Everything but the green men. Bulgaria remains a Kremlin target

The other day, the inhabitants of Bulgaria learned that on April 20, 2016, an attempted coup almost took place in the country. According to the plan prepared by Russian military intelligence, members of two paramilitary organizations, Vasil Levski and Shipka, more than seven hundred people in total, were to riot outside the parliament, start shooting and try to seize power. The operation was allegedly supported by the Russian Orthodox Church.

It failed due to the preventive arrest of hundreds of members of paramilitary groups, of which only three dozen were able to reach Sofia. The organizer of the operation, Vladimir Rusev, known under the pseudonym “Walter Kalashnikov”, was also detained.

This stunning news for the general public was announced by the executive director of the well-known investigative group Bellingcat Hristo Grozev during the National Assembly of Bulgaria discussions “The Impact of Disinformation in Geopolitical Crises”. He joined her through a pre-recorded video message: after Grozev was declared wanted by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, he refuses to appear in his homeland. “I’m afraid of what is called in Russian “excess of the performer” – that someone will decide to do a favor for the Kremlin by killing or kidnapping me.” Moreover, one of the parliamentary parties, the pro-Kremlin Vozrozhdenie, offered to extradite me to Russia,” Grozev said.

Hristo Grozev speaks via video link to members of the Bulgarian Parliamentary Security Committee

As you know, Bellingcat conducted investigations into the subversive operations of Russian military intelligence abroad, including in Bulgaria. It was about the involvement of the group, also implicated in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK, in earlier attempts to remove the Bulgarian gunsmith Yemelyan Gebrev for supplying weapons to Ukraine. Explosions in Bulgarian arms depots were also connected with the activities of Russian agents. According to Grozev, the risk of new sabotage actions against the military industry of Bulgaria by Russia remains even now. However, the discussion in question was more about the policy of disinformation, preparing the ground for political changes in Bulgaria, beneficial to the Kremlin – the most brutal and decisive attempt to achieve them was the thwarted coup attempt.

With the help of “four-thousanders”

Beginning in 2014-2015, according to research by Bellingcat, Bulgarian print media and TV channels controlled by oligarchs with economic ties to Russia have been broadcasting the Russian narrative about what is happening in Crimea and Donbas. By February 2022, a significant part of the population had already formed either a purely pro-Russian or an emotionally detached point of view, the bearer of which adheres to the position of “there are no innocents.” The vast majority of the population has no real idea that Russia has been carrying out sabotage operations on the territory of Bulgaria for more than a decade. If this information became a real part of the information agenda, most of the society could form its own view of the role of Russia long ago and be much more critical of the Kremlin’s messages today, the participants in the discussion noted.

According to the same Bellingcat, the price of “free speech” in Bulgaria is low – Russian sources pay Bulgarian journalists and editorial offices from 150 to 300 euros for publishing the necessary material. They operate through intermediaries; among them was revealed such an exotic figure as a citizen of North Macedonia Darko Todorovski, who lives in Moscow and studies at the doctoral program of the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration under the President of the Russian Federation (RANEPA). He is also the author of the aggressively pro-Russian website pogled.info.

Made a splash last summer statement Head of the Chancellery of the then Prime Minister Kiril Petkov Lena Borislavova that some influencers from among public and political figures in Bulgaria receive from Russia for propaganda purposes 4,000 leva (about 2,000 euros) per month (about three times the salary of highly skilled workers. – RS). Now they are ironically called “four-thousanders” here.

Russia has used almost every tool to spread disinformation in Bulgaria

The Kremlin, the former minister for e-government noted during a discussion in parliament Bozhidar Boyanov, finances anonymous fake news sites, the content of which is then repeatedly reproduced on Facebook. It is impossible to win institutions without winning the media – in Russia they know this, said Todor Galev from the Sofia Center for the Study of Democracy. In Bulgaria, Russian hybrid attacks are skillfully used. We have low journalistic standards and media literacy, timid implementation of the restrictive measures recommended by the European Union by the national Council on Electronic Media. “Russia has used almost all the tools to spread disinformation in Bulgaria. The only thing that has not been used is the “little green men,” the expert believes.

One of the most respected analysts Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, believes that the problem is not pro-Russian sentiment in Bulgaria. When Russia offered Bulgaria a thousand scholarships to study at Russian universities, there were no people to fill them. For the vast majority of Bulgarians, Russia is not a role model. Pro-Russian views are fueled by broader dissatisfaction with Brussels and Washington, and the lack of success of reforms over the past thirty years, Krastev says. There are very complex combinations of Euroscepticism, nationalism, anti-Western sentiments, negative attitudes towards the elites in Bulgaria and in Eastern Europe in general.

President against stability?

Investigative sources also point to another factor: hundreds of Russians settled in Bulgaria, including by acquiring the right to permanent residence in exchange for investments. These people have a certain influence in the Bulgarian social and economic circles. The role of this factor is increasing as President Rumen Radev, who has earned a reputation as a pro-Russian politician (he called the parliamentary parties that voted for providing military assistance to Ukraine “warmongers”), in fact, stimulates the failure to create a coalition government for almost two years now. A series of repeated early parliamentary elections allowed Radev to get a taste for direct presidential rule through the “technical” cabinets of ministers he appointed.

Negotiations between Rumen Radev and Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg in 2019

Negotiations between Rumen Radev and Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg in 2019

“Radev’s interest lies in the fact that there is no regular government in Bulgaria, – notes analytics Plamen Asenov, – because it could complete the process of Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen or the Eurozone. Or even both, and that would be deadly for Russian interests. The Eurozone will make it extremely difficult for Russia to corrupt anything and everything, make it difficult to accumulate and launder dirty money, and clarify questions about whether Bulgaria is actually complying with European sanctions against Russia.”

“Indefinite presidential rule in Bulgaria under the dictates of the Kremlin is the scenario of the post-communist pro-Moscow oligarchy,” warns another browser, Momchil Doychev. – Since 2013, the Putin regime has been waging a full-scale, albeit invisible, hybrid war against Bulgaria – with the help of a number of new political projects, with oligarchic control over the media, with influence on the executive, legislative and judiciary, with control over security, law enforcement and energy institutions , with numerous agents located throughout the public administration system. And everyone who understands what is happening is looking helplessly at this mafia conspiracy.”

Since 2013, the Putin regime has waged a full-scale, albeit invisible, hybrid war against Bulgaria.

The Russian lobby succeeds in many ways: for example, only almost a year after the start of the war, in the first days of January, the Sofia prosecutor’s office instructed the State National Security Agency (DANS) to check whether Russian citizens under sanctions own real estate in Bulgaria. The investigation is being carried out in connection with “information circulated in a number of different Bulgarian media that citizens of the Russian Federation, included in various sanctions lists of the European Union, the United States and Great Britain, have acquired numerous properties in the country.” In April last year, the Bulgarian investigative resource BIRD reported that such well-known Russian personalities as Sergei Chemezov, Maxim Topilin, Vladimir Pligin and Alexei Chepa, through relatives and offshore companies, own real estate on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. All four are on EU sanctions lists, and some are also under UK and US sanctions. Characteristically, there is still no legislation in Bulgaria regulating the application by local authorities of Western sanctions imposed against Russian citizens and companies.

Help to Ukraine – but secretly

In conclusion, let us cite a striking episode of the information war inside Bulgaria: in the first weeks of the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine, the “poorest country in the European Union,” as the German publication Die Welt called it, secretly supplied Ukraine with Soviet-made ammunition and diesel fuel for military equipment. The pro-Kremlin elements of the then administration should not have known about this. Die Welt collected put together a picture of how Bulgaria intervened at a critical juncture in the fighting last year.

About a third of the ammunition needed by the Ukrainian army at the initial stage of the war came from Bulgaria

Kiril Petkov, who was Bulgaria’s prime minister at the start of the war and was trying to turn the country in a more westerly direction, had to face opposition from pro-Kremlin politicians, including among his socialist coalition partners. He even had to fire his own defense minister for sticking to the Russian version of the war’s goals.

In public, Petkov tried to say as little as possible about the possible participation of Bulgaria in the armament of Ukraine. The premier’s people, avoiding intergovernmental deals, used intermediary companies at home and abroad to open supply routes by air and land through Romania, Hungary and Poland. “According to our estimates, about a third of the ammunition needed by the Ukrainian army at the initial stage of the war came from Bulgaria,” Petkov said in an interview with Die Welt. No less secret was the fact that the diesel fuel that Bulgaria supplied to Ukraine was processed from Russian raw materials at an oil refinery in Burgas, which at that time belonged to the Russian company Lukoil. “Bulgaria has become one of the largest exporters of diesel fuel to Ukraine and at times covered 40 percent of its needs,” the former finance minister told Die Welt Asen Vasiliev. As emphasizes Kiril Petkovone thing became irreversible: “We have shown that it is possible to exist without dependence and fear of Russia.”

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