Bulgaria capitals

Once best friends, Bulgaria takes a stand against Russia

However, current concerns quickly overshadowed the ambassador’s efforts to remind Bulgaria of the debt it owed Russia. On the same day, Bulgaria expelled two of its diplomatic subordinates for spying and announced the arrest of a senior military officer accused of spying for Russia.

In the weeks that followed, Bulgaria, a country that Moscow has long considered its most ardent and trusted friend in Europe, joined other members of the European Union in imposing economic sanctions still tougher on Russia, offered to repair broken military helicopters and tanks for Ukraine. , and expelled even more Russian diplomats.

“Traditionally, Russia has always had a big influence here, but we were a big surprise for them,” Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said last week in the Bulgarian capital Sofia. “They don’t understand what happened,” he added.

The rapid souring of relations with Bulgaria, a poor but symbolically important country due to its close historical ties with Russia, underlines how President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has turned in the opposite direction. and not just on the battlefield.

Russia, furious at what it sees as its wayward friend’s insolence, abruptly halted natural gas deliveries to Bulgaria by Gazprom last month, making its former Balkan ally the first country with Poland targeted. by Moscow’s energy weapon.

At the same time, Petkov said, Moscow launched cyberattacks, attacking the server of Bulgaria’s state-owned energy company and crippling pension payments through its postal service. “We are under severe attack right now,” he said, describing it as a “clear attempt to derail our government” by stoking domestic unrest.

“They are trying to make an example of us,” Petkov said, describing Russia’s energy pressure on his country as aimed at creating a situation where “energy prices will explode and our government will fall.”

The survival of Petkov’s already fragile coalition government, formed after inconclusive elections in November, now depends to a large extent on its ability to muster alternative energy sources with the help of the European Union, to which the Bulgaria joined in 2007, and the United States. Petkov visited Washington this week, where Vice President Kamala Harris promised the United States “solidarity in the face of Russia’s latest attempt to weaponize energy.”

Assen Vassilev, Bulgarian Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, insisted that Bulgaria was already on track to secure alternative gas supplies by pipeline from Azerbaijan and by sea deliveries of liquefied natural gas to terminals in neighboring Greece for transport north to Bulgaria.

“For us, obviously, Gazprom is now a thing of the past,” Vassilev said. Moscow, he added, had overplayed its hand, pushing the normally warring Balkan nations into swift joint action to counter the danger of Russia suddenly cutting off supplies.

“That,” he said, “gives me a lot of hope that the gas gun will not just be a paper tiger, but will turn around.”

The rift between Russia and Bulgaria already makes it clear that its faltering progress on the battlefield in Ukraine has been accompanied by often self-inflicted setbacks on the diplomatic front.

Moscow has kept China on its side and rallied support in Africa and parts of Latin America, but elsewhere it has shown a striking ability to lose friends and alienate people.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for example, recently infuriated many in Israel, a country that had mostly sat on the fence during the war in Ukraine, by claiming that Jews were “the most great anti-Semites” and that Hitler was of Jewish origin. Putin later apologized to Israel for the remarks.

Russia’s ambassador to Sofia, Eleonora Mitrofanova, scored her own goal by describing Bulgaria as America’s “bedpan”, an insult her embassy later blamed on a mistranslation.

Petkov, the Bulgarian prime minister, said he summoned the ambassador to protest his remark, telling him that “there are a lot of good dictionaries around”, and received an apology.

He added that he was still unhappy that the envoy from Moscow was “acting not as a diplomat but as a propaganda machine”.

In March, Bulgaria recalled its ambassador to Moscow in response to what it called “undiplomatic, cutting and crude” statements by Mitrofanova. He let the Russian ambassador stay in Sofia, but more of his diplomats will soon be sent home.

“Now is the time to take a strong stand against Russian spies and agents,” Petkov said. “It’s time to clean up.”

Poland, though never a friend of Moscow like Bulgaria had been, was also surprised by Russia’s contempt for public opinion. The Russian Embassy in Warsaw, a city awash with Ukrainian flags and abusive billboards targeting Putin, last week called on residents of the Polish capital to join Russian diplomats in “Victory Day” events. “May 9 celebrating the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany, a Russian holiday that Putin turned into a festival of nationalist bombast.

On Saturday, after public outcry over what many in Poland saw as a crude effort to misappropriate World War II memories, the embassy canceled plans for joint public events with Poles. In a statement, the embassy also regretted Poland’s ingratitude towards Moscow for its role in defeating the Nazis, “thanks to which the Polish state exists today!” When the Russian ambassador showed up at the Soviet war memorial in Warsaw on Monday, a Ukrainian activist doused him with red liquid.

The Moscow embassy in Sofia made an equally unsuccessful attempt to co-opt Russia’s past military glory into service for its brutal assault on Ukraine. Mitrofanova, the ambassador, has infuriated even previously pro-Russian Bulgarians by claiming that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is no different from its Tsarist-era military intervention against the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans , which helped Bulgaria become an independent nation.

“There were times when Russia liberated Bulgaria, now is the time for Russia to liberate Donetsk and Luhansk,” the ambassador said, referring to two regions in eastern Ukraine, in a speech given in March.

This comparison, said Daniela Koleva, a historian at Sofia University, “caused a wave of outrage” by presenting a one-sided view of history that, like Putin’s bashing of Ukraine’s history and of its right to exist, twisted complicated past events into the clumsy propaganda service.

Koleva said many Bulgarians recognize that their country benefited from Russian aid in the 19th century and still feel some gratitude. But, she added, the country also has bitter, more recent memories of Russian attacks on its Black Sea coast during World War I and Soviet occupation after World War II.

“There is a lot of mythology about Russia,” she said, adding that more than four decades of Soviet-imposed communist rule had “systematically erased anything that could cast a shadow over Russia or the Union. Soviet”.

Opinion polls show that sympathy for Russia is even stronger in Bulgaria than elsewhere in Europe. But, according to a survey commissioned by Bulgarian state television in March, more than 60% favor tougher sanctions on Moscow while Putin’s approval rating has more than halved to around 25% since he invaded the Ukraine.

“This war is a big nail in the coffin of our enchantment with Russia,” said Ruslan Stefanov, program director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, a research organization in Sofia. “They’ve been very successful in totally turning people away from Russia.”

When the government introduced a resolution in parliament last week authorizing “military-technical assistance” to Ukraine, even the Socialist Party, long a staunch supporter of Russia, voted in favor. The only party that voted against was Revival, a nationalist group that has staged regular protests in support of Russia’s invasion.

Kostadin Kostadinov, the leader of Revival, insisted that most Bulgarians supported Russia but had been ignored by a government he accused of turning the country into a “colony entirely dependent on the United States”.

Stopping gas supplies to Bulgaria, he acknowledged, “is not a friendly act” by Russia, but an act he said he understood because “we started this war with the Russia” by imposing sanctions and expelling diplomats.

Until Gazprom abruptly cut Bulgaria off at the end of April, the country depended on Russia for around 90% of the natural gas it consumed.

But, according to Petkov, the prime minister, Russia has seriously miscalculated by using Bulgaria as a test of its ability to inflict economic damage and change government policy in favor of Ukraine.

“If the most Russia-dependent country with the lowest GDP per capita in the EU can afford to stand up to Putin, everyone should be able to stand up to Putin,” he said.

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