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Bulgaria is at the heart of Russian-US conflict

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — Bulgaria’s expulsion of Russians, including diplomats accused of spying, and citizens accused of attempting murder in recent months, has dealt a blow to the assumptions about its relations with Moscow, at the heart of a conflict between two world powers.

Analysts point out that the expulsions and accusations would not have occurred in the past as the country, which was part of the Soviet Union, sought to maintain economic and energy cooperation with Russia.

“It is new. We’ll see if it turns into a direction” approved by Sofia, said Vasyla Chernivia of the Bulgarian office of the European Council’s Center for Foreign Relations Research.

In turn, political analyst Anthony Todorov said that Bulgaria is “at the center of the Russian-US geopolitical struggle to redistribute influence.”

These steps began in September last year when pro-Moscow activist Nikolai Malinov was accused of espionage.

Prosecutors said that the former Bulgarian lawmaker “changed the geopolitical direction of Bulgaria” and received funding from billionaire banker Constantine Malovev, who is close to the Kremlin, who was also prevented from entering Bulgaria.

Subsequently, three employees of the Russian embassy in Sofia were asked to leave on the grounds of espionage charges, while two others were prevented from entering the country.

Last month, three Russian Russians, who were not named, were charged with attempted murder, after the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilia Gibriev was poisoned.

The former Bulgarian ambassador to the United States, Elena Poptodorova, told “Free Europe” radio that “these unusual declarations by the public prosecutor will have an effect on public opinion.”

She added, “It will likely make ordinary Bulgarians understand that Russia, regardless of its importance to us, is not our ally.”

Bulgaria, liberated by the Russian Empire from five centuries of Ottoman rule in 1878, remained the most loyal country of the Soviet Union until the collapse of communism in 1989.

After joining the European Union and NATO, the country with an Orthodox majority and 7.1 million people still swings between East and West.

While conservative Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has been in power since 2009 on the basis of his pro-Western plan, President Romain Redev has the support of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, traditionally close to Moscow.

A divisive pipeline

Russia’s long-standing influence stems from its economic presence in Bulgaria, as Moscow’s investments are estimated to constitute about 11 percent of gross domestic product.

Russian companies have interests in critical sectors such as communications, media and real estate, according to the Sofia Study Center.

In the energy sector, Bulgaria is almost completely dependent on Russia for natural gas, while its only nuclear power plant was built during the Soviet era and powered by Russian fuel. The giant Russian “Lukoil” group owns the only oil refinery in Bulgaria.

Sofia raised the ire of the United States – which is moving to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas – when it decided to extend the “Turk Stream” pipeline on its soil.

Turk Stream is an important Russian-Russian project for transporting Russian gas across the Black Sea.

“As for the Turkish Stream, Prime Minister Borisov made the impossible, trying to balance the interests of Russia, the European Union and the United States,” said former Bulgarian Ambassador to Moscow Elian Vasilyev.

Some analysts have interpreted Russia-related investigations as an attempt by Sofia to reconcile with Washington.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused a Bulgarian judge of corruption and imposed a travel ban on him, in the first action of its kind by Washington against Bulgaria.

“This is just the first name, and there will be others,” US Ambassador to Sofia Hero Mustafa said in a television interview this week.

The judge had previously allowed Malinov, a pro-Kremlin activist, to travel to Russia to receive an official award from Russian President Vladimir Putin, after he was accused of spying for Moscow.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the unfair was to honor Malinov for “his contribution to developing friendship and cooperation between our two countries” and warned of “very negative repercussions” of damaging relations between the two countries.

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