A political firestorm has erupted around Bulgarian Socialist Party member of Parliament Strahil Angelov after the Syrian embassy in Sofia claimed that he had expressed support for president Bashar al-Assad during a visit to Syria.
Angelov was due to return from the visit on January 21, having made the trip without the endorsement of socialist Speaker of the National Assembly Mihail Mikov and against the wishes of BSP leader Sergei Stanishev and the foreign ministry, according to various accounts including Angelov’s own.
In a Facebook post on January 19, Kristian Vigenin, foreign minister in the BSP government, called on Mikov and Stanishev to ensure Angelov’s removal as head of the Bulgarian Parliament’s Bulgarian-Syrian friendship group.
At the time of the former centre-right government of Bulgaria, which was in office from 2009 to early 2013, Sofia aligned itself with the Friends of Syria, working with other countries and Syrian opposition groups towards a transition to democracy in the Middle Eastern country and an end to the war in which the Assad regime is trying to stay in power. Since the BSP government has been in power, Syria appears to have slid from the foreign policy agenda and Bulgarian involvement in the Friends of Syria has become largely nominal.
This was the background to the headlines made when the Syrian embassy issued a media statement claiming that, at a meeting with the president of the Syrian parliament, Mohammad al-Laham, Angelov had “noted the important role of president Bashar al-Assad in Syria in preserving the sovereignty, unity, independence and protecting the interests of its (Syria’s) people and the defeat of terrorism on its territory”.
According to the embassy, a Bulgarian delegation on a four-day visit to Syria was there to meet Syrian government officials, examine the situation, discuss ways of co-operation between the two countries in all areas and in the next phase of the development of Syria and to get acquainted with the latest developments in negotiations to be launched at the Geneva 2 peace conference.
Al-Laham, according to the statement, said that there had been terrorism in Syria for the past three years, “funded by Saudi Arabia, which is the factory of terrorism in the world, promoting the spread of extremist terrorist ideology under the guise of Islam”. The Syrian parliamentary official also condemned what he described as the “unjust” economic sanctions imposed by the West on the Syrian people.
The Syrian embassy statement said that Angelov had pointed out the need to strengthen links between Bulgaria’s legislature and the Syrian parliament and for the exchange of information about what really was happening in Syria, to inform the Bulgarian people, arguing that the best place to solve problems and differences through dialogue was parliament.
The statement claimed that the Bulgarian delegation had expressed their support for Syria, and had expressed their solidarity with the Syrian people against “terrorism, disinformation and economic pressure”.
Syrian media coverage showed Angelov meeting Al-Laham.
Contacted by local media in Sofia, Angelov said that he had been advised by the Bulgarian foreign ministry and by Stanishev not to go to Syria and so “none of them has grounds to seek explanations”.
Angelov said, regarding claims that he had endorsed Assad, that “I did not mention his name, nor the name of any other Syrian politician. Thist may be easily checked up in the shorthand records of the meeting”.
He denied that he had discussed policy issues or expressed support for anyone.
He said that he had gone to Syria to find out the background and reasons for the flow of refugees from Syria to Bulgaria and “everything that I said in Syria was in the context of the refugee problem”.
Angelov said that he had made the trip at his own expense. In addition to meeting Al-Laham, there also had been meetings with members of different parties and civil organisations including those that did not support the government, according to Angelov. He said that he would give further details of the visit after his return to Sofia on January 21.
In his Facebook post, Vigenin said that Angelov should be removed as head of the Bulgarian-Syrian friendship group, adding that given that in the conflict more than 100 000 Syrians had been killed and there were millions of refugees and internally displaced people, friendship with Syria was not identical with friendship with Assad.
Later on January 20, the BSP issued a formal statement distancing itself from Angelov’s trip to Syria, describing it as a “personal act” while opposition party GERB said that Angelov’s Syria visit was “irresponsible”.
(Main photo, of Assad: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)