UN man says Bulgaria tried to murder him

The curse of the poisoned umbrella tip returned to haunt Bulgaria yesterday after the country's top diplomat to the United Nations accused his own government of deploying dirty tricks against political opponents similar to those allegedly used against former dissidents.

In an extraordinary outburst, Slavi Pashovski, Bulgaria's ambassador to the UN and a fierce critic of the government, said that he had been the victim of a murder attempt and that he knew of at least one further such incident involving another senior Bulgarian diplomat.

At the same time he accused the country's leaders of being unreconstructed communists who were ruining the economy to enrich themselves.

"While the tears of the victims of communism have still not dried, we have been presenting new scenarios with a mafia plot," said Mr Pashovski. "Let us ... put an end to the infamy of the Bulgarian umbrella once and for all," he added in a reference to the bizarre killing in 1978 of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian defector who died shortly after being stabbed in the leg by a poison-tipped umbrella on the streets of London.

Government representatives in Sofia quickly dismissed Mr Pashovski's charges as groundless, describing as "ridiculous" the claim that they had been behind an apparent attempt on his life involving tampering with the steering wheel of his car.

They also rejected the ambassador's claim that the Bulgarian ambassador to Albania, another government critic, had been driven off a cliff in the Macedonian mountains by a hired assassin.

"Mr Pashovski's allegations are pure flights of the imagination," said Panteley Karassimeonov, the foreign ministry spokesman in Sofia. "His conduct is quite inadmissible. It is both ridiculous and sad that a high- ranking diplomat can talk in such a way."

Mr Pashovski was originally appointed to the United Nations post in 1992 at the behest of the then governing Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and enjoyed the full blessing of the staunchly anti-communist President, Zhelyu Zhelev.

But relations with the government nosedived in 1994 when the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) - successors to the former ruling communists - romped to election victory.

Since then the new government has consistently sought the removal of Mr Pashovski and a host of other ambassadors who they believed to be appointees from the previous regime. Much to their annoyance, however, the only man in Bulgaria who has the power to hire and fire ambassadors is President Zhelev - who is the government's most ardent critic.

The result has been a political stalemate which has paralysed foreign policy and exacerbated the divisions between the pro-Nato approach of Mr Zhelev and the more ambiguous Moscow-friendly approach of the Socialists.

It has also - as in the case of Mr Pashovski - turned the country's foreign policy into farce. Thus, although he is Bulgaria's ambassador to the UN, Mr Pashovski has for two years running not been included on the government- chosen list for the Bulgarian delegation to the UN's annual general assembly. It was his exclusion from the current assembly, indeed, that triggered the latest row.

For most Bulgarians, such shenanigans have long since become a way of life, adding to a general sense of disillusionment with the 1989 revolution. With the economy in deep crisis and inflation set to reach 200 per cent this year, most people are more concerned about how to make ends meet.

But the row between Mr Pashovski and the government threatens to seriously damage the country's international standing. "Of course this sort of thing does us harm, but then, Bulgaria is a funny country," said a government source.

Moderates hope the situation will improve after the presidential election in late October in which Mr Zhelev will not be standing.