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During the past 142 years of diplomatic relations between Russia and Bulgaria, bilateral relations have developed quite rapidly. But the close relations between our people are not subject to any political vicissitudes

E. Mrs. Eleonora Mitrofanova was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Bulgaria by President Vladimir Putin, on January 15, 2021. On March 16 she presented her credentials to President Rumen Radev. All Bulgarians saw her for the first time on March 3, and heard her congratulate us on our national holiday in Bulgarian. Since then, the first woman ambassador of Russia to Bulgaria in the 142-year history of our diplomatic relations impresses us with her qualities - dignity, diplomacy, stability, seriousness and self-control.

Eleonora Valentinovna Mitrofanova was born in Volgograd. She graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. She is a candidate of economic sciences and speaks French, English and Spanish.

During the years of her diplomatic career, Eleonora Mitrofanova held a number of senior management positions. From 2001 to 2003, she was Deputy General Secretary of UNESCO. From 2003 to 2004, she was the first Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. From 2004 to 2009, she headed the Russian Center for International Scientific and Cultural Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. From 2009 to 2016, she was again in Paris as Russia's Permanent Representative to UNESCO. Eleonora Mitrofanova has been appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia twice: in 2016-2017 and in 2020-2021. From 2017 to 2020 she was the head of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, compatriots living abroad and for international humanitarian cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo). Eleonora Mitrofanova is married. She has four children and eight grandchildren.

    - For the 142 years of diplomatic relations between Russia and Bulgaria, there have been periods of rise, when it seemed that our countries were at the highest peaks of cooperation, and periods of decline, with interruption of the Russian-Bulgarian contact

    - The general international situation and Bulgaria's membership in the EU and NATO affect the relations between Moscow and Sofia

    - I see a clear task before me - to put relations on a pragmatic basis, to promote open dialogue and create a positive agenda

    - So far we have not been able to reach the trade turnover from 2012-2013, and the current crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly weakened our bilateral ties

    - The alternative scenario for construction of one power unit of Kozloduy NPP, instead of two power units of Belene NPP, is not fully prepared

    - There are many promising opportunities for Russian investment in areas such as clean energy, including the construction of a new nuclear power plant, transport, pharmaceutical industry and others

    - Sputnik V has already been approved in 67 countries, with production starting in China, India, South Korea, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others. Negotiations with a number of EU countries have begun

    - We proudly note the growing interest of Bulgarian youth in receiving quality education in Russian universities

    - The interest in town twinning both in Russia and in Bulgaria is growing

- Your Excellency, after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the convened First Grand National Assembly of Bulgaria in 1879, which elected Alexander Battenberg as Prince of the Principality of Bulgaria, the first Bulgarian government was formed on July 5th, headed by Todor Burmov. On July 7th, Alexander Davidov, quite naturally, was the first diplomat in our country to introduce himself to Prince Battenberg and to hand over his letters of credence. How would you describe the development of our, already 142-year-old, diplomatic relations?

- In the time that has passed since then, bilateral relations have developed quite rapidly. There were periods of rise, when our countries seemed to be at the highest peaks of collaboration, as well as periods of decline, with deterioration of Russia-Bulgaria relations. However, the close relations between our people, who are not subject to any political vicissitudes, have remained unchanged.

Nowadays the dialogue between Moscow and Sofia develops in an uneasy manner, with its inherent cyclical nature. In 2018-2019, good dynamics of bilateral contacts were ensured with a number of visits from the highest level, which were reflected in specific, mutually beneficial agreements. However, since the autumn of 2019, due to no fault of ours, we have witnessed a new stage, characterized by the periodic expulsion of Russian diplomats from Sofia (so far nine people).

We understand that the general international situation and the country's membership in the EU and NATO affect the relations between Moscow and Sofia. However, it seems wrong to me to turn our relations into an appendage to the situation on the world stage and to some alliance obligations. This is disrespectful to the Russian and Bulgarian people, who are closely connected historically, spiritually and culturally.

In these circumstances, I see a clear task before me - to put our relations on a pragmatic basis, to promote open dialogue and create a positive agenda. In a nutshell, I would suggest our Bulgarian partners to adopt the concept of good neighbourliness, and not to engage in military manoeuvres, being encouraged by their "benefactors" using the image of Russia as an "enemy". Moreover, the Bulgarian people will never believe this, as I am getting convinced during my numerous travels around the country.

At the beginning of June we openly discussed the current state of bilateral relations with the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Caretaker government Svetlan Stoev, and outlined a number of specific steps to overcome the negative situation. I hope that they will be implemented in the near future and that we will be able to move to real diplomacy, aimed at finding opportunities for cooperation.

- Today, the dialogue between Moscow and Sofia is at times on the rise, at times on the wane or at times in a state of tension. What actions would you take to push it in a positive direction?

- Building a relationship of trust between countries is long and hard work that requires bilateral participation, mutual respect and enthusiasm. The irresponsible approach to this process, on the part of individual politicians, could quickly destroy the benefits of many years of work. The benefits of such short-sighted actions are always insignificant and very dubious, and the victims in such cases are ordinary citizens and businesses.

Until recently, our partnership was developing well and we really appreciated that. But can your readers honestly answer the question: "Is Moscow to blame for their rapid escalation?" For the full restoration of relations, which, unfortunately, we cannot talk about for the time being, the pernicious and unproductive practice of unproven accusations against Russia must be stopped. Besides, as we can see, this practice does not help to obtain even those alleged political bonuses, for which our bilateral cooperation has been sacrificed.

- You are a specialist in international economic relations, Doctor of Economics and Management. How do you see the development of our relations in the economic sphere? What is the trade turnover between our countries over the past year and how did the sanctions imposed on Russia and the COVID-19 pandemic affect it?

 - Our country has always been and always will be open to mutual beneficial cooperation. We try to maintain a constructive dialogue in the whole spectrum of Russian-Bulgarian relations. So far, we have not been able to reach the trade turnover of 2012-2013, and the current crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly weakened our bilateral ties. In 2020, the trade volume barely reached $ 2.5 billion. In recent years, high-class companies have appeared in Russia in the industries, where Bulgarian business used to be present. I am afraid that it will be difficult to return to the previous positions on the Russian market. Therefore, it is now necessary not only to try to re-establish contacts with partners, but also to look for new forms of interaction.

- The "Balkan Stream" is already a fact from January 1, 2021. How will our relations in the energy sector develop from now on?

- We have been supplying natural gas to Bulgaria since 1974. However, our cooperation in the field of energy is not limited to this area. We continue to work together in the field of nuclear energy, the entire cycle of oil refining, modernization of thermal power plants and others. In the context of implementation of the European Green Pact, joint projects related to renewable energy, liquefied gas, hydrogen and others could be considered.

- Our country is often a battlefield between rival energy projects; such are the cases with Kozloduy NPP and Belene NPP. What is your comment?

- First of all, we must be aware that the alternative scenario for the construction of one power unit of Kozloduy NPP, instead of two power units of Belene NPP, is not completely prepared. Therefore, additional time and resources will be needed. According to expert estimates, to obtain all the required permits and to prepare the project for the station and finish other tasks, your country will lose at least ten years more than what needed for Belene. Bulgaria has already invested over BGN 3 billion in the site and equipment in Belene. If the procedure is stopped, it will mean that taxpayers' money has been wasted. In this regard, the earlier the Bulgarian side starts the construction of the new NPP, the faster it will start to cover and make a profit. In addition, our partners, of course, should understand that, even if a decision is made at the national level to build a new unit of Kozloduy NPP instead of Belene NPP, this project cannot be implemented without the Russian corporation "Rosatom", because our company is the developer of nuclear reactors.

- Can we expect new Russian investments in Bulgaria, and in which areas?

 - There are many promising opportunities for investments in areas such as clean energy, including the construction of a new nuclear power plant, transport, pharmaceuticals and others. Decisions to participate in any project will be made based primarily on their commercial attractiveness and the reliability of the partners. But first, we need to overcome the effects of the Coronavirus and return at least to the previous level of interaction.

- The tourist season on our Black Sea coast has started. We have always relied on tourists from Russia. But the issue of visas for Russian citizens and restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have had a bad effect on the 2020 season. How do you think things will develop this summer?

- We know how much Russian tourists are awaited in Bulgaria. Recently, our operational headquarters decided to restore air connections with a number of countries, including Bulgaria. Direct flights have resumed on July 1th. We hope that Russian tourists will once again feel the hospitality of Bulgarian resorts. However, we should not forget that, unfortunately, the threat from COVID-19 has not passed and, in the first place, it must be based on security considerations.

- Unfortunately for many Bulgarians, our short-lived 45th parliament did not accept the offer to buy the Russian vaccine "Sputnik V". Could you give us more information about Russian vaccines, their distribution and how the vaccination of the population in Russia is going?

- Vaccination continues, although not at the pace we would like. To date, more than 25 million people have been vaccinated in Russia, 1.8 million of whom in the capital. Our government is actively stimulating this process. In some regions, including the capital, compulsory vaccination has been introduced for service workers. In Moscow, for example, people can be vaccinated for free and even in non-standard places: theaters, universities, museums, shopping malls. There are special Healthy Moscow pavilions in the parks.

There are currently four of our own vaccines registered in Russia - Sputnik V, Sputnik Light, EpiVakCorona and KoviVak. All of them have proven to be safe and effective during clinical trials, including against the British, South African and Indian strains. But we do not intend to stop there; our scientists continue to develop new vaccines.

Sputnik V has already been approved in 67 countries, with production starting in countries like China, India, South Korea, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others. Negotiations are also underway with a number of EU countries. According to the latest data, the European Medicines Agency has provided a positive response to the results of the clinical trials of Sputnik V. We hope that the examination will be completed without delay and our vaccine will be registered soon.

- Many Bulgarian and Russian cities are twinned. How are the partnerships between them evolving now, in a pandemic?

- Twinning is an important and effective channel for contacts between regions. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have witnessed an interesting phenomenon - twin cities have managed to quickly adapt to the coercive restrictions. The administrations of the regions and the municipalities called each other, sent video messages and even protective masks. Communication within the framework of "Meetings of Russian and Bulgarian Twin Cities" has been recently resumed online.

I want to note that the interest in twinning in both Russia and Bulgaria is growing. Our Rossotrudnichestvo office is actively working to match the received applications, regardless of the size of the city.

- The interest of Bulgarian youth in Russian universities is growing, as well as that in the study of the Russian language. What are the current figures - how many Bulgarians study in Russia and how many students study Russian in Bulgaria? Is there a reverse trend?

 - We note with satisfaction the growing interest of Bulgarian youth in receiving quality education in Russian universities. More than 500 higher education institutions in our country, including leading Russian universities, offer various higher education programs, including for students from Bulgaria. As of the end of the 2020/2021 academic year, more than 500 students from Bulgaria are studying in Russian universities. During the current school year, despite the complex epidemiological situation, we managed to select 163 new candidates. In the short-term perspective we plan to attract at least 220 people to this process each year, as was the case before the pandemic.

 In the schools in Bulgaria Russian, as before, is the second most popular foreign language after English. More than 100,000 students are currently studying our language. About 1500 teachers of Russian work in the Bulgarian educational system. There is a steady growth trend of Russian language learners not only in schools and universities, but also in preschools.

- Recently in the city of Stara Zagora you said that there are enough bridges for the path of cooperation in higher education between the two countries to be even more open. What are they?

- Many Bulgarian universities have cooperation agreements with Russian universities. We see great potential in the development of joint master's programs and interaction within the framework of academic mobility in the line of European educational projects. Sofia University, New Bulgarian University, Varna Free University, Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv Universities are actively working in this direction with their partners from Moscow, Tver, Ufa, Rostov-on-Don.

- What new to expect in our bilateral cooperation until the end of 2021?

- By the end of the year Bulgaria will hold two extremely important domestic political events – snap elections for the National Assembly and presidential elections. In this regard, it is now difficult to make forecasts and plans. I would like to emphasize that regardless of what government will be formed and who will be the head of the Bulgarian state, we count on our dialogue to develop again in a constructive spirit, based on mutual understanding, equality and consideration of common interests. At least we are ready for that.

The photo was provided by the Embassy of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Bulgaria.