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Diplomatic Blunder Or Subtle Trick? What's Up With Kyiv Sending A 'Sexologist' As Its Envoy To Sofia?

UKRAINE -- Newly-appointed Ukrainian Ambassador to Bulgaria Olesya Ilashchuk
UKRAINE -- Newly-appointed Ukrainian Ambassador to Bulgaria Olesya Ilashchuk

No diplomatic experience and a self-professed "sexologist-consultant." It's not your typical ambassador's resume. But nothing's typical right now about Ukraine and its relations with the outside world.

On a war footing since 2014 and under full-scale Russian invasion for nearly a year, Ukrainians and their unflinching president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, have waged a relentless battle for international support alongside the fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine.

The diplomatic stakes are particularly high in places like Bulgaria, whose long-running political and energy ties to Moscow and popular reexamination of NATO obligations have seemingly complicated its response to Russia's unprovoked attack.

Bulgaria also reportedly possesses large stores of the kind of Soviet-era weaponry that is already familiar to many Ukrainian troops and could thus play a key role in the country's defenses.

So fresh off a diplomatic and logistical triumph last month when Bulgaria's interim government and lawmakers OK'd the direct provision of military and military-technical aid to Ukraine, Kyiv might be eager to send a message to Sofia.

Seen in that light, some Bulgarian observers say Olesya Ilashchuk's appointment could turn out to be a shrewd response to perceived foot-dragging by Bulgaria and a blunt message to critics of Western military support for Ukraine like President Rumen Radev, a former military commander who accused lawmakers who approved the military aid of "warmongering."

"If the accusations that she's a highly unqualified person for this job turn out to be true, that could be interpreted as a demonstration by Ukraine of its attitude toward Bulgaria in general," Petar Karaboev, deputy editor in chief of the Sofia-based daily Dnevnik, told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.

Surprise Pick

Kyiv's newest ambassadorial appointee Ilashchuk has had a turbulent three weeks since Zelenskiy's office announced her selection on December 23, 2022, via a barebones post with just her full name and new title.

Journalists quickly seized on information from a Facebook page that appeared to belong to Ilashchuk, describing "clinical psychologist, systemic family therapist, gestalt therapist, sexologist-consultant" among her professional credentials.

That Facebook page was quickly blocked, and Ilashchuk has vowed via a new Telegram account created days after her appointment that the official Ukrainian state website and embassy will publish her biography.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry took the unusual step of addressing questions about Ilashchuk in a press statement on December 26, 2022. It said that, according to its information, she "received a diploma with honors" from the international relations department of Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University's history faculty. It also noted that she was a qualified translator and fluent in English.

Ilashchuk has sought to turn the image question on its head, mostly via the new Telegram account, in part by noting the exigencies of wartime.

On December 28, 2022, Ilashchuk cited "nonsense and outright lies on the Internet...aimed at discrediting my reputation and my work and calling into question the decisions of the president and government of Ukraine." She blamed an unspecified "enemy" for "trying to kindle the fire of enmity between us and our Bulgarian friends."

A day later, she asked, "Is my biography important to our soldiers right now?" and accused "poor 'journalists'" of "trying to 'hype' on conjecture, question the competence of decisions by the government and our president, and create chaos on the Internet."

More recently, she launched a dubious debate over "fair use" and copyright with "friends and journalists" who were using photos of her scraped from social media without permission. She demanded that they send $540 to Ukraine's armed forces for every time they used such an image.

Intentionally or not, the photos complaint appeared to indirectly confirm that the Facebook page citing the "sexologist" work was hers.

Ilashchuk and her defenders have also noted her purported management experience.

The questions from Ukrainian critics, however, have persisted.

"The appointment of the ambassador to Bulgaria just finished me," longtime journalist Tetyana Nikolayenko shared on Facebook on December 29, 2022. "Not because [she's] a sexologist. Not because [she's] from [the office of Zelenskiy's chief of staff Andriy] Yermak. [But] because the sexologist was sent to Bulgaria, where they are the most dependent on Soviet-style weapons."

Bulgarian Headwind

A former Ukrainian ambassador to the United States and France, Oleh Shamshur, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that "What Ukraine needs now is professionalism" and relationship-building skills, adding, "Unfortunately, the appointment of the ambassador to Bulgaria and this candidacy itself, in my opinion, does not meet all these criteria."

While acknowledging that it was speculation, he also alluded to Ilashchuk's reputation as a protégé of presidential chief of staff Yermak. Shamshur said he "fully assumed that the main criterion used to determine this candidacy is personal acquaintance, personal closeness, and, obviously, loyalty."

But he also noted President Radev's "warmongers" remark and the harassment of a leading Bulgarian writer after he wrote critically of Russia's illegal occupation of Crimea as evidence that Kyiv faced specific challenges in winning over Bulgarians to their cause.

"This shows that Russophile sentiments are very strong in Bulgaria and in the Bulgarian political establishment," Shamshur said. "There are different currents there, and this is a reality that certainly makes it difficult to establish cooperation with that country."

Observers note that Bulgaria has girded its borders and cooperated closely with its NATO allies, as well as joined all of the EU's sanctions against Russia, even if its use of a loophole for a local refinery run by Russia's LUKoil has rankled some.

"The war, of course, changed the mood in favor of those who advocate for Ukraine," Bulgaria's former ambassador to Russia, Ilian Vasiliev, told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service. "But this process is not over yet. This process is taking shape, it is in a dynamic balance, with the advantage held by those who advocate for Kyiv, for Ukraine."

Bulgaria has around 55,000 Ukrainian refugees officially registered in the country, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, tiny in comparison to Poland's 1.6 million and a fraction of any other country included in the UN-assisted Regional Refugee Response Plan except Hungary.

Still, elements like the nationalist, anti-Western Revival party have made sympathy for Russia and the rejection of Ukrainian refugees key aspects of their appeals for public support.

Still En Route

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has already noted that the appointment of ambassadors from outside the ranks of career diplomats is "common international practice," and said the Bulgarian government had already signaled consent.

Asked by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, the Ukrainian Embassy could not say when she would arrive in Sofia.

Editor Karaboev said there is little publicly available information about her but added, "I don't rule out that this display [as a sign of frustration with Sofia] is also among the [possible] scenarios. Bulgaria deserves such an interpretation."

He also noted that such an appointment would be far from unique and "it is quite possible that Zelenskiy is simply surrounding himself with loyal people and not [just] those who are presented to him as great professionals."

After all, he said, "the great professionals in Ukraine's diplomatic corps turned out to have also failed to prevent the war."

Bulgarian protesters rally in support of Ukraine in Sofia in April 2022. .
Bulgarian protesters rally in support of Ukraine in Sofia in April 2022. .

And Karaboev said that while "she's not trained in the highest forms of political and diplomatic aerobatics," she could turn out to be a great choice to cope with the Bulgarian political reality.

"We have to see her 'style,' because it may prove to be suitable for the Bulgarian political class," Karaboev said.

Activist and high-profile Bulgarian political blogger Asen Genov, whose Kontrakomentar show has about 15,000 subscribers on YouTube, suggested that Ilashchuk's appointment is more interesting from the Bulgarian perspective than from Kyiv's view.

He called it "a completely reciprocal response from Ukraine," given that Bulgaria hasn't had an ambassador in Kyiv since Kostadin Koyabashev was evacuated early in the 10-month-old Russian invasion. It also no longer has a consul general in Odesa.

"We ourselves seem to have neglected our diplomacy with Ukraine," Genov told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service. "If we expect a senior professional with a long career in diplomacy to be sent to us as ambassador, the question is whether we adequately meet the same professional standard."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Bulgarian Service correspondent Vidka Atanasova and RFE/RL Ukrainian Service senior editor Rostislav Khotyn

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