Saturday, March 7, 2009

Romania-Ukraine spy scandal turning into full diplomatic row

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |

The spy scandal that erupted between Romania and Ukraine earlier this week is gradually turning into a full-scale diplomatic war, fuelled by longstanding tensions between the two countries.

On March 5, Romania responded to the discovery of a Ukrainian-handled spy ring in the country by expelling Ukraine’s Military Attaché from Bucharest. On May 6, Ukraine reciprocated by expelling two Romanian diplomats, a Military Attaché stationed in Kiev and a Consular Vice-Secretary stationed in Cernauti. The two officials were accused by Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs of spreading “separatist feelings in the Romanian community in Ukraine” and “secretly funding organizations that spread anti-Ukrainian ideas”.

The alleged secret activities appear to relate to the 250,000-strong Romanian-speaking minority living in the Chernivtsi region of Ukraine. Minority politics have been a source of tension between the two countries throughout the postwar period, as have been recent energy rights disputes about oil exploration rights in the Black Sea.

The spy scandal surfaced shortly after February 28, when Romanian counterintelligence agents arrested Bulgarian Petar Marinov Zikolov (or Zikulov) along with Romanian noncommissioned officer Floricel Achim, on charges of supplying classified military information to Ukrainian embassy officials. The Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) now says it first identified Zikolov as “an agent of a foreign intelligence service” in 2005. Moreover, Zikolov appears (though this has yet to be confirmed) to have acted as a free agent, selling information to a number of third countries, which allegedly included Russia.

Bulgarian media have identified Zikolov as a former agent of Bulgaria’s Military Information Service (MIS) and as the nephew of General Vassil Zikolov, head from 1967 to 1990 of the country’s communist-era Military Intelligence Directorate (MID). Interestingly, NATO, of which Romania is a member, and whose information the Zikolov-Achim spy ring was primarily after, has remained largely silent on the espionage affair. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said simply that the alliance had “full confidence” in the ability of Romanian authorities to handle the situation.

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