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Bulgaria/Russia: Economic And Political Dispute Grows

Sofia, 30 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - In the last several days, Sofia and Moscow increasingly have resorted to hostile language in disagreements over economic and political issues.

Russia's Ambassador to Bulgaria, Leonid Kerestidzhiants, yesterday was visiting the city of Plovdiv and was asked about prolonged negotiations over natural gas shipments through Bulgaria.

"Russia believes in a market economy, but Bulgaria talks politics," said Kerestidzhiants. Defending Russia's position, Kerestidzhiants was particularly critical of the characterization of Moscow's negotiating tactics as "racketeering."

It was no less than Bulgaria's Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev who had leveled the "racketeering" accusation.

Bonev today said he cannot believe Russia-Bulgaria relations are at stake over a trade issue, but he again criticized Moscow, calling its behavior "inadequate."

Bonev said Russia's insistence on higher prices for gas amounts to "pressing a small country to the wall," because Bulgaria currently has no alternative for gas supplies. And, Bonev says the Russian Embassy in Sofia is deeply involved in the trade dispute -- a clear sign, he says, of which side is politicizing the issue.

Another point of contention seems to be this week's meeting in Sofia of defense ministers from southeastern Europe to discuss NATO expansion. Russia was not invited. Our Sofia correspondent says this led to a strongly worded diplomatic note from Ambassador Kerestidzhiants last week, noting Russia's justified interests in the region. Moscow's reaction was even more heated when the note was leaked to the Bulgarian and Russian press.

Our correspondent reports the latest episode occurred this week, when Russia's Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov refused a routine meeting request from Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Nadezhda Michailova at the United Nations General Assembly session.

Bulgaria's Foreign Ministry quickly voiced its view of the episode -- critical of Russia.

But, observers in Bulgaria ask why Interior Minister Bonev has been recruited as a foreign policy spokesman. And, the answer the observers have come up with is Bonev's very strong popularity standing - much of which has been won in a high-publicity attack on crime. The observers say it also allows Bulgaria to assert itself, while not raising the stakes to a level it cannot afford with Moscow.