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German MPs have no clue to what happened to the “Berlin patient”

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The German government was quick to accuse Moscow of using a poisonous substance (“chemical weapon”) against Alexei Navalny, which resulted in additional sanctions being imposed on Russia, and the completion of Nord Stream 2 called into question. However, inconsistencies in Berlin’s version have raised doubts about the credibility of accusations brought against Russia among several deputies of the Bundestag and the parliamentary faction of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is in opposition to the policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government.

The government’s 76 answers to MPs’ queries raised even more questions

In their foreword to the government’s answers, the deputies provided the following timeline of events: on August 20, 2020, Alexei Navalny fell violently sick while on a plane from Tomsk to Moscow, forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing in Omsk, where Navalny was rushed to a hospital and put in a coma. Subsequent tests confirmed the doctors’ initial diagnosis about the natural causes of the patient’s condition. On August 22, Navalny was flown to Germany for treatment at Berlin’s Charité hospital. During a news conference held at the clinic two days later, on August 24, it was announced that Alexei Navalny had been poisoned.

Additional studies at a German military toxicology lab, and a little later (September 5 and 6) also in France and Sweden, confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned allegedly with a substance from the “Novichok” group of nerve agents.

“We have high expectations of the Russian government to solve this serious crime,” Germany Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on September 6, adding that “if the [Russian] government has nothing to do with the attack, then it is in its own interest to back this up with facts.”

Moscow has argued, however, that it is unable to conduct a comprehensive investigation and open a criminal case as long as the German government keeps withholding the data necessary for such a probe. Since doctors in Omsk did not find any poisonous substances in Navalny’s body, Russia has no grounds for opening a criminal case, and a pre-investigation check is being completed by the transport department of the Interior Ministry in the Siberian Federal District.

On September 17, 2020 (almost a month later), Navalny’s team announced that he had been poisoned in his hotel room in Tomsk after drinking from a bottle of water, which he could have taken to Berlin. However, during the next four weeks it was believed that “Novichok” had most likely been added to the tea that Navalny drank at the airport in Tomsk.

The German MPs also pointed to “confirmed facts that “Novichok” is available not only to the state, but to private individuals as well. It has been proven that already in the mid-1990s, some criminal groups in various countries possessed nerve agents from the “Novichok” group. In January 1997, The Washington Times quoted a US chemical weapons expert as providing detailed information on the various poisons of the “Novichok” family. And in 2018, the US Army admitted to producing different versions “Novichok.”

Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the government’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, England, said that the “owner” of the toxin would be hard to find. He added that while in the case of the Skripals’ poisoning his laboratory was able to find traces of “Novichok,” the involvement of government agencies  in the poisoning was “presumptive” and the “owner” could not be established.

The Bundestag deputies believe that not only Germany and Russia, but Europe as a whole would benefit from finding the truth about Navalny’s poisoning, and that there are questions that Germany, just like Russia, has to answer.

The questions asked were intended to clarify:

  1. to what extent the German government is following the terms of the OPCW Convention, under which “states are obliged to give each other legal assistance and to act vigorously to clarify various issues through exchange of information and bilateral consultations,”
  2. how the identified trace amounts of degradation products of a chemical compound resembling a cholinesterase inhibitor got into the body of Navalny in Russia, and not later,
  3. to clarify the biomaterials whose samples were taken for analysis, so that they can be compared with similar ones taken in Russia, and establish a specific formula for the identified inhibitor biomarkers in order to determine the country of origin of the synthesized chemical agent.

The deputies’ concerns are fairly understandable, because answers to the above questions can either prove or disprove the legitimacy of the German government’s accusations against the Russian authorities. The answers were simply shocking:

I. Legal assistance. The German government confirmed that it had received four requests for legal assistance from the Russian Federation in the preliminary investigation of Navalny’s case, which the government sent to the relevant authorities for further processing after the initial verification (response 26). The federal government kept mum about the government’s failure to provide any clear response to these requests for a whole three months;

– despite the significance of Navalny’s case, Berlin explained the 8-day delay in accepting the August 27, 2020 request by the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office for the provision of legal assistance from the German Ministry of Justice by the need to conduct a standard procedure for verifying compliance with legal norms, thus failing to provide any substantive answer (answer No. 28);

– Russia’s request for legal assistance, dated September 11, 2020, which included a permission for Russian investigators to come to Germany and meet with Alexei Navalny or with German doctors and experts, went equally unanswered (replies 26 and 29);

– all of Moscow’s requests for cooperation between the German and Russian chemical laboratories to compare the results of the obtained analyzes, were also rejected on the grounds that since the Russian authorities have their own biomaterials of Alexei Navalny, they can study them themselves (answers 22, 40 and 67 );

– the German government did not exchange information with the Russian doctors who had provided first aid to Navalny (answer 9).

II. Method and place of the alleged poisoning. It turned out that, according to its own admission, the German government, has no reliable information about the fundamental facts of the use of chemical weapons, namely:

– about the subsequent discovery of similar symptoms in the medical personnel who accompanied Navalny on the plane (Question: Were the accompanying persons examined for possible poisoning, given that there should have been traces of “Novichok” on Navalny’s body?) (answers 4, 6);

– about the methods of delivery and the persons who delivered the victim’s personal effects with traces of “Novichok” and the bottle of water,  allegedly poisoned with “Novichok” (answers 5, 15, 16, 38);

– about the initial condition (liquid or powder) of the applied substance (answer 41);

– about the reason why the expert opinion of Navalny’s attending physician was not made public during the September 24 news conference at the Charité clinic, where the fact of Navalny’s poisoning was announced (answer 21);

– about how the poisonous substance got into Alexei Navalny’s body: via the respiratory tract, skin or orally (answer 36);

– about why the long delay between Navalny’s alleged contact with “Novichok” in the hotel and its onset on the plane, while a chemical warfare agent is designed to instantly destroy enemy manpower (answer 67);

III. Biomaterial research. When asked directly about the nature of the biomaterials tested: blood, urine, samples from a bottle of water, or otherwise, the German government describes them as just “biomedical materials” (answers 47 and 48);

– the German government explains its refusal to disclose the composition of the discovered compound “Novichok” by the allegedly “high risk of information leakage” (answer 75), although even Wikipedia provides the structural formula and a method of synthesizing this toxic substance. We believe that the “risk of information leakage” boils down to the fact that disclosure of the composition of the found substance can reveal to specialists its country of origin, since chemical laboratories in different countries are able to determine this.

Failing to get any answers to leading questions, the MPs decided to put their questions “head-on” (questions 55-69), and, as a result, learned the following:

– traces of “Novichok” could only be found on a bottle of water, but not in Navalny’s body;

– the poison was on the bottle, not in the water, because otherwise, Alexei Navalny would not have survived;

– Alexei Navalny was in contact with the poisoned bottle while already on the plane flying from Omsk to Berlin. Maria Pevchikh was on the same plane and she carried the bottle onboard. Still, she was never interrogated in Germany;

– no fingerprints were taken from the bottle, which could prove that Navalny had touched it;

– the bottle of water was listed as the (alleged) source of poisoning only four weeks after the (alleged) poisoning.

The German federal government had no answers to these questions either. As a result, the most obvious version was not verified, and charges were immediately brought against the Russian authorities.

LEADS

Here we’ll try to consider different versions of what happened, based on the known facts and the answers provided by the German government.

Let’s start with the most implausible one, which is still being actively forced on the ordinary people in the West: “the dictator Putin is challenging the democratic countries by demonstrably using banned weapons of mass destruction against the opposition leader.” This immediately brings to mind the defamatory campaigns waged against Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad, accusing the former of being ready to use, and the latter of using chemical weapons. In both cases, the Western media portrayed these two leaders as “merciless” and even “crazy,” capable of acting against their own personal interests and the interests of their countries. In February 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell held up a vial that he said could contain anthrax as he presented “evidence” of Iraq’s alleged WMD programs to the UN Security Council, while knowing full well that it was a lie. The same with the shameless staging of “mass chlorine poisoning” in Syria to name just a few…

By using the same defamatory tactic against the Russian leader, the collective West may be looking for “justification” for a possible pushback, including a motion to deprive Russia of its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

This version has too many pitfalls, however. Why should Putin want to raise a scandal exactly when the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was all but over?; why allow Navalny’s evacuation to Germany, even though there were enough legal grounds to the contrary amid a pandemic and an ongoing criminal case against Navalny (over insulting a WWII veteran)? And why keep sending requests for cooperation in the investigation of the incident?

Germany’s refusal to cooperate and clarify the circumstances, which the lawmakers pointed to in their questions, is apparently an attempt by  the government to present to the public only one handpicked version of what happened. Indeed, this version could be immediately disputed by a) the absence of Navalny’s fingerprints on the bottle of water containing a poisonous substance that was allegedly found in Navalny’s hotel room in Tomsk; b) comparison of test results in Russia and Germany; c) disclosure of the formula of the detected poisonous substance. This is obviously why the German government failed to do this.

Another thing that German officials remain silent about is how Navalny learned about the alleged mining of the Omsk airport before the plane landed there, while he was already on his hospital bed at Charité. The Russian Interior Ministry hadn’t released the information about the false alarm that could have prevented the plane’s emergency landing in Omsk and provision of medical assistance to Navalny. According to the Ministry, the anonymous message about the bomb came via an online mail service, whose servers are in Germany.  The German authorities still refused to help identify the owner of the email address from where the warning about the bomb allegedly ticking at Omsk airport had come.

According to another version, Navalny’s poisoning was organized by certain elements in Russia’s ruling elite and the oligarchy, unhappy about Putin’s performance and seeking to discredit him in the West. That what had remained of the “Novichok” that was used to kill the banker Ivan Kivelidi in the 1990s, could have now been used to poison the Skripals and Navalny.

However, according to Western sources, NATO countries have also been able to synthesize or had access to “Novichok”’s analogues. In a joint report , the German newspapers Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit, and public broadcasters NDR and WDR said, citing their sources, that the country’s intelligence agency BND had obtained a sample of the “Novichok” nerve agent from a Russian scientist. The sample was analyzed in Sweden, and the chemical formula was then passed on to the German government and the military. The BND declined to comment on the report, which said that the BND informed the US and British intelligence agencies about that and small quantities of the poison were later produced in several NATO countries to test Western defenses, test equipment and antidotes.

During the 1990s, US specialists were working in Uzbekistan to scrap the production facilities of the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GNIIOKhT), where the nerve agent “Novichok” was produced and tested in Soviet times. This means that the Americans also had access to the technology used in the production of this agent, The New York Times wrote in 1999. The same is reported by Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan. Therefore, representatives of the intelligence agencies, trying hard to give Russia a bad name in the world, should by no means be excluded from the list of possible poisoners. To rule this out, the German government should have provided substantive answers to the questions posed by the Bundestag deputies. Otherwise, one gets the impression that what is being kept under wraps is precisely what can shed light on the whole situation, and Berlin’s reluctance to cooperate with Russian law enforcement agencies smacks of a deliberate provocation.

Finally, the most trivial explanation cannot be discarded either: what if Navalny really fell sick on the plane, necessitating an emergency landing and hospitalization? He is put in a coma and medical tests reveal no traces of any poisonous substances. Meanwhile, the Western special services spring into action and decide to use this opportunity to discredit Russia: they arrange for taking Navalny out to Germany in order to find any traces of “Novichok” (exactly the type of poison they need to demonize the Russian regime). To do this, they order Maria Pevchikh, who, most likely (or “highly likely”) is associated with Western intelligence, to take out from Navalny’s hotel room some evidence of poisoning. Unsuspicious of this, (although it should have been after the Skripals’ affair), Russia agrees to the evacuation. During the flight or upon arrival in Germany, they mark a bottle of water, clothes and some biomaterials (which for some reason are hidden) with small amounts of a cholinesterase inhibitor, pointing to the presence of a new analogue of a poisonous substance from the “Novichok” group.

At the same time, as follows from the federal government’s answers to the questions from Bundestag deputies about the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, without knowing for sure that the bottle of water was actually used by Navalny and that the biomaterials and their analysis are identical to the samples taken in Russia, the German government continues to blame the Russian leadership for poisoning the opposition activist.

Small wonder that the German government does not respond or gives formal replies to four requests from the Russian Prosecutor’s Office, refuses to  cooperate and disclose the formula of the discovered inhibitor under the ridiculous pretext that: “given the high risks of information leakage, the Federal Government did not disclose any details about the substance used” (answer to question 75). While accusing Russia of a deliberate crime, the German government is actually hiding evidence from the alleged “criminal” under the pretext that learning about the “murder weapon” he might want to use it again. If Germany fears that this weapon could be used by other countries and entities, then the transfer of related information can be made extremely confidential. If you really want to get at the truth, you have to exchange information, including of the analyzes of the composition of biomaterials, since, according to Article IX of the OPCW Convention, the participating States “shall consult and cooperate, directly among themselves … on any matter which may be raised relating to the object and purpose, or the implementation of the provisions, of this Convention … States Parties should, whenever possible, first make every effort to clarify and resolve, through exchange of information and consultations among themselves, any matter which may cause doubt about compliance with this Convention … A State Party which receives a request from another State Party for clarification of any matter which the requesting State Party believes causes such a doubt or concern shall provide the requesting State Party as soon as possible, but in any case not later than 10 days after the request, with information sufficient to answer the doubt or concern raised along with an explanation of how the information provided resolves the matter.”

How the US and Britain opposed the inclusion of “Novichok” in the OPCW Convention

During the 1990s and 2000s, the United States and Britain made sure that a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons, and their alleged predecessors, was not put on the list of substances banned by  the OPCW Convention.

In the autumn of 2018, the US and Netherlands proposed to include in the Convention only two families of toxic substances from the “Novichok” group. Russia then proposed to add five such chemicals to the list, but the Western countries rejected the initiative.

In September 2019, Russia came up with a revised proposal where the 5th group of chemicals objected to by the United States and its allies was no longer mentioned.

As a result, the parties reached a compromise and in November 2019, the Conference of the States Parties to the Convention approved the proposals put forward by Russia and the “troika” of Western countries to include four hazardous chemicals of the “Novichok” family on the Convention’s list.  However, the substance used in Navalny’s alleged poisoning was notably missing from the amended list.

List 1 of the Convention, which now includes “Novichok,” features chemicals that can be used in the production of chemical weapons or constitute a weapon per se. According to the Convention, a country that produces more than 100 grams of such substances a year must declare it to the OPCW. In addition, a state is allowed to have maximum one ton of such substances. This list includes mustard gas and ricin, among others.

Almost simultaneously with the inclusion in the Convention’s list of chemical compounds of the “Novichok” family, articles by Western scientists about the synthesis and research of this group’s substance began to appear in the press. For example, an article by Steven Harvey provides data on obtaining (using independently developed methods) preparations of the “Novichok” group (A230, A232 and A234) of very high purity (over 95%). This means that the West had been actively developing chemical warfare agents before, albeit secretly. This explains why the United States and Britain rejected the idea of adding to the list a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons, before including the five chemicals of the “Novichok” group.

This conclusion is also confirmed by the former Soviet scientist Vil Mirzayanov, who was the first to announce the creation of a new chemical warfare agent. In a recent interview with “Echo of Moscow” radio , he said that “a team in England and another one in the United States analyzed the hydrolysis of these “Novichoks,” which is thousands of times slower than that of all the known organophosphate toxic substances. This means that its traces remain in the human body for a very long time and do not disappear – that’s my conclusion.” In other words, it is possible to subject a person to a deliberately small non-lethal dose of such a substance, being fully confident that even three weeks later biomarkers indicating the use of “Novichok” will be detected, just like in the cases of the Skripals and Navalny. Those who planned both operations did not intend to kill, but only to embed material evidence to discredit Russia.

They will certainly try to deny this and say that Russian experts could have synthesized and reveal such properties in some analogue of “Novichok,” and use it for criminal ends.

Theoretically, such a version can’t be ruled out, but it should be considered on an equal basis with others. To identify the real organizers of these incidents, we need to work together and find answers to the questions asked by the German MPs, compare the results of Navalny’s analyzes taken in Russia and Germany, and reveal the formulas of poisonous substances found in the biomaterials of the Skripals and Navalny. Germany, just like the UK before it, refuses to cooperate in such an investigation, which could mean that they have something to hide. As they say in Russia, “No one shouts ‘thief!’ louder the thief himself.”

Opponents stick to a completely opposite version, however, arguing that the reason why neither case ended in death is because the Russian “spooks” used a minimum amount of the substance to make sure that its residue in the victims’ bodies could not be determined after a while. They also say that because the physical and chemical properties of the chemical substance were not taken into account, they erred with the dose and, as a result, the victims remained alive and the markers were found. This version holds no water, because if they wanted to hide the murder weapon, then why use an untested substance again, instead of some tried-and-true one harking back to the Medici era, or arrange an accident, just like they have occasionally done also in the West? Moreover, why let the patient be urgently taken out to Germany (the flight that would take Navalny to Berlin was delayed by several hours, but not because it was being held up by Moscow, but because the German pilots had to rest)?

Germany’s accusations against Russia over the alleged poisoning of Navalny, as well as Britain’s over the Skripals’ poisoning rest on the assumption that “Novichoks” could have allegedly been produced only at certain military facilities to be found only in Russia. However, this is a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. In his 1995 article, and later in a book that came out in the US in 2008, Vil Mirzayanov revealed “Novichok”’s chemical formula. In the book, Mirzayanov wrote that “chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version “Novichok-5” are common organophosphorus compounds that can be produced at commercial chemical plants making fertilizers, pesticides, etc.”

Czech President Milos Zeman admitted that in 2017, Czech chemists synthesized compounds of the “Novichok” family of nerve agents.

From a scientific standpoint, no laboratory, be it the Bundeswehr in Germany or Porton Down in the UK, is able to identify chemical compounds as analogues of the “Novichok” family if it has no compound of the same class available. They can determine that it fits Mirzayanov’s formula, but since he published the formula 20 years ago, this can by no means serve as proof of its Russian origin – just the opposite. If Porton Down can synthesize this chemical agent, so can many others, and not only in Russia. Moreover, as the same Mirzayanov said in his recent interview with Echo of Moscow: “Not a single substance, including “Novichok,” is 100% pure … chromatography mass spectrometry can be used to analyze the semi-products from which the final substance is obtained to determine the country and laboratory of origin of this toxic substance.”

The refusal by Germany and Britain to provide their samples of “Novichok” and to perform a comparative analysis of biomedical samples taken from the victims is evidence of their fear that this would point a finger at laboratories that could have actually synthesized the said chemical agents.

From our partner International Affairs

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American diplomacy’s comeback and Bulgaria’s institutional trench war

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Even though many mainstream media outlets have not noticed it, US diplomacy has staged a gran comeback in the Balkans. The Biden administration chose Bulgaria as the stage on which to reaffirm America’s hold on the region. Putting strong sanctions on Bulgarian oligarch, Washington is signalling not-so subtly to Russia that its reach goes far and wide. But there are sensible implication for the little South-Eastern European country’s future as well. Perhaps, the fight against systemic corruption is finally reaching its apogee. Could this be the end of misgovernance?

A corrupted country — Introduction

Many argue that corruption in Bulgaria and South-Eastern Europe is but a remnant of national Communist Parties’ half-century long rule. Thus, the EU’s threat to metaphorically swap the carrot for the ­­stick should have favoured a thorough clean-up. Instead, it merely yielded some short-term successes for anti-corruption campaigners, activist judges and specialised procurators. Yet, State capture and malpracticesremain endemic for one reason or another amongst post-socialist countries inside and outsidethe Union. More specifically, these efforts were vain and Bulgaria was still ill-equippedwhen it joined the Union on January 1, 2007. Hence, Brussels allowed in a deeply corrupted country where hidden interest behold even those occupying the highest echelons of power.

If not membership in the European Union, at least internal politics could have helped the country fend off endemic maladministration. Yet, the status quo has preserved itself intact despite calls and promises to root out corruption having been getting louder. In a sense, corruption’s pervasiveness is a feature and not a bug embedded in Bulgaria’s imperfect liberal free-market democracy. These conservative – and, in a sense, perverting – forces have found their embodiment in Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his associates. Therefore, governmental agencies, political parties, courts and the entire extant structure of power contribute to prevent any change.

The wind of change: Popular unrest and institutional trench war

That notwithstanding, the proverbial ‘wind of change’ may have begun to lash across Bulgaria in summer 2020. After having taken to the streets against the party of power’s abuses and failures, voters abandoned Borisov in the April 2021 elections. Conversely, new parties and loose coalitions of civil-society organisations, formed shortly before the contest, won a relative majority of preferences. And, as many analysts noticed, these newcomers do not share much besides the desire to “dismantle the Borisov system”.

Nonetheless, these new actors failed to form a governing coalition due to the heterogeneity and inherent negativity of their agendas. Thus, President Rumen Radev scheduled new elections on July 11 and appointed a caretaker government.

Political reconfigurations

Indeed, there is an institutional custom prescribing such cabinets to limit their activities to managing current affairs. Nonetheless, these technocrats – many of whom supported Radev in his feud with Borisov – started an extensive review of past governments. In the process, the cabinet reshuffledbureaucracies, suspended Sofia airport’s concession and halted other public tenders for suspected irregularities. More importantly, the ministry of interior has confirmed prior suspects that Borisov-appointed officers may have illegally wiretapped opposition politicians.

In a word, President Radev’s ministers are endeavouring to tear apart the ‘Borisov system’ before the next elections. However, simply ousting most – or even all – of the previous government’s men in key positions within State apparatuses is uncomplicated. Especially when pushing such an agenda is the President,with the palpable backing of an absolute majority of the population. But the Borisov system has also an economic component. In fact, the party of power has set up a tentacular network of supportive oligarchs funding and favourable media coverage. Putting them out of the game is equally, if not more, important than firing bureaucrats — but also much more difficult.

Chasing the oligarchs

In other words, undoing the Borisov system’s appointments and putting trustworthy officers in those posts in just the first step. But real change requires leaving the wealthy individuals and organisations benefitting from the status quo clawless and teethless. Such a task entails deep economic transformations that would surely evoke immense opposition from powerful pressure groups. Evidently, there is not enough time before Bulgarians vote again and their representatives pick up a new executive. But the caretaker government is powerless in front of Bulgaria ‘s condemnation to persistent corruption no matter what.

On the contrary, the government has endeavoured to chase and derail some of these Borisov-connected oligarch. For instance, the finance minister appointed an Audit Committee with the task of reviewing the Bulgarian Development Bank’s (BBR) activities. As a result, the public discovered that oligarchs had steered the BBR away from its mandate of supporting small companies. In fact, eight large private companies have received more than half of the BRR’s total credits or ca. €473 million. On average, each of them has borrowed almost €60mln — and “this is not a small and medium business. In addition, these companies borrowed against a 2% rate instead of the average 5–7%. Following this leak, the Minister of Finance fired the entire board of the BBR. He also instructed the Bulgarian National Bank (BNB) to appoint a new directorate.

The US strike back

Quite surprisingly, the United States has just given Radev and his government a valuable assist. On June 2, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned several “individuals for their extensive roles in corruption”. In first instance, the sanctions target Vasil Bozhkov, a Bulgarian businessman currently hiding in Dubaito escape an arrest warrant for accusation of bribery; Delyan Peevski, prominent figure of and former member of the Parliament for the predominantly Turk Dvizhenie za Prava i Svobodi as well as the owner/controller four of the companies involved in the BBR’s scandal;  and Ilko Zhelyazkov, former appointee to the National Bureau for Control on Special Intelligence-Gathering Devices. Secondarily, the US have sanctioned “their networks encompassing 64 entities” with which no transaction in dollars is possible.

The US chose to hit Bulgaria, a NATO ally, with “the single largest action targeting corruption to date”. On the one hand, this falls within the boundaries of the current administration’s effort to restore America’s moral stewardship. More to the point, one may interpret the sanctions as a not-so/veiled message to Russia — which heavily influences Bulgarian politics. Still, those who had been looking at US-Bulgaria bilateral relations should have expected a similar decision. After all, the sanctions came after US ambassador Herro Mustafa’s reiterated criticisms of pervasive corruption in the country. Mustafa has also refused symbolically to meet Chief Public Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who embodies systemic corruption in Bulgaria.

Consequently, the game has scaled up to a whole new quality now. The BNB barred all Bulgarian banks to entertain commercial relationships with people under US sanctions. Moreover, the BNB had already froze some of Peevvski’s, Bozhkov’s and Zhelyazkov’s deposits, means of payment, and assets earlier. However, after the OFAC’s decision, the block extended to their entire network of affiliates and related entities.

Conclusion: The US are reclaiming the Balkans, and it may not be bad for Bulgarians

Officially, corruption’s malign influence on democracy provides the US with a moral justification to sanction any corrupt individua. Namely, the Treasury argues that it

undermines the values that form an essential foundation of stable, secure, and functioning societies; ha[s] devastating impacts on individuals; weaken[s] democratic institutions; degrade[s] the rule of law; perpetuate[s] violent conflicts; facilitate[s] the activities of dangerous persons; and undermine economic markets.  

Surely, the soon-to-come meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also played a role in this decision.

Yet, the sanctions’ timing suggests that there might be other forces at play. Rather, it seems that Washington decided to pick a side in the ongoing institutional trench war between Presidency and Government.

From Bulgaria’s perspective, even though most American media have not noticed it, the impression is quite clear. To quote President Biden: “America is back, diplomacy is back”. Specifically, this resurgence has a special meaning in the Balkans, a region of immense relevance for Europe’s energy security. Concretely, the US is taking the lead in the West’s effort to keep China, Russia, and Turkey out.

True, whether this external support will suffice for Bulgaria to finally eradicate corruption is debatable. Nevertheless, the US’s return may spur a positive competition dynamic in which Washington and Brussels compete for limited normative power. If this was the case, increase international pressures on Bulgaria to limit corruption may reach a breaking point relatively soon. At which point, either a fundamental shift will take place; or Bulgarian elites will entrench further

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Indo-European rapprochement and the competing geopolitics of infrastructure

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Current dynamics suggest that the main focus of geopolitics in the coming years will shift towards the Indo-Pacific region. All eyes are on China and its regional initiatives aimed at establishing global dominance. China’s muscle-flexing behavior in the region has taken the form of direct clashes with India along the Line of Actual Control, where India lost at least 20 soldiers last June; interference in Hong Kong’s affairs; an increased presence in the South China Sea; and economic malevolence towards Australia. With this evolving geopolitical complexity, if the EU seeks to keep and increase its global ‘actorness’, it needs to go beyond the initiatives of France and Germany, and to shape its own agenda. At the same time, India is also paying attention to the fact that in today’s fragmented and multipolar world, the power of any aspiring global actor depends on its diversified relationships. In this context, the EU is a useful partner that India can rely on.

Indo-European rapprochement, which attempts to challenge Chinese global expansion, seeks also to enhance multilateral international institutions and to support a rules-based order. Given the fact that India will hold a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-22 and the G20 presidency in 2022, both parties see an opportunity to move forward on a shared vision of multilateralism. As a normative power, the EU is trying to join forces with New Delhi to promote the rules-based system. Therefore, in order to prevent an ‘all-roads-lead-to-Beijing’ situation and to challenge growing Chinese hegemony, the EU and India need each other.

With this in mind, the EU and India have finally moved towards taking their co-operation to a higher level. Overcoming difficulties in negotiations, which have been suspended since 2013 because of trade-related thorny topics like India’s agricultural protectionism, shows that there is now a different mood in the air.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, had been scheduled to travel to Portugal for  a summit with EU leaders, but the visit cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the European Commission and Portugal – in its presidency of the European Council – offered India to hold the summit in a virtual format on 8 May 2021. The talks between these two economic giants were productive and resulted in the Connectivity Partnership, uniting efforts and attention on energy, digital and transportation sectors, offering new opportunities for investors from both sides. Moreover, this new initiative seeks to build joint infrastructure projects around the world mainly investing in third countries. Although both sides have clarified that the new global partnership isn’t designed to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the joint initiative to build effective projects across Europe, Asia and Africa, will undoubtedly counter Beijing’s agenda.  

The EU and its allies have a common interest in presenting an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, which will contain Chinese investment efforts to dominate various regions. Even though the EU is looking to build up its economic ties with China and signed the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) last December, European sanctions imposed on Beijing in response to discrimination against Uighurs and other human rights violations have complicated relations. Moreover, US President Joe Biden has been pushing the EU to take a tougher stance against China and its worldwide initiatives.

This new Indo-European co-operation project, from the point of view of its initiators, will not impose a heavy debt burden on its partners as the Chinese projects do. However, whilst the EU says that both the public and the private sectors will be involved, it’s not clear where the funds will come from for these projects. The US and the EU have consistently been against the Chinese model of providing infrastructure support for developing nations, by which Beijing offers assistance via expensive projects that the host country ends up not being able to afford. India, Australia, the EU, the US and Japan have already started their own initiatives to counterbalance China’s. This includes ‘The Three Seas Initiative’ in the Central and Eastern European region, aimed at reducing its dependence on Chinese investments and Russian gas. Other successful examples are Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ and its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’. One of the joint examples of Indo-Japanese co-operation is the development of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The partners had been scheduled to build Colombo’s East Container Terminal but the Sri Lankans suddenly pulled out just before signing last year. Another competing regional strategy is the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), initiated by India, Japan and a few African countries in 2017. This Indo-Japanese collaboration aims to develop infrastructure in Africa, enhanced by digital connectivity, which would make the Indo-Pacific Region free and open. The AAGC gives priority to development projects in health and pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and disaster management. 

Undoubtably, this evolving infrastructure-building competition may solve the problems of many underdeveloped or developing countries if their leaderships act wisely. The newly adopted Indo-European Connectivity Partnership promises new prospects for Eastern Europe and especially for the fragile democracies of Armenia and Georgia.

The statement of the Indian ambassador to Tehran in March of this year, to connect Eastern and Northern Europe via Armenia and Georgia, paves the way for necessary dialogue on this matter. Being sandwiched between Russia and Turkey and at the same time being ideally located between Europe and India, Armenia and Georgia are well-placed to take advantage of the possible opportunities of the Indo-European Partnership. The involvement of Tbilisi and Yerevan in this project can enhance the economic attractiveness of these countries, which will increase their economic security and will make this region less vulnerable vis-à-vis Russo-Turkish interventions. 

The EU and India need to decide if they want to be decision-makers or decision-takers. Strong co-operation would help both become global agenda shapers. In case these two actors fail to find a common roadmap for promoting rules-based architecture and to become competitive infrastructure providers, it would be to the benefit of the US and China, which would impose their priorities on others, including the EU and India.

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Europe

The Leaders of the Western World Meet

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The annual meeting of the G7 comprising the largest western economies plus Japan is being hosted this year by the United Kingdom.  Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister has also invited Australia, South Korea, South Africa and India.  There has been talk of including Russia again but Britain threatened a veto.  Russia, which had been a member from 1997, was suspended in 2014 following the Crimea annexation.  

Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England has a rugged beauty enjoyed by tourists, and is a contrast to the green undulating softness of its neighbor Devon.  St. Ives is on Cornwall’s sheltered northern coast and it is the venue for the G7 meeting (August 11-13) this year.  It offers beautiful beaches and ice-cold seas.

France, Germany. Italy, UK, US, Japan and Canada.  What do the rich talk about?  Items on the agenda this year including pandemics (fear thereof) and in particular zoonotic diseases where infection spreads from non-human animals to humans.  Johnson has proposed a network of research labs to deal with the problem.  As a worldwide network it will include the design of a global early-warning system and will also establish protocols to deal with future health emergencies.

The important topic of climate change is of particular interest to Boris Johnson because Britain is hosting COP26  in Glasgow later this year in November.  Coal, one of the worst pollutants, has to be phased out and poorer countries will need help to step up and tackle not just the use of cheap coal but climate change and pollution in general.  The G7 countries’ GDP taken together comprises about half of total world output, and climate change has the potential of becoming an existential problem for all on earth.  And help from them to poorer countries is essential for these to be able to increase climate action efforts.

The G7 members are also concerned about large multinationals taking advantage of differing tax laws in the member countries.  Thus the proposal for a uniform 15 percent minimum tax.  There is some dispute as to whether the rate is too low.

America is back according to Joe Biden signalling a shift away from Donald Trump’s unilateralism.  But America is also not the sole driver of the world economy:  China is a real competitor and the European Union in toto is larger.  In a multilateral world, Trump charging ahead on his own made the US risible.  He also got nowhere as the world’s powers one by one distanced themselves.

Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen is also endorsing close coordination in economic policies plus continued support as the world struggles to recover after the corona epidemic.  India for example, has over 27 million confirmed cases, the largest number in Asia.  A dying first wave shattered hopes when a second much larger one hit — its devastation worsened by a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medicines in the severely hit regions.  On April 30, 2021, India became the first country to report over 400,000 new cases in a single 24 hour period.

It is an interdependent world where atavistic self-interest is no longer a solution to its problems.

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