Russia?s NATO and EU ambassadors push Moscow?s ?spheres of influence? into the EU starting with ?age-old ally? Bulgaria.
"In Russia, the optimists learn English; the pessimists learn Chinese and the realists learn to operate a Kalashnikov." This joke would have been funny had it not come from Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, in a recent interview to a Bulgarian newspaper.
Weeks after Russia's war with Georgia and days after the announcement of a new ‘spheres of influence' policy by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Rogozin - a former leader of the nationalist party Rodina (Motherland) and a good friend of indicted Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic - introduced Bulgarian readers to Russia's new foreign policy doctrine.
Rogozin's interview seemed to carry a clear message to the Bulgarian public: the country belongs to Russia's sphere of influence, and any other club membership - be it NATO or the EU - has been a historical mistake, which would later need to be corrected.
"Bulgaria has abandoned us many times but took the right decision afterwards, when victory has come on our side. Now Bulgaria is again in the wrong camp - NATO. But this is your own mistake and it is up to you to correct it some day."
Meanwhile, he warned, "Romanians, Bulgarians and all others around the Black Sea should be very careful about what they are doing and what they allow others to do in their waters."
He also made clear how this Kremlin agenda was to be implemented.
"There are two elements that will remain unchanged irrespective of what happens," the Russian envoy said. "The discipline in supplying energy to our partners and our readiness to use our missile systems. Both are up and running."
Rogozin's interview was permeated with military machismo even when he discussed the situation of non-Russian minorities: "Minorities are not only a Russian problem - there are Hungarians in Romania, and Turks in Bulgaria. [...] But I would like to clarify something - the reason we intervened in South Ossetia was not only because there were Russians living there. We would defend in the same way every small nation in our region that is threatened by destruction - Jews, Bulgarians, everybody."
Less than a week later, another official, Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the EU, told the Bulgarian National Radio that "some European Council on Foreign Relations" has stolen his term of billing countries as Russia's ‘Trojan horses' in the EU, and that Bulgaria should also be included in the group. (In its Power Audit of EU-Russia Relations, ECFR argued that Cyprus and Greece were already acting in that role for Russia.)
Like his colleague at NATO, Chizhov criticized Bulgaria's membership in the EU and NATO and expressed hope that Sofia would eventually return to the Russian bosom.
"I understand that with European Union membership, and especially with NATO membership, Bulgaria has taken a difficult burden, since these memberships are not always easy. You can go to bed one evening and in the morning you wake up as somebody's military base. But apart from their well-developed sense of humor, Bulgarians have always had enough common sense. And I think it makes perfect sense to continue developing our [bilateral] relationship."
Chizhov also stressed that he expected Bulgaria to block a possible EU decision for sanctions against Russia in the wake of the Georgia war.
The Bulgarian government and President Parvanov - whom Rogozin called a personal friend - did nothing to react to the above statements by Russia's ambassadors. Instead, Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev met Vladimir Putin in an attempt to highlight what he called "Bulgaria's balanced policy towards Russia."
These days, Bulgarian public opinion surveys show that 66% of Bulgarians consider themselves Russophile - the highest number in Europe - whilst 75% support the EU.
The Bulgarian government has yet to recognize that it cannot be halfway between Brussels and Moscow. Not only because the country has already joined the Western club, but because this time around Russia is unlikely to tolerate such behavior, seeing it not merely as diplomatic legerdemain by a small country, but betrayal by an age-old ally.
Yet, rather than realize how Moscow is trying re-draw Europe's map, pushing its ‘sphere of influence' well into the EU, Bulgarian and European leaders have stayed silent. Whether deliberate or not, their silence sends a clear signal to Moscow: that Russia can bully its neighbours freely, and position itself as an alternative power in the region.
However, it will hardly be in the interest of the European Union - which has been put on the defensive on many other fronts including its neighborhood policy and its common energy strategy, to allow Russia to penetrate the bloc's southern tier.
Vessela Tcherneva is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (www.ecfr.eu).
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.