Bulgaria again delays talks on buying warplanes

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria has again postponed talks to buy eight new Swedish-made Gripen warplanes to replace its aging Soviet-designed MiG-29s, its defense minister said on Thursday.

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borissov announces his resignation after his centre-right party's candidate lost the race during a presidential election in Sofia, Bulgaria, November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

The question of which warplanes Bulgaria should buy has been bounced around successive governments for more than a decade as it seeks to modernize its fleet and improve its compliance with NATO standards. Bulgaria joined the alliance in 2004.

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov signaled last month that the talks would soon begin despite his criticism of Bulgaria’s previous interim government for announcing them.

Borissov has said the interim government exceeded its mandate and should not have made the call on a deal worth an estimated 1.5 billion levs ($858 million).

Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov said the center-right government would now only make a decision on starting the talks after a parliamentary commission concludes its investigation into the action of the interim administration.

“There will be no negotiations for (buying) new aircraft until the parliamentary commission makes a statement,” said Karakachanov, who is also a deputy prime minister.

“Parliament stands above the government. If there are no (other) recommendations, we will work on the current project.”

The interim government ranked Sweden’s offer as the most favorable, followed by Italy’s proposal for second-hand Eurofighter Typhoons.

An offer by Portugal to sell secondhand U.S. F-16s was not rated - a decision that prompted Borissov’s ruling GERB party to set up the commission which will also check whether President Rumen Radev influenced the process.

Radev, who appointed the interim government after Borissov’s previous government resigned late last year, called the commission “a tribunal for political influence” and stressed that military experts had made the decision in favor of the Gripen aircraft.

Bulgaria has said it wants to seal a deal by the end of 2017 to acquire eight new or secondhand fighter jets.

Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Gareth Jones