Bulgaria expels 70 Russian diplomats over espionage concerns – Reuters

A view of the Russian Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria, April 29, 2021. REUTERS/Stoyan Ninov

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SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria said on Tuesday it would expel 70 Russian diplomatic staff over espionage concerns, capping the size of Moscow’s representation amid tensions between two former allies over Ukraine.

The move, announced by the Foreign Ministry and the outgoing prime minister, was the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats by Sofia in recent years, and more than halved the size of Moscow’s diplomatic footprint in the Balkan nation.

An unnamed source told Russia’s TASS news agency that Moscow, which cut off gas to Bulgaria in April because of its refusal to agree to the ruble payment mechanism despite its heavy reliance on it, will respond.

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Bulgarian Prime Minister Kirill Petkov, who lost confidence in parliament last week, said, “Today we have expelled 70 Russian diplomats… Many of them worked directly in the (intelligence) services and their diplomatic role was more of a cover.” vote.

The decision cuts the Russian diplomatic presence by more than half, which Petkov said stood at 114 at the end of April.

The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry said the decision to expel such a large number of Russian diplomatic staff aims to reduce the size of the Moscow mission to the level of the Bulgarian representation in Moscow and to respond to what it described as activities that do not comply with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, in terms of espionage.

There was no immediate Russian response to the spying allegations.

Petkov took an unusually strong stance against Russia for a country that enjoyed close relations with Moscow during the communist era and had long been a magnet for Russian tourists.

He fired his defense minister in February for refusing to describe what Russia calls a “special military operation” against Ukraine as a “war”.

Petkov also supported European Union sanctions against Moscow, agreed to reform Ukrainian military equipment while not sending weapons directly to Kyiv, and complained about what he previously described as the disproportionate size of Russia’s diplomatic presence in his country.

“This is not an act of aggression towards the Russian people,” Petkov said, describing the expulsions. “When foreign governments try to interfere in our internal affairs, we have institutions that respond.”

The foreign ministry said Bulgaria had set the size of the Russian diplomatic presence at 48 and had ordered the expelled Russian diplomats to leave the country by midnight on Sunday.

“We expect on Sunday that a full plane with 70 seats will take off for Moscow,” Petkov said.

The Foreign Ministry said that Bulgaria will temporarily close its diplomatic mission in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg and expects Russia to temporarily suspend the activities of its mission in the Bulgarian city of Ruse.

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(Covering by Tsvetilya Tsolova) Editing by Andrew Osborne

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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