidential favourite pledges commitment to EU, NATO

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria must stick to commitments to the European Union and NATO as tensions grow between the West and Russia, Sofia’s former Soviet overlord with which it retains traditional ties, the front-runner in next month’s presidential vote said.

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Tsetska Tsacheva is the candidate of the ruling centre-right GERB party in the Nov. 6 vote and while the role is largely ceremonial the winner has some clout and will be an important indicator on whether the government will stay in office.

“Our membership in the European Union and NATO has no alternative and the president has to be a guarantor for that orientation,” the 58-year-old Tsacheva, currently the parliament speaker, told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.

The Balkan country, once Russia’s most obedient satellite, joined the Euro-Atlantic alliances in the 2000s after a painful transition from communism to a market economy. But many Bulgarians feel a cultural and historical pull to Russia.

Two think-tanks, one American and one Bulgarian, issued a report last week saying that Moscow has mounted a campaign of covert economic and political measures to manipulate five former satrapy states in central and eastern Europe, discredit the West’s liberal model and undermine trans-Atlantic ties.

Tsacheva said she had noticed attempts to destabilise Bulgaria and will bolster dialogue so that it did not “divert from the path it has chosen - EU and NATO”.

EU sanctions imposed on Moscow over its role in pro-Russian separatist conflict in Ukraine have hurt Bulgaria as it is relies heavily on Russia for energy and remains a popular destination for Russian tourists. Tsacheva said she would pursue diplomatic ways of getting the sanctions lifted.

“Of course, a condition for that is the fulfilment of the Minsk agreements,” she said, referring to the frequently violated Ukraine ceasefire deal. “But both the European Union and Bulgaria have an interest in a dialogue with Russia.”

Her main rival, Socialist candidate Rumen Radev, a former air force commander, also supports the removal of sanctions.

Tsacheva praised the efforts of GERB Prime Minister Boiko Borisov in helping prevent a new wave of migrants into the EU, and securing EU aid to bolster protective measures along the Bulgarian-Turkish border.

She also said Bulgaria is ready to join the EU’s passport-free Schengen travel zone and would insist on admission soon, while maintaining political and financial stability would allow Sofia to adopt the euro single currency, when it is fully ready.

Diplomats say the EU’s poorest country will have to show results in combating rampant corruption and prove it can impose strict rule of law before joining Schengen or the euro.

Two years after taking power, GERB remains the most popular party, praised for shoring up the economy and ensuring steady inflows of EU aid, polls show. But Borisov has said he will resign if Tsacheva fails to win in the election’s first round.

Tsacheva is unlikely to win a majority on Nov. 6, forcing her into a run-off, pollsters say. Sova-Harris projected on Wednesday that Tsacheva would get 38.7 percent of votes in the run-off and Radev 37.8 percent.

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; editing by Mark Heinrich