April 9, 2014

Bulgarian ambassador assesses Ukraine, Russia

Elena Poptodorova; Gligor Tashkovich, and Christopher Schroeder
Jason Koski/University Photography
From left, Elena Poptodorova; Gligor Tashkovich '87, MBA '91; and Christopher Schroeder discuss investing in the Balkans and the Middle East in a panel discussion at in Sage Hall April 7.

As leaders around the world work to address the situation in Ukraine, they are faced with a difficult question: How do they reshape international relations in the face of a crisis that everyone was unprepared for?

Elena Poptodorova, the Bulgarian ambassador to the United States, discussed this question and the impact that the crisis could have on the European Union and the world at large on campus April 8.

As tensions rise in Crimea and pro-Russian protestors seize government buildings, the European Union and the United States have been working to diffuse the situation. A positive step, Poptodorova noted, has come in the agreement by Russia and Ukraine to hold diplomatic talks, which Russia initially refused, claiming that the Kiev government was illegitimate. Poptodorova praised this development, explaining that a diplomatic solution is the best option.

The problem, Poptodorova warned, is that no one seems to know the “magic formula” for a solution. Although most countries have condemned Russia’s actions in Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear he is not prepared to withdraw any of the 20,000 troops he has placed in the region. The ambassador also expressed concerns that Putin may by looking to restore Russia to the “past glory of the USSR,” and wants to use Ukraine as a corridor to other regions, like the breakaway state of Transnistria, which he is looking to annex.

Poptodorova also discussed the effectiveness of the sanctions the U.S. and the EU have imposed on Russia in the last few weeks. The first round of sanctions, she noted, were particularly ineffective because they targeted individuals and had little impact on Russia as a whole.

The second phase of sanctions, which targeted banks and financial institutions, did have a more significant impact. The only issue with these sanctions, however, is that they negatively impact the economies of European countries as well. Poptodorova said that countries such as France, which builds weapons for Russia, need to rethink doing business with Russia.

There is also the question of energy, as many European countries depend on Russia for gas and oil. Poptodorova noted that Bulgaria is almost 100 percent dependent on Russia, and that Ukraine is in a dire situation in regards to its fuel supplies from Russia. The price of oil in Ukraine has risen sharply in the past few weeks, and as the country is already in a $2.2 billion debt for its energy costs, it cannot afford such as steep raise. If the energy puzzle is solved, Poptodorova noted, Russia’s grip on the EU and surrounding countries will loosen, and they may be less afraid of disrupting their relationships with Moscow.

The situation in Crimea, Poptodorova emphasized, is evolving by the hour. Russia’s actions have also raised questions among international leaders about NATO’s and the UN’s peacekeeping roles. Relationships “need to be retailored to today’s realities,” the ambassador said. And while Poptodorova did not know what these new relationships may look like, she did warn that it is unlikely to find a happy ending given the choices that Russia has made.

On April 7 Poptodorova participated in a panel discussion at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management on investment in the Balkans with Gligor Tashkovich ’87, MBA ’91, former minister for foreign investment of the Republic of Macedonia, and investor Christopher Schroeder.

Kara Beckman ’17 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.