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Bulgaria: Yeltsin's Illness A Blow To Relations

Sofia, 17 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- "Bad luck haunts our relations with Russia," was the gloomy comment of Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Evgeni Bakardjiev when he learned about the phone call from Russian President Boris Yeltsin to Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov.

That was last Thursday, and Yeltsin had just been hospitalised with respiratory problems in the government sanatorium at Barvikha near Moscow. The Russian leader personally called Stoyanov to ask for a postponement of Stoyanov's meticulously prepared two-day official visit to Russia, scheduled for December 18-20.

The presidency's press centre in Sofia quote Yeltsin as saying he had caught a slight cold and had a sore throat. He asked to be excused from the scheduled visit, but said "we two will soon meet." Now the visit is expected to take place in February or March. The postponement is a blow to official expectations in Sofia that Stoyanov would succeed in persuading the Russian president to involve himself more actively in overcoming what many observers see as a crisis in Bulgarian-Russian relations.

The Bulgarians view Yeltsin's personal involvement as vital in solving a range of economic problems with Bulgaria. "We'll again have to wait", grumbled an official from the Ministry of Trade and Tourism. "If we rely on the executive (Premier Viktor Chernomirdin's cabinet) or on the Duma, the result will be zero. The former comrades know that we are on the vulnerable side. Only Yeltsin can push things forward."

After the postponement of the visit, and with little more than two weeks to go before the new year, Bulgaria is still without a negotiated agreement for the import of a single cubic meter Russian natural gas. At the end of November the fifth session of the Bulgarian-Russian intergovernmental commission for commercial, economic and scientific co-operation, took place in Sofia and lasted 13 hours instead of three days, as planned in advance.

Afterwards, Bulgarian Vice Prime Minister Bakardjiev commented that the gas problem will be settled at the general assembly of the Bulgarian-Russian joint company Topenergy, scheduled for December 16 in Moscow. He also said that the success of the negotiations would coincide with the visit of President Stoyanov to the Russian capital.

Recent talks of Bulgarian representatives in Moscow show that Bakardjiev's statement may have been over-optimistic. A blueprint of a contract for supply of Russian natural gas to Bulgaria has been prepared, but the lines in the document, where the names of the participants in the agreement should have been written, still remain blank. The same is true for the price of the gas and for the transit taxes. Unresolved is also the important problem about the extension of the pipeline system on Bulgarian territory. Informed sources in Sofia say that the Russian gas giant Gazprom has proposed a draft agreement which, if signed, would put the whole transit of gas through Bulgaria under Russian control. It is more than unlikely that the government in Sofia would concede to such a one-sided settlement.

In bilateral trade as a whole acute problems also remain. There's the chronic negative balance for Bulgaria, which in the last five years has varied between $800 millon and $1 billion annually. In 1995 Russia increased its import taxes by an average of 12.5 percent. This pushed the import duties on Bulgarian export goods to 57 percent. Russian goods in Bulgaria are taxed with 6 percent.

To this inequality the Russians give an explanation, which could be humorous if it was not so damaging to the efforts of the Sofia government to drag the country out of economic crisis. Russian officials point out that they have a national system for trade preferences with a list of about 100 underdeveloped countries, and Bulgaria is not on it. For Moscow, Bulgaria is a developed country. So it does not have the right for a "most favoured nation" treatment. Yet no answer has been given to the question of why Bulgaria's neighbours, plus countries like Turkey and Kuwait, are in the underdeveloped list, while Bulgaria is not.

Some Bulgarian observers suspect political motives behind this discrimination. The position of Moscow against the enlargement of NATO is well known, and the observers say that in view of its present economic difficulties, Bulgaria is a suitable target for arm twisting. Russia also wants eventually to establish a free-trade zone between the two countries. For Bulgaria however the proposal is unacceptable, because it goes against its basic orientation towards Europe and the Atlantic structures.