Bulgaria will not expel Russian diplomats in the Skripal case because more evidence is expected of Kremlin’s connection with the chemical attack in Salisbury. This was announced by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov after a meeting of the Council of Ministers’ Security Council today (30 March). Krassen Nikolov has the story.
Krassen Nikolov is a journalist specialised in judiciary affairs. He works for Mediapool and is a regular contributor for BulgarianPresidency.eu for the six months of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
“At the moment, we do not think we should expel diplomats from the Russian Federation”, Borissov said. He announced that Sofia had shown “full solidarity” with its Euro-Atlantic partners, and in particular with the United Kingdom. Reportedly, this solidarity was expressed by the recall of the Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow for consultations.
In the meantime, it was also announced that ambassador Boyko Kotsev will return to the Russian capital on 8 April to participate in the opening of an exhibition by a Bulgarian artist there.
This last announcement by the Bulgarian Prime Minister is not surprising given his ambition to be a middleman in relations in Europe during the Bulgarian presidency of the EU Council, which ends in June.
“From there on, we must keep the communication channel (with the Kremlin),” Borissov said. The Bulgarian PM also acts as the main “channel of communication” between the EU and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
With this statement, Borissov tries to balance not only external but also internal relations. His GERB party is deeply divided on whether Bulgaria should expel Russian diplomats in the Skripal case. That is what his right hand in the party, the chairman of the GERB parliamentary group Tzvetan Tzvetanov insists. On Wednesday Tzvetanov announced the possible expulsion of Russian diplomats from Sofia.
“Bulgaria must also have its own position, there are geopolitical solutions that are taken at the highest level, and we see that Hungary, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Germany, France, the United States, Australia … Bulgaria must be solidarity with this approach, Bulgaria is part of the Euro-Atlantic pact, we are professing the democratic values, I am convinced that the government will make the right decision to show our sympathy and solidarity”, Tzvetanov stated on Wednesday.
But the ultimate decision is made by Borissov, and he announced that punitive measures against Moscow would not be adopted.
And while Borissov can control the different moods in his party, the expulsion of diplomats could cause serious problems with the “United Patriots” coalition partners. The Nationalist coalition consists of three parties. The leader of “Ataka” Volen Siderov has professed pro-Russian positions for years and has already announced that the Skripal case is probably organized by the “English-speaking world” to influence the presidential election in Russia.
The leader of the second party in the VMRO coalition Krassimir Karakachanov is the defence minister in the current government and also favours good relations with Moscow. Only Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the third formation in United Patriots Valery Simeonov expresses anti-Russian positions.
Borisov’s decision also saves him from a frontal political attack by President Rumen Radev and the main opposition party BSP, who opposed the expulsion of Russian diplomats. GERB would inevitably suffer damages from such an attack because of the traditionally good attitude towards Russia by the vast majority of Bulgarians.
Socialist leader Kornelia Ninova was pleased with Borissov’s take. “We congratulate Prime Minister Borissov for the position, which coincides with our proposal for a declaration in the name of the stability of Europe, the peace and security of the people and of our national interest”, she stated.
Russia and the EU liked equally by the Bulgarians
The poll agency Alpha Research survey, presented on Thursday, showed a decline in the positive attitude of Bulgarians towards Russia and a rise in positive attitude towards the EU. However, these two geopolitical poles remain with an almost equal number of supporters in Bulgaria – the EU is rated positively by 58% of the people, and Russia by 56%.
An unexpectedly strong impact on public opinion resulted by Russian Patriarch Kirill’s statements during his visits to Bulgaria during the national holiday on 3 March. The leader of Russia’s Orthodox church said that Bulgarians did not show the necessary gratitude to Russia as their liberator from Ottoman domination. Overall, 66% of Bulgarians have judged these words as “unacceptable and degrading”. This has brought down the positive attitude towards Russia from 66% to 56%.
A total of 43% of Bulgarians are already of the opinion that Russia insists not just for gratitude, but also for Bulgaria to follow its path of development, which they considered unacceptable.
The cooling for Russia goes hand in hand with an increase from 50 to 58% of the support to the EU, against the background of the country’s Presidency of the Council of the EU. There is also an increase in the approval for NATO – from 38% to 44%.
Bad news for Borissov
The good news for Borissov end here. The scandals with CEZ and the United Patriots erode the support for his party. With 23.1% GERB retains its place as the first political force, but the distance with the BSP is reduced to only 2.6%. The problem for the prime minister is that a majority of Bulgarians (57%) believe that he and his party are in some form involved in the scandalous purchase of CEZ’s Bulgarian business.
As the main opposition, BSP has been able to take advantage of the latest scandals, including the debates on the Istanbul Convention, which have sparked fears of legalizing same-sex marriages and third-gender recognition. However, anti-European speech could be a trap for the BSP on the eve of the forthcoming European Parliament elections in May 2019, Alfa Research estimates.
In this situation, Borissov doesn’t want to enter the narrative of being either for or against the EU or Russia in the eyes of the Bulgarians, nor to fuel the rise of the BSP and the high rating of the president by expulsing Russian diplomats, without clear evidence of Russian role in the Skripal case.
Following the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia on 4 March in Salisbury, Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats. The United Kingdom received support from over 20 European countries, including 18 EU member states, which similarly expulsed Russian diplomats.