Bulgaria torn by row over Kremlin alliance

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The Independent Online

Central Europe Correspondent

Russia's drive to restore its influence in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has sparked a furious row in Bulgaria, traditionally one of Moscow's staunchest allies.

In an outburst over the weekend, the Bulgarian President, Zhelyu Zhelev, suggested the country's Socialist government could be holding secret talks with Russia, aimed at bringing it back into a Moscow-led pact.

Mr Zhelev's comments were precipitated by the signing on Friday of an accord strengthening ties between Russia and the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. According to Bulgarian media reports, the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, declared after the signing: "The new community is open to other states ... maybe the Baltic states or perhaps, for example, Bulgaria."

Mr Zhelev said Mr Yeltsin's idea "has never been considered by official Bulgarian state institutions and will never be accepted by the Bulgarian people". At the same time, he suggested Bulgaria's government, made up of former Communists, could already be in cahoots with the Kremlin.

"I am officially asking the government if any clandestine talks have been held with Russia, and if anyone has made commitments behind the backs of the Bulgarian people," said the President.

As a former dissident and virulent anti-Communist, Mr Zhelev represents the pro-Western camp in Bulgaria, which sees the long-term goals of the country as membership of the European Union and Nato.

Although the government publicly backs a similar pro-Western stance, many Socialist MPs are more pro-Russian and are wary of pressing for Nato membership in the face of Moscow's objections.

Within the former Communist bloc, Bulgaria was always considered Moscow's most loyal ally. In addition to strong cultural and linguistic ties, the country remains dependent on Russia for its energy supplies.

With little prospect of early entry to Nato or the EU, Bulgaria is coming under pressure from Russia to join what it hopes will eventually evolve into a counter-weight to the Western-based alliances. The pact signed between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan foresees strong economic ties and close integration.