Hurd gives Bulgaria PM a telling-off

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHILE Douglas Hurd was toddling up and down the Danube yesterday congratulating the Bulgarians on their part in keeping up the sanctions effort, Ivo Indjev, the director-general of the Bulgarian news agency, was being sacked by the Bulgarian government.

The Council of Ministers' decision to dismiss him on the morning of the Foreign Secretary's first visit to Bulgaria was not related to Mr Hurd's trip, apparently, for Mr Indjev's sin lay in the publication of 'anti- Bulgarian material': his agency, BTA, had reported an article in the Spanish press which said that during a recent visit here by King Juan Carlos of Spain, the Bulgarian Prime Minister had sought to prevent the King from giving a speech to parliament. Spain is the chosen exile of Bulgaria's ex-king Simeon, and sensitivity on the monarchy issue runs high in government circles.

Mr Indjev also happened to be a guest at an official lunch given for Mr Hurd on his arrival from the Danube by the British ambassador to Sofia. Before the Foreign Secretary arrived at the luncheon, Mr Indjev had told his embassy hosts that the Council of Ministers had held a 'secret ballot' that morning and publicly announced his dismissal without notifying him. Mr Indjev, a known supporter of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces, has been the target of attempts to unseat him since the UDF government was replaced last year by a 'government of experts' supported by the ex-Communist Bulgarian Socialist Party.

As Mr Hurd arrived fresh from his Danube trip, he was ready to hold talks after lunch with the government about the importance of continued co-operation on sanctions against Serbia. Faced with Mr Indjev's story, however, the Foreign Secretary's party realised that the Indjev case could not be ignored. One of them told Mr Indjev that, if he had no objections, the matter would be raised in talks with Lyuben Berov, the Prime Minister, who is also Foreign Minister. Mr Indjev did not object.

The Bulgarians were clearly banking on the fact that Britain and other European nations need their continuing support as a neighbour of Serbia over the policy of economic pressures that Mr Hurd had come to advocate as the solution to the Yugoslav crisis. Only that morning, Mr Hurd had crossed the Danube from Romania by boat and declared the river free of sanctions-busting Serbian barges.

The government, which regards the Hurd visit as a bestowal of legitimacy, may therefore have felt it was playing safe in choosing this moment to sack Mr Indjev. However, the incident led to some irritation at a time when the Bulgarians want Mr Hurd's continuing support for their eventual membership of the European Community.

Consequently, Mr Hurd told Mr Berov in a private tete-a-tete that the last thing Bulgaria needed if it wished to be accepted as a member of Europe was to go around sacking journalists in this way. Mr Indjev was practically the first person he had met on arriving in Bulgaria and he was startled to be faced with his story, he said. Mr Berov replied that since Mr Indjev had been printing lies, he deserved to be dismissed.

Earlier, Mr Hurd showed a keen interest in the machinations of sanctions-enforcing when he donned a life-jacket to cross the Danube in a small, state-of-the-art launch donated by the US government. He sat through three separate briefings with international customs officials - one of them by a German in a lilac suit who kept interrupting his American colleague - where it emerged that the key problem was now sanctions-busting by land.

He saw the 10-mile queue of lorries on the Romanian road leading up to the only bridge crossing over to Bulgaria. The silhouette against the sky overhead as his launch passed under the bridge was one of juggernaut after juggernaut standing stock still, held up for six or seven days while awaiting cargo inspection.

Much was made of the recent US donation of the six 'Boston Whaler' launches to the Bulgarian and Romanian governments. Diplomats in the region revealed that one is marooned in a port where it cannot obtain any diesel, another has a broken engine, and a third is in the wrong place because the harbourmaster does not wish to part with it.