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With 70 Russian Diplomats Leaving Bulgaria, Moscow's Controversial Ambassador Is Staying

Russia's controversial ambassador to Bulgaria, Eleonora Mitrofanova (file photo)

SOFIA -- If ambassadors are tasked with fostering warm ties between their home country and host nation, then Eleonora Mitrofanova is not doing her job.

Since taking up the post of Russian ambassador to Bulgaria in 2021, Mitrofanova has managed to anger much of the Balkan nation, despite deep, historical ties.

She has apparently referred to Bulgarians as Western lackeys, using a crude term, as relations between the West and Russia plunged over the Kremlin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, launched on February 24. And she has met with a former Bulgarian lawmaker who has been accused in the past by Sofia of spying on behalf of Russian interests.

Mitrofanova, 69, has also upped the embassy's social media game, mostly to defend and spread disinformation about Russia's invasion of Ukraine and tar those who oppose it. For that, many Bulgarian politicians have been calling for her to go for months now.

But Mitrofanova's name was not on the list of the 70 Russian diplomats that Sofia announced on June 28 were to be expelled in a further blow to bilateral ties.

The move, announced by the Foreign Ministry and outgoing prime minister, was the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats by Sofia in recent years and more than halves the size of Moscow's diplomatic corps in the Balkan country.

"Bulgaria is going to expel 70 Russian diplomats…. Our [security] services identified them as people who worked against our interests," Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told reporters on June 28.

Those identified as a "threat to national security" must leave by July 3, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry said.

Several European countries have expelled Russian diplomats following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, with Moscow responding in kind by expelling European diplomats.

Petkov has taken an unusually strong stance against Russia for a country that enjoyed close ties with Moscow during the communist era and has long been a draw for Russian tourists. He sacked his defense minister in February for refusing to call what Russia describes as "a special military operation" against Ukraine a "war."

Bulgaria had already expelled 10 Russian diplomats in March for breaching diplomatic protocol.

Though an EU and NATO member, Bulgaria was once a staunch ally of the Soviet Union under communism and still has close cultural, historical, and economic ties with Russia.

Seasoned Diplomat

A seasoned Russian diplomat, Mitrofanova was appointed as Moscow's ambassador to Bulgaria in January 2021. In the past she served as Russia's permanent representative to UNESCO, the UN's cultural agency, between 2009 and 2016, as well as an ambassador-at-large for the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Before taking up her post in Sofia, Mitrofanova headed Rossotrudnichestvo. Established in 2008, the agency is officially tasked with advancing Russian interests abroad, engaging and organizing what Moscow calls "compatriots living abroad." Its activities in organizing local ethnic Russian groups abroad have sparked suspicion from host governments in the past.

On February 25, just a day after the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, Mitrofanova met with Nikolai Malinov, a former Bulgarian lawmaker and the head of a pro-Russian lobby group in Bulgaria. In 2019, Malinov traveled to Moscow to personally receive an award from President Vladimir Putin.

In 2019, Bulgarian prosecutors charged Malinov with money laundering and handing over state secrets to two Russian-based organizations that have close ties to the Kremlin and Russia's secret services.

Days after meeting with the accused Russian spy, Mitrofanova found herself at the center of a media storm over social media remarks that many Bulgarians took as a crude insult.

'Lackeys Of The West'

Mitrofanova announced on the Russian Embassy's Facebook page on February 28 that the diplomatic mission now also had a Telegram channel to better combat the "information aggression from Washington and its Euro-Atlantic bases," she claimed Russia was facing.

She didn't stop there, but accused Bulgarians of being lackeys of the West, using the term "bedpans," the contraption used in hospitals to catch human waste.

Outraged, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry sent an official note to the Russian Embassy on March 2, demanding the removal of offensive social media postings and an apology, neither of which the embassy did.

Mitrofanova also compared Russia's invasion of Ukraine to the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish war, which paved the way for Bulgaria's liberation after five centuries of Ottoman rule.

Mitrofanova claimed the Bulgarian people supported the Kremlin, unlike their "absolutely pro-American" government, in a video address on Liberation Day on March 3, a national holiday in Bulgaria to commemorate the Balkan state becoming independent in 1878 after the Russo-Turkish war.

Just two days before Mitrofanova's assessment of the Bulgarian zeitgeist, a public opinion poll by the respected Alpha Research group showed a growing number of Bulgarians with a negative attitude toward Putin and Russia.

In March, Stefan Tafrov, a seasoned Bulgarian politician and a former ambassador to the UN, called on the Bulgarian government to expel Mitrofanova, saying that her actions and words contradict the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which, among other things, offers diplomats immunity from local law.

On April 6, Democratic Bulgaria, a member of the outgoing coalition, demanded that Mitrofanova be declared persona non grata after Foreign Minister Teodora Genchovska accused her of interfering in Bulgarian domestic politics.

As of June 30, Mitrofanova had yet to comment publicly on the latest Bulgarian order to expel the Russian diplomats.

Prime Minister Petkov, whose pro-Western government collapsed in a no-confidence vote in parliament on June 22 after just six months in office, said on June 29 that the Russian Embassy in Sofia had "temporarily stopped working."

"Most of these people were working directly for the foreign services and their diplomatic role was only a cover," Petkov said.

"When foreign governments try to interfere in the internal affairs of Bulgaria, we have clear institutions that are ready to react. We expect a full plane with 70 people to fly back to Moscow on Sunday (July 3)."

Written in Prague by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, including Ivan Bedrov
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    RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service

    RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service relaunched in 2019 after a 15-year absence, providing independent news and original analysis to help strengthen a media landscape weakened by the monopolization of ownership and corruption.