Stress Put on Friendship as Putin Visits Bulgaria

APPutin and Parvanov at a ceremony opening the Year of Russia in Bulgaria.
SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov on Thursday night said there was no contradiction between Bulgaria's European Union membership and friendship with Russia as he welcomed President Vladimir Putin to Sofia.

"The dilemma -- either the European Union or Russia -- is a false one," Parvanov said at the Palace of Culture in the center of the Bulgarian capital as the audience burst into applause.

Both he and Putin arrived at the palace to kick off the "Year of Russia" in Bulgaria and spoke to the packed auditorium. In a passionate address, Parvanov praised Russia as a traditional friend and hailed the thousands of Russian soldiers that have helped liberate his country over the course of history.

In a clear reference to countries like Estonia, he cautioned against the revision of history, saying there were 400 monuments across Bulgaria that stood as symbols of brotherhood and that the country's cities and towns bore the names of what he called Russian liberators.

In the late 19th century, Russia and its ally Serbia helped Bulgaria in its rebellion against Turkish rule.

Putin said the Year of Russia was designed to help young Bulgarians feel the kinship between the two nations that survives despite the changes brought by recent events, and said he looked to Sofia to help with the holding of a "Year of Bulgaria" in Russia as well. Events of this type, filled with a heavy program of cultural events, are symbolic gestures the Kremlin traditionally reserves for its friends and allies.

During a visit to the former Soviet satellite that is likely to be his last official trip abroad before leaving office, Putin said the friendship between Russia and Bulgaria had been "sealed by blood ties and comes from the heart."

Lampposts along Vitosha Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in Sofia, were adorned with Russian and Bulgarian flags, and posters next to the Palace of Culture welcomed Putin to Bulgaria.

Amid calls from a conservative political party, the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, for a boycott of Putin's visit, the city looked calm Thursday night.

This is Putin's second trip to the country during his eight years in office, and highlights Bulgaria's status as a rare Russian ally in Central and Eastern Europe.

Under Putin, relations with countries like Poland and Estonia, to name but two, have worsened dramatically, but the Kremlin maintains that it is Warsaw, Tallinn and the other capitals in question that bear responsibility for the strained ties.

While Bulgaria, which is a member of NATO as well as the EU, cannot be called pro-Russian, Parvanov might be the closest ally Putin has in the region.

"There's a good attitude toward Russia. It's traditional," said Pavlin Varbanov, 25, a manager at a hotel where Russian journalists are staying for Putin's visit.

"Nobody cares about the protests," he said, referring to the argument by the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria that the country is too dependent on Russia.

Putin and Parvanov have kept in regular contact over the years. The Bulgarian leader was among those who called Putin to express his condolences in the immediate aftermath of the Beslan school attack in 2004. In June, Putin "warmly" congratulated Parvanov on his 50th birthday during a telephone conversation about deepening energy cooperation, the Kremlin said.

Last year, the two countries, together with Greece, agreed to build a 285-kilometer pipeline from Burgas on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast to Alexandroupolis on the Greek Aegean. Bulgaria is also part of the planned South Stream gas pipeline to be completed by 2013.

Bulgaria may be much more comfortable cooperating on energy with Russia than Turkey due to its history, and Putin was scheduled to visit an exhibit on Friday celebrating the 130th anniversary of Bulgaria's liberation from the Ottoman Empire.

He is also expected to visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and lay flowers at monuments to Russian Emperor Alexander II and the Unknown Soldier.

On Thursday, Kremlin spokespeople could not say what deals would be signed Friday, but talks have been expected to focus on hydrocarbons and a nuclear station that the Russians plan to build for Bulgaria. Parvanov said Thursday night that the talks would focus mainly on energy.