Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 188

Amid a series of diplomatic snubs and accusations from Sofia of Russian misbehavior, traditionally friendly relations between Bulgaria and Russia have gone in recent weeks from bad to worse. This most recent round of tensions began last month when Bulgarian government officials reprised accusations that Russia is overcharging for deliveries to Bulgaria of natural gas. Discord deepened early in October when Bulgarian foreign minister Nadezhda Mihailova accused her Russian counterpart, Yevgeny Primakov, of "uncivilized" diplomatic behavior for failing to agree to a meeting during the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York.

In a speech at the UN Mihailova had, moreover, called for NATO’s continued enlargement — a position undoubtedly greeted with little enthusiasm in Moscow. The dissonance between the two countries on that issue was sharpened by a meeting of Southeast European defense ministers hosted in Sofia on October 3. Participating delegations came from Albania, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia, and Turkey; the Italian and U.S. defense chiefs were also in attendance. Bulgarian president Petar Stoyanov emphasized at the meeting’s opening that Bulgaria’s desire to join NATO is a "strategic and deeply motivated choice" and one that Sofia views as "proof of our belonging to Euro-Atlantic values."

Moscow protested its exclusion from the meeting, rejecting Sofia’s explanation that invitees included only those states which were either already members of NATO or which aspired to NATO membership. The Russian Foreign Ministry also dismissed Mihailova’s claims to having been snubbed by Primakov in New York, and called her subsequent remarks tendentious and an obvious distortion of the facts.

Bilateral relations took an additional hit on October 6 when a Bulgarian newspaper with close ties to the government accused Russia’s ambassador in Sofia of recruiting various Bulgarian elites as "agents of influence." More generally, the newspaper charged that Moscow was engaged in "classical spy activities" that pose a "threat to national interests and security of Bulgaria." The newspaper also quoted evidence from Bulgaria’s security services suggesting that the Russian gas giant Gazprom was delivering gas erratically in an effort to provoke "public discontent with the government." All these activities, the newspaper said, were part of a coordinated campaign by Moscow to derail Bulgaria’s plans to join NATO. The Russian embassy vehemently denied the allegations, and counter-charged that they were in fact part of a bogus effort by Bulgaria’s pro-Western government to present Russia as a threat so as to increase Sofia’s chances for membership in NATO. (Itar-Tass, October 3; Russian agencies, October 7-8)

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