US envoy warns Russia seeks to divide Balkans

File photo. The US Secretary of State's Special Representative for the Western Balkans Matthew Palmer (R) is welcomed by Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimtrov (L) in Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia, 29 October 2019. [Georgi Licovski/EPA/EFE]

The US envoy for the Western Balkans warned on Tuesday (11 February) that Russia is seeking to divide the region and hinder its integration with the West.

Washington frequently accuses Moscow of meddling in the region that sits on the outskirts of the European Union.

“We are concerned about Russian intentions with respect to the Western Balkans,” Matthew Palmer told Radio Free Europe’s Bulgarian service in an interview published Tuesday, a day after the veteran diplomat visited Sofia.

Russia “prefers a Western Balkans that is fractious, that is divided against itself, that is suspicious, that has an element of chaos,” he said.

Palmer was appointed last August as a special envoy tasked for helping the Western Balkans integrate with the West.

Russian agents

The US official said that another challenge for the Balkans was the activity of Russian agents. He mentioned the attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016, the Skripal-like attempted murder of a Bulgarian arms trader, and more specifically “Russian efforts to undercut support for the Prespa Agreement between Skopje and Athens”, as “another example of malign activity on the part of the Russian state”.

The agreement signed in 2018 ended an almost three-decade name dispute between the two Balkan neighbours, opening the way for North Macedonia to join NATO and the EU.

Tsipras and Zaev seal historic deal to end name dispute

Greece and Macedonia on Sunday (17 June) signed a historic preliminary agreement to rename the small Balkan nation the Republic of North Macedonia, ending a row that has poisoned relations between the two neighbours since 1991.

Palmer said the US hopes the EU Council will decide in March to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.

“We would like to see the doors open. Both countries answer the requirements and we hope the European Council will recognise this by agreeing to open negotiations during its March meeting”, Palmer said.

Public designation

Palmer also said the US are ready to name more corrupt officials in Bulgaria, when this is necessary in the fight against corruption.

On 5 February  Pompeo said that he was blacklisting Specialized Criminal Court Judge Andon Mitalov due to his involvement in “corrupt acts that undermined the rule of law and severely compromised the independence of democratic institutions in Bulgaria.” This was the first time a Bulgarian official was named under a US procedure called “public designation”.

Last November Mitalov allowed Nikolai Malinov, a former Bulgarian lawmaker who is charged with spying for Russia, to visit Moscow, where he received an award personally from President Vladimir Putin.

Malinov has claimed he’s not a spy and was being targeted because he openly promotes stronger ties with Russia.

Bulgarians were generally puzzled with Mitalov’s designation, because much more prominent politicians and public officials “qualify” to be designated as corrupt. Mitalov doesn’t own expensive property and his name wasn’t known by the public before the designation.

Mitalov has denied wrongdoing and said he doesn’t know Malinov personally.

Bulgaria’s union of judges has said it wants more evidence from the US regarding Mitalov.

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