By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
Bulgaria’s new Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin, a member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party cabinet that came to power in Sofia on May 29, has spoken of the approach that his ministry will take on the Western Balkans and on the controversial issue of agents of the communist-era State Security who were serving as diplomats before being axed as ambassadors by the previous government.
In an interview with state news agency BTA, Vigenin, till now a two-term MEP and head of the socialist Coalition for Bulgaria’s foreign policy desk, said that the planned good neighbourliness agreement between Bulgaria and Macedonia would remain on the agenda.
For many years, relations between Sofia and Skopje have been complex, with Bulgaria frequently annoyed by anti-Bulgarian propaganda in its neighbour as well as alleged harassment by Skopje of Macedonians who define themselves as Bulgarian.
In March 2013, when the centre-right government led by Boiko Borissov stepped down ahead of the scheduled end of its term, the then-outgoing foreign minister Nikolai Mladenov expressed frustration that the signing of the good neighbourliness agreement had been very close to completion.
Bulgaria has underlined that proper implementation of a policy of good neighbourliness is essential to countries that aspire to membership of the European Union.
Vigenin said that Bulgaria’s position towards Macedonia would be “firm but reasonable”. Sofia wanted to see its neighbour join the EU, which was in the interests of Bulgaria, while the commitments undertaken to the previous Bulgarian government should be implemented, he said.
He said that Bulgaria should take a holistic approach and find additional forms of co-operation with Macedonia to build more trust, to help some of the problems that plague the relationship between the two countries “and are not really so complicated”.
Vigenin also signalled a major policy shift away from the moves made under Mladenov, who sought to transfer away from ambassadorial posts those many diplomats named as having worked for Bulgaria’s communist secret service State Security.
During the time of the 2009 to 2013 administration, Mladenov worked to ensure that Bulgaria was not represented abroad by those who had been secret agents for the communist regime. Bulgaria’s constitution does not permit lustration, but Mladenov moved to recall ambassadors and redeploy them away from posts representing the country abroad.
Vigenin repudiated this policy, saying, “the way these people were humiliated is one of the most shameful deeds of the previous government and its foreign minister. We’ll see to it that the veteran diplomats will be assessed in compliance with their personal skills and make them as useful as possible for the ministry”.
Every one of these people would be able to be useful to the country, Vigenin said, although he added that it was too early to comment in detail.
The issue of the appointment of ambassadors abroad could have complexities.
Since 2001, on a number of occasions the situation has been that the cabinet and president are from different political backgrounds. This has sometimes led to difficult behind-the-scenes proceedings about the appointment of ambassadors – constitutionally, they are appointed by the President, as head of state, but on the recommendation of the cabinet.
Already, in the final days of the caretaker cabinet that ran Bulgaria from mid-March to May 29, the socialists called on President Rossen Plevneliev not to proceed with the appointment of ambassadors recommended by the caretaker cabinet.
President Plevneliev, while an apolitical figure as head of state, was elected in 2011 on the ticket of the centre-right GERB party and opposes the appointment to senior positions of former State Security agents. What remains to be seen is what will happen when, as likely, the socialist government presents him with candidate ambassadors with State Security backgrounds.