събота, 30 май 2015 г.

Blacklisted in Russia - my story and reflections

By the time the news hit the wire I had already been warned of the likelihood of me joining the visa blacklist of the Russian MFA. Yet it was not until the news were formally confirmed that I realized the extent to which bias and self-centeredness have triumphed in Moscow. People get in into all sorts of lists, often against their own will, but whether this does not really reflect on their integrity as individuals.

I totally respect the inherent right of my colleagues at the Russian embassy in Sofia to make judgements at their discretion on the merits of my analytical work and my public statements, including the decision to offer me for inclusion in the visa blacklist of the Russian Ministry of foreign affairs.

I'm proud of the fact that while standing up for the values ​​and the rights of my countrymen and all Europeans in my work, I have not left a grain of doubt where I stand and what principles I defend. So being part of this list of 89 distinguished Europeans and sharing their company is an honor.

There is no need to qualify the act of the Russian authorities - it is self explanatory and typical for the line of the thinking in high places in Russia. In my work as Ambassador and after I left the job in 2006 my guiding principle has always been the defense of the Bulgarian national interests in relations with Russia, which regrettably has not always been the default line for Bulgarian politicians and diplomats nor a tradition.

On the other hand, I have always kept a respectful attitude towards the people who govern Russia and have duly acknowledged their right to shape Russian policies in the way they deem appropriate.

Unlike many other observers I have not spared critical lines for the role and input of the West for the current situation. If Western politicians today criticize Putin and are unhappy with his current policies they should go back to the roots of the resource pool of the Russian president and their hesitancy in offering Russia a parallel track to the membership in EU and NATO extended to the countries in Eastern Europe. Russia is simply too big to be ignored or left to its internal fears or complexes.

To understand the current stalemate we should go back to the days of 2003, when a former US president looked into Putin's eyes and recognized the man whom he could trust.

Shortly after that Russia was hit by unprecedented wealth - more than four trillion dollars poured in - thanks to high prices of oil, natural gas, metals and raw materials. Left to itself without a clear ​​model for interaction with the West, with a newly gained self-confidence and full coffers it was a matter of time before Russians reverted for guidance to imperial historic peaks, including Stalin. Yes, it is true that this line is suicidal in the 21st century, as its breaks with centuries old great European tradition, started by Peter the Great. But the West's contribution to this is a fact.

Differences of opinion with my colleagues in the Russian MFA - MID and the Russian Embassy in Sofia emerged in the years that preceded the Energy Grand Slam - which effectively became the cornerstone of Russian-Bulgarian relations after 2006. Unfortunately, I was unable to convince my government and the then Bulgarian president on the risks and the perils of blindly following propositions... and they took on the road to the Grand Slam.

My main argument then and now has been that these projects accommodate disproportionate and misappropriated geopolitical risks and interests, that will haunt our membership in the EU and NATO and will force upon us impossible choices. The concurrent absence of business logic would add huge financial losses and incur new debts. It was easy to figure the imminent damage based on the effects of the renegotiated gas contracts. Later the bill came as no surprise - more than a billion dollars overpaid in higher gas prices.

Once again the Bulgarian side was expected to mute reactions and to ignore the red flags in respect for past historical appreciation and gratitude.

No, I do not believe that modern Bulgarians owe anything to the contemporary generations of Russians. What our predecessors owed them has been already paid and granted. We hold in high respect and look after the monuments of those who fell in the Russ-Trukish war. that led to Bulgaria's liberation. But today we do not owe anything free to those who rule in Moscow. Therefore in deals with my Russian partners I have alwats looked for the costs and the benefits - not my personals but my country-men's.

It is easier when short on normal arguments to stick the label "Russophobe" and draw up a black visa list. It far more difficult to understand the concerns of my countrymen and treat them with due respect.

My understanding shared with the Government of Bulgaria was that the emphasis in Bulgarian foreign policy towards Russia should be the defense of Bulgarian economic interests, including the provision of equal rights and treatment of Bulgarian companies in Russia. The loss of Russian markets for our goods and services has not only been a function of the naturally incurred loss in competitiveness, but of conscious policy on the Russian side, which led to sharp cuts in our business presence. I know this first hand as I had to actively intervene and literally save Bulgarian companies from politically motivated raids. Everyone familiar with the situation in Russia is fully cognizant of the difficulties in identifying and mitigating political risks for Bulgarian or any European business in Russia. It requires the constant attention and proactive attitude of the Bulgarian state at every level so that Bulgarian businessmen stand any chance to transact in Russia and turn a profit. Suffice to say that in spite of all the countless delegations at every conceivable levels Bulgarian companies received no work and procurement orders at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Regardless of the fact that we were supposed to be "strategic partners" in the most important energy project for Russia.

At the end of the play our balance sheet was clean with nothing "in hand" as new business.

Unlike many others, I trust that the ultimate proof of foreign policy success lies in tangible economic benefits and opportunities to travel and enjoy equitable rights.

To my Russian friends and colleagues, that I will not be able to visit and who come from different walks of life - some share my views, others are polar opposites - this is what I have to say - welcome to my country or will meet in Europe. Be what you are, do not change. We may have our differences, but the important thing is to keep the lines open, discuss and fight to upkeep the right of every one to be able to speak and stand up for his ideas and views.

Because when we all think and speak alike no one really thinks. Trouble comes along in an ordinary manner and we are often left helpless in the face of crises. With or without blacklists we need to prevent Russia and Europe sliding into the abyss of large-scale military conflict for the sake of salvaging a regime that turns into "enemies" natural friends of Russian culture, nature, traditions like me.

In fact, a significant part of the Russian officials I worked with as Ambassador - like Prime Minister Kasyanov, Finance Minister Kudrin - who was also co-chair of the Joint Commission - have also fallen into the category of opponents of the current regime.

Which means as we say in Bulgarian - the fault is not in my TV set.

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