The visit to Ukraine by Kristian Vigenin, the former MEP who currently is Bulgaria’s foreign minister, was a bid to play in the big leagues that in turn has exposed the layers of complexity in Sofia’s approach to the country now caught up in the Crimea crisis.
Within and outside Bulgaria’s ruling axis of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, there have been demands for clarity on Bulgaria’s policy towards events in Ukraine.
It would be unfair to claim, as some might, that Bulgaria has no policy. It just takes some interpretation to discern what it is, and what lies behind it.
As events unfolded in Ukraine in recent weeks, the Bulgarian foreign ministry’s statements came out on a rather desultory basis, but again, it was hardly the only corps of diplomats and government officials struggling to keep pace with the rapid pace of developments.
There was a welcome for the deal between then-president Viktor Yanukovych and the then-opposition, but then a prolonged silence as the ensuing weekend saw the Yanukovych administration swept away.
Finally, a foreign ministry statement appeared, addressing less the fact of regime change than the fact that the new authorities – in a move hardly noticed by many amid all the other dramatic and profound developments – had scrapped a law granting regional language status to languages used by minority communities above a certain percentage of the population of a region.
At first glance, the Bulgarian foreign ministry’s objection to the scrapping of the law, an objection based on the effect on the Bulgarian-language minority in Ukraine, seemed a fairly trivial issue to settle on in comparison with wider concerns about Ukraine grappling for political, economic and social stability.
However, the context of the change to the language law was that it was clearly directed against the Russian minority in Ukraine, part of the broad push-back against Moscow.
The concerns expressed by Sofia about the language law change echoed those of Moscow, a notable observation in the context of the track record of the Bulgarian Socialist Party cabinet regarding relations with Russia, which have been somewhat warmer than in the time of the former centre-right government of Bulgaria.
At the same time, it must be pointed out that Bulgaria was not alone, including among other European Union member states, in expressing concern about the language law change.
Romania’s foreign ministry, in a statement on February 27, said that it had called in Ukraine’s diplomatic representatives to tell them much the same thing.
On March 1, Hungarian foreign minister János Martoni, visiting Uzzhorod in Ukraine, said bluntly that Transcarpathia’s troubled ethnic Hungarian minority had to face new dangers but Hungary would leave “no insult to them unanswered”.
Following up this theme in a statement on March 2, Hungary’s foreign ministry called on all sides affected by the crisis “to abstain from provocative steps that may generate further tension and lead to violence. These steps include decisions that undermine the sense of security and shake the legal security of ethnic and language minorities, including the Hungarian community in Transcarpathia. The Hungarian government will continue to express its concerns in bilateral and multilateral talks, including the EU and NATO forums”.
A March 6 statement by the Visegrád countries, which opened by condemning Russian violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity (“The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are appalled to witness a military intervention in 21st century Europe akin to their own experiences in 1956, 1968 and 1981″) expressed solidarity with the people and government of Ukraine and reiterated the Visegrád countries’ strong commitment to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.
The statement added: “It is more important than ever to ensure that the government takes measures which unify the country, and that it protects the rights of all Ukraine’s citizens, including those of cultural, national and linguistic minority groups, in the spirit of inclusiveness”.
So the Bulgarian foreign ministry was not entirely alone in raising the language issue – and in Kyiv on March 4, Vigenin thanked Ukrainian acting president Oleksandr Turchynov for declining to sign the language law changes – but that alone does not erase the suggestion of making points not out of harmony with those of Moscow.
After the earlier agreement among EU foreign ministers on sanctions against targeted figures in Ukraine because of the fatal violence, Vigenin was at pains to say that such sanctions also should be directed against people in the opposition. Before the fall of Yanukovych, he also underlined his view of the need for the involvement of Russia in a solution to Ukraine (if the cliched construction may be forgiven, a view unlikely to be regarded with sympathy by those who have seen Russia as the major part of the problem, not the solution).
Bulgaria also was hardly strongest or first out of the gate to condemn Russian military involvement on Ukrainian territory. The March 3 statement by the foreign ministry reported the collective decision of EU foreign ministers regarding the Crimea crisis, while not failing to mention that “at the suggestion of the Bulgarian minister, in the conclusions of today’s Council the guaranteeing of full protection of the minorities in accordance with the (sic) Ukraine’s international commitments was included”.
All of this comes as background to the controversy that erupted within Bulgarian political circles when Vigenin went to Kyiv and Odessa, meeting a range of top state officials, political party representatives and the Bulgarian minority community.
Vigenin, according to local media reports, was criticised by Yanko Yankov, head of the parliamentary committee on foreign policy and an MRF MP, for legitimising those currently in power in Ukraine by holding formal meetings with them in Kyiv.
Strahil Angelov, the BSP MP whose visit to Syria plummeted him into national controversy after he allegedly endorsed the Assad regime (a charge he denies), leapt to his keyboard to attack Vigenin in a Facebook post.
“Does this person (Vigenin) realise what consequences for Bulgaria could result from this position? Much larger and powerful countries are silent, but this individual hurries to support the bodies of organisations of the square, which express openly fascist and anti-Semitic slogans!” Angelov wrote.
Angelov said that he would raise the issue at the BSP regional council, not excluding that a call for Vigenin to resign would be discussed. But then again, relations between the two BSP figures can hardly be cordial, considering what Vigenin previously had to say about Angelov’s Syria adventure.
In Parliament, ultra-nationalist Ataka party leader Volen Siderov saw his chance to make much of Vigenin’s visit, especially after Siderov got nowhere with his proposal for Bulgaria to “declare neutrality” regarding a conflict in Ukraine. Again, Ataka has a track record in this regard: Siderov tried and failed with the same idea in 2013 regarding a possible US/Nato military action in Syria. It hardly bears pointing out that Siderov’s foreign policy positions tend to be anti-Western and pro-Russian, though no doubt he would insist that he is guided purely by Bulgaria’s national interests.
Siderov railed against what he described as “terrorists who committed murder, arson and robbery” in Kyiv in recent weeks and who he alleged were armed and financed by other countries.
These terrorists, according to Siderov, were directly instigated by officials of other countries, meaning the US and some EU states.
Siderov’s proposed declaration also hit out at groups that were fascist and anti-Semitic (space permits no musings on the irony of that charge) but omitted any direct reference to Russian interference in Ukraine.
As a democratic country and a member of the EU, Bulgaria should say whether it accepted the involvement of what Siderov described as an “extremist party” professing a neo-Nazi ideology in the current rulers of Ukraine.
Siderov saw the regime change in Kyiv as a coup and said that the demonstrations in Ukraine had been provoked by “external factors, they were by no means spontaneous expressions of the people’s protest”.
He went on to draw a parallel with the anti-government protests in Bulgaria, which he also blamed on external factors: “We call them Sorosites”.
In Bulgaria, the demonstrations had taken a milder form “thankfully, but the danger is not over. There are people in Bulgaria and criminal elements who would love to be involved in extremist activities,” Siderov said.
Centre-right opposition party GERB asked in Parliament just what Bulgaria’s position on Ukraine was, and in the lobbies, reporters asked Plamen Oresharski – occupant of the prime minister’s chair in the BSP government – much the same thing.
According to Oresharski, Bulgaria has always had a position on the situation in Ukraine and this had been expressed timeously by the foreign ministry. He added that the foreign ministry was, after all, a government organisation, not an independent institution.
“Have we ever called into question the choice of a government by a legitimate parliament? It means it itself is legitimate.”
Asked how Bulgaria viewed the intervention by Russia in Ukraine, Oresharski said that this was a “hypothesis” and expressed hope that there would be no “intervention by Russia or by any other country”.
Against the background of unhappiness among BSP and MRF MPs about Vigenin’s visit, Oresharski said that he had mandated the foreign minister to make the trip. It had been a working visit, for Vigenin to meet the Ukrainian authorities and discuss policy on minorities, Oresharski said.
“I see nothing more logical than that the Bulgarian government should be concerned about one of the largest minorities outside of our country.”
It was not only the parliamentary opposition and the media (excluding that large section which serve as cheerleaders for the current BSP-MRF government) that wanted clarity on where Bulgaria stood on Ukraine. So did the head of state.
President Rossen Plevneliev held a meeting with Oresharski at the Presidency office on March 5, to discuss the situation in Ukraine and the region ahead of the March 6 special meeting of the European Council of heads of state and government.
A media statement by the President’s office said that Plevneliev called for Bulgaria to urge a common EU position on developments in Ukraine and the region in support of the preservation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and to de-escalate tension.
Oresharski vowed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, the media statement said.
Plevneliev voiced concern over Russia’s actions, threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
He said that in Brussels, Bulgaria should call for ensuring the democratic foundations of Ukraine and respect for the rules of international law and treaties that do not allow military invasion of a sovereign state. The media statement by the President’s office was silent on whether Oresharski said anything on this topic.
Plevneliev expressed his firm position that Bulgaria needs to diversify its gas supplies.
This latter point, meanwhile, has been suggested in Bulgarian media commentaries as among the possible reasons for the lack of a publicly-stated policy position by the BSP and the MRF on Russian intervention in Ukraine – an alleged concern that condemnation of Moscow’s military deployment would result in the revenge of the gas taps being turned off. One BSP MP has been quoted in local media as expressing that concern. It may be added that it would be a daunting task to search the BSP’s track record for any criticism of Russia.
At the same time, the Ukrainian and Russian embassies in Sofia had busy days of their own.
Ukraine’s ambassador held a special news conference, where the main topic was the issue of natural gas supplies. The envoy said that this was not a matter entirely in the hands of Kyiv.
Moscow’s ambassador, in a media statement, rejected developments in Ukraine as an “unconstitutional coup” (a reference to the regime change in Kyiv), the incumbent Ukrainian government as not entirely legitimate and adding that Yanukovych still was Ukraine’s president.
Meanwhile, on March 5 the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced that 18 OSCE participating states had decided to send 35 unarmed military personnel to Ukraine in response to its request.
“The visit is taking place under chapter III of the Vienna Document 2011, which allows for voluntary hosting of visits to dispel concerns about unusual military activities.”
It is the first time that this mechanism has been activated.
At the time that the statement was issued, the 18 states that had responded positively were Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States.
Bulgaria was not on the list.