SOFIA, Bulgaria – Bulgarians are choosing their new president in a hotly contested runoff Sunday that may also determine the fate of the country's center-right government.
The new president will face a possible rise in migrant inflows from neighboring Turkey and growing tensions between Russia and the West.
The choice is between Gen. Rumen Radev, 53, a former non-partisan chief of Bulgarian Air Force, backed by the opposition Socialist party, and the speaker of Parliament, Tsetska Tsacheva, a 58-year-old lawyer and member of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov's center-right party.
In the first round of voting, Radev surprisingly came in first with 25 percent of the vote, followed by Tsacheva with 22 percent.
Bulgaria, which joined the European Union a decade ago, remains the poorest member of the 28-nation bloc. The Balkan country of 7.2 million people is very much divided in its loyalties. It belongs to NATO and the EU, but many Bulgarians still feel a cultural and historical affinity with Russia, and the country's heavily dependence on Russian energy supplies leaves it vulnerable to political meddling by the Kremlin.
Borisov, whose party has trumped in all national elections in the last decade, says he will resign if Tsacheva loses the runoff, opening the way to an early parliamentary election. Halfway into its four-year term, Borisov's coalition government has managed to restore political stability after months of anti-corruption protests, but its popularity has faded due to the slow pace of reforms to eliminate graft and overhaul the judicial system.
A political rookie, Radev has attracted many Bulgarians who are fed up with corrupt politicians. The former NATO fighter pilot who once studied at the U.S. Air War College in Alabama has pledged to maintain Bulgaria's place in NATO but also says "being pro-European does not mean being anti-Russian."
Tsacheva, seeking to become Bulgaria's first female president, is expected to continue her party's pro-Europe foreign policy. She has tried to rally other right-wing parties behind her, urging them not to allow "Bulgaria to return to the dark past" of being under Russia's thumb.