|- The head of National Russophile Movement Nickolay Malinov, indicted in Bulgaria for spying in favour of Russian organizations in September, received a State Prize from Vladimir Putin for the Day of National Unity of Russia in November |
- Sofia plays a double game vis-à-vis Russia, presenting the spying incidents as a show of force against Moscow to its Euro-Atlantic allies and domestic audience, while simultaneously doing business as usual with Russia on significant topics
Back in Socialist times, Bulgarians were unable to enjoy a James Bond spy thriller but instead watched the adventures of Standartenführer Max Otto von Stierlitz, the main character in the Soviet Second World War drama Seventeen Moments of Spring. Stierlitz was a Soviet spy behind enemy lines in Berlin undermining the German war effort. Although Colonel Maxim Maximovich Isayev - the real name of the fictional spy, was a beloved character, his persona as a deductive genius became the butt of many absurd jokes.
One goes like this: "On May Day, Stierlitz put on his Red Army cap, grabbed a red banner and marched up and down the corridors of the Reich Main Security Office singing the Internationale. Never had he been so close to blowing his cover."
Ironically, the spying charges against Nickolay Malinov, a Bulgarian businessman holding a Russian passport, raised by the Prosecutor's Office at the beginning of September and later the expulsion of a Russian spy under diplomatic cover, is similarly comical. Mr Malinov is well known for his failed attempts to start up a pro-Russian political movement, a very unlikely choice for a spy. Moreover, the Russian diplomat expelled by Bulgarian authorities in late October was more of a burden for Moscow, rather than for Sofia, because his identity had already been compromised (along with many other Russian undercover agents) following the unsuccessful assassination attempt on ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK in 2018.
Those 'spying scandals' came at a time when Sofia is genuflecting more and more to Moscow, while Prime Minister Boyko Borissov brags about his balancing act between Russia and the West. The espionage charade looks like an attempt to lay a smokescreen at a time when the US is pressurising Bulgaria to take a firmer stance against Russia's energy projects in Bulgaria. Revealingly, after its standard threats of reciprocal measures, Moscow didn't expel a single Bulgarian diplomat. Instead, а month later, it cordially hosted Bulgarian foreign minister Ekaterina Zaharieva. It looks like the Kremlin is part of the game.
A spy drama unfolds
It all began on September 9 - a symbolic day for the USSR era-nostalgic Bulgarians that marks the pro-Soviet coup d'état in 1944 and the advent of a Communist regime in Bulgaria.
On that day, the mouthpiece of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the Duma ("Word") newspaper announced that its ex-editor-in-chief Yuri Borissov, currently acting as a Secretary to the National Russophile Movement, had been detained in relation to a spying investigation.
Later the same day, media reported that several other high-profile individuals with links to the Russophile Movement and the left-wing circles in BSP, including Member of Parliament Prof. Vanya Dobreva and sociologist Zhivko Georgiev, had been interrogated by the Specialized Prosecutor's Office.
The following day, Bulgarian Prosecutor General Sotir Tsatsarov and his successor-to-be, current Specialized Prosecutor's Office chief Ivan Geshev, gave a press conference where they said that all interrogations were related to an investigation against Russophile Movement President Nickolay Malinov who was charged with spying in favor of two Russian organizations - the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI in Russian) and the Double-Headed Eagle Society.
Until 2017, the retired Foreign Intelligence Service (FIS) Russian Lieutenant General Leonid Reshetnikov had headed RISI, while the latter organization is presided over by mogul Konstantin Malofeev. The Bulgarian prosecution announced it was barring Mr Reshetnikov from entering the country for 10 years, and later the same ban followed for Mr Malofeev, forgetting that he had already been banned from entering the EU and the US for his destabilizing role in the Ukraine crisis over the past four years.
The prosecution also announced that it was investigating Mr Malinov's links to Mr Malofeev and their joint business ventures with Tsvetan Vassilev, the fugitive ex-head of Bulgaria's now defunct Corporate Commercial Bank (Corpbank).
Curiously, the prosecution did not claim Mr Malinov was spying for Russia but for the abovementioned two organizations, even though RISI is practically a quasi-state body which was, until recently, under the auspices of the Kremlin. This thesis resonated well with Prime Minister Boyko Borissov who tried to downplay the scandal, saying that "the investigations are against particular individuals and not against Russia".
Who is Reshetnikov and why now?
The ex-FIS figurehead and RISI are mostly known for the alleged development of a strategy to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential elections in favor of Donald Trump, as an April 2017 Reuters report claimed, citing a number of unnamed U.S. officials.
Other media reports claimed that RISI were also responsible for interfering in Bulgaria's 2016 presidential elections by providing a 'guidebook' to the BSP that allowed the Socialists to select Rumen Radev as their nominee and to sway polls in his favor before the vote. The guidebook was actually a RISI-financed sociological survey which found that Bulgarians would prefer a "strong-handed president", exactly the profile of Mr Radev, a former Bulgarian Air Force chief. But those attitudes have been there for decades, helping Mr Borissov (a general from the Ministry of Interior) as well.
Needless to say, the Bulgarian president dismissed the spying charges against Mr Malinov and called the allegations of election interference 'absurd'. He, alongside many independent and opposition commentators and politicians, linked the operation to the 27 October local elections in Bulgaria, a "red herring" thrown by the ruling GERB party (which positions itself as a centre-right force) to sway the anti-Kremlin urban voters of opposition liberal centrist parties to support incumbent GERB mayor of Sofia Yordanka Fandakova.
The Malinov case was not the first, or the last "anti-Russian" measure of the Bulgarian government. A few days before the case unfolded in September, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry lashed out at the Russian embassy in Sofia for commemorating September 9 by opening an exhibition "75 years of the liberation of Eastern Europe from Nazism".
Then, on October 28, the Prosecutor's Office struck again, issuing an announcement that a first secretary from the Russian embassy in Sofia had been investigated for spying and conspiring during his one-year stay in Bulgaria. The spy, who turned out to be diplomat Vladimir Rusyaev - an alleged employee of Russia's military intelligence service GU, (more popularly known by its old name GRU), left the country soon after the Foreign Ministry sent a note to the Russian embassy. The latter said on its Facebook page that "the Russian side reserves its right to take countermeasures". It lived up to this promise, but not in the usual way of expelling a Bulgarian diplomat from Moscow.
Just a few days later, in what was the equivalent of the absurd turn of events that is the butt in any Stierlitz joke, the indicted spy Nickolay Malinov appeared on a photo with none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shot, published by the Kremlin press service, showed a smiling Mr Malinov shaking hands with Mr Putin, who had just awarded him a state prize for the Day of National Unity alongside a couple of other foreign dignitaries.
It turned out that a judge from Bulgaria's Specialized Criminal Court had released him on bail to leave for a limited period to Russia - the home country of the two organizations Mr Malinov allegedly spied for. Although the Prosecutor's Office protested the bail, it was too late - Mr Malinov had already left for Moscow and taken the pictures with the Russian president. What is more, according to the Russophile Movement chairman, Mr Putin told him to "show some patience and understanding to the Bulgarian authorities, they are under great pressure" - alluding to some maleficent foreign involvement in his indictment, probably by the U.S. In any case, the release of Mr Malinov and the award given by the very head of state of Russia to an alleged Bulgarian spy was a humiliating moment for Bulgaria's authorities.
The "spying scandals" broke out only several days before Bulgaria's state-owned gas transmission system operator signed a 1.7 billion euro deal to construct the Bulgarian extension of the TurkStream gas pipeline to Europe. The project would mostly benefit Russia's Gazprom rather than Bulgarian consumers (read more on this topic in the Energy section of KQ).
Furthermore, Sofia allowed the Russian Army to transport several advanced anti-aircraft systems, including the SA-22 Greyhound and the S-400 Triumph batteries, via Bulgarian airspace to Serbia for the Slavic Shield 2019 joint exercise. It did so in hiding from the Bulgarian public, with the Foreign Ministry needing almost a week before it released any information to the media.
When it comes to searching for Russian spies, the Bulgarian institutions show a very peculiar approach. First of all, the allegations of interference in the 2016 elections and the relationship between Mr Malofeev, Mr Malinov and Mr Vassilev had been known publicly for many years. Тhe Prosecutor's Office had questioned Mr Malinov about his joint business interests with Tsvetan Vassilev two years ago. Why did it indict him publicly on the 75th anniversary of 9 September 1944? And, besides, how serious an indictment of Mr Malinov could it be if the prosecuting authorities never openly blamed Russia but only the Russian organizations for trying to bribe him to alter the geopolitical orientation of Bulgaria - something Malinov and the Russophile Movement have always openly advocated for?
One theory was mentioned above - an attempt to influence the outcome of the local elections. Another points out that, following the indictment of Mr Malinov, the outgoing Prosecutor General Sotir Tsatsarov and his successor, Ivan Geshev, travelled to Washington, D.C. to meet members of the U.S. intelligence community. The sequence of events suggests that the sudden flurry of counter-espionage activities is due to the need to improve the controversial image of Mr Geshev before his inauguration as the next Prosecutor General. His only foreign visits before had been to Moscow and Ankara.
In any case, the recent energetic actions of the Bulgarian authorities against Russian spies on Bulgarian territory belie years of overlooking more serious interferences. The most glaring example was Sofia's failure to expel any Russian diplomats as most EU countries did in solidarity with London after it was proven that Russian intelligence operatives were linked to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in the UK. What is more, Sofia never reacted when, after significant pressure from the UK, it was revealed that one of the operatives implicated in the Skripal poisoning had previously travelled to Bulgaria and might have been involved with the attempted poisoning of Bulgarian arms dealer Emiliyan Gebrev with a nerve agent from the same Novichok family used against Skripal.
The sudden burst of counter-espionage activities against second rate local conduits of Russian influence and the suspicious negligence over much more serious cases suggests Bulgaria is playing a double game vis-à-vis Russia. On one hand it presents the spying incidents as a show of force against Moscow to its Euro-Atlantic allies and the domestic audience, while simultaneously doing "business as usual" with Russia and making concessions on vital economic and military matters.