UK ambassador: Russia’s actions make the case for a Western-facing Bulgaria

Written by on April 28, 2014 in Bulgaria - Comments Off on UK ambassador: Russia’s actions make the case for a Western-facing Bulgaria

British ambassador in Sofia Jonathan Allen said on April 28 that Bulgaria has no reason to fear any backlash from proposed EU sanctions on Russia and should stand firm with its EU and Nato allies in condemning Russian actions in Ukraine. This is Allen’s full blog post, as posted on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website:

The Tsar Liberator faces the National Assembly. Newly cleaned, with touches of gold, the statue of the Tsar leading his troops in liberation of Bulgaria is impressive. But his watchful stance and position opposite parliament, the symbol of Bulgarian democracy, brings with it some ambiguity, brought into sharper focus by the situation in Ukraine.

The ambiguity has persisted through Bulgaria’s recent history. Russia was a liberating force in 1878. In 1944, as an ally of the UK, it removed the fascist government from power. But there followed 45 years of Communist repression. Bulgaria had perhaps the slowest and steadiest transition of any nation from the Communist period, meaning that many powerful people, with old loyalties, kept positions of influence. Some people retain a nostalgia for that period.

Many Bulgarians have strong cultural and personal links with Russia and the Russian people. Russians have long travelled to Bulgaria on holiday, and now invest in property here. There is a steady commercial relationship, which is significant but not overwhelming: Russia is the seventh biggest export destination for Bulgaria (with the first six slots all held by EU countries). But Russia holds many of the energy cards in Bulgaria. And I often hear and read that there are powerful Bulgarian businessmen, with economic interests and influence over politics, with Russian links.

All these factors that make up that ambiguity can be seen in the split of Bulgarian public opinion towards Russia, and in the internal divisions in some political parties. An interesting graph in a recent blog by Open Europe’s Raoul Ruparel puts Bulgaria at the EU’s extreme, an unusual position for Bulgaria to find itself in.

Source data: Open Europe and Russian Federal State Statistics Service. Image credit: openeurope.org.uk

Source data: Open Europe and Russian Federal State Statistics Service. Image credit: openeurope.org.uk

Yet the situation in Ukraine is clear. Within days of President Yanukovich’s surprise decision to flee the capital in the face of protesters, Russia had deployed troops and occupied Crimea, organised a “referendum” carried out without any freedoms, and changed its own constitution to annex the territory. In other words, Russia took by force a part of a European country in less time than it takes to buy a house.

Russia showed disregard for the rule of law and an international rules-based system. Its pretext for action has been shown to be false. The UN, OSCE and Council of Europe (all organisations to which Russia belongs) found no evidence of any aggression towards Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine. It seems the pattern established in Crimea is being repeated in eastern Ukraine, with the Kremlin-controlled Russian TV preparing the propaganda ground to justify potential military intervention. There can be no pretence that eastern Ukraine is a part of Russia. It seems incredible that this can be happening in 21st century Europe.

As democracies, the members of the European Union (and those political parties which have European values) must stand united and vocal against Russian aggression. We must make clear that further escalation will not be tolerated and there will be economic and political consequences. We must work together to persuade Russia to stop its militarist approach and continue the diplomatic dialogue with the government of Ukraine. Russia, along with the other signatories of the Geneva agreement of 17 April must match words with deeds, and use their influence to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine and reduce tension. The EU’s members must put together the right sanctions package to underpin our words. We must also take rapid steps to free our economies from dependence on Russian energy.

I do not believe Bulgaria should be worried by the consequences of sanctions. Bulgaria has legitimate concerns in particular sectors and should continue to ensure that its partners are aware of those, in a calm manner. Those concerns are understood and listened to closely. Decisions of this type need the agreement of all Member States, including Bulgaria.

But the debate over sanctions should not obscure the clear and unambiguous message that we, as democratic nations which believe in the rule of law, must send to the Russian government. Bulgaria and its Balkan neighbours would be vulnerable to an aggressive Russia that continues to act illegally in its own interests. Solidarity and resolve among EU and NATO nations, including Bulgaria.

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