Autumn seems to be turning into the most feverish season for Bulgarian counterespionage efforts. First, there was the September 2019 operation against Russophile Movement leader Nickolay Malinov which kicked off a series of anti-Russian spy actions. Then, a year later, the State Prosecution indicted two members of the Russian diplomatic corps in Sofia for collecting information on Bulgarian rearmament efforts. The two men were expelled from the country with a Foreign Ministry note, raising the number of Russian diplomats-spies ousted from Sofia to a total of five within a year.
Superficially, it seemed like a great success for the Bulgarian intelligence services and an uncharacteristic show of strength from the traditionally Russophile Bulgarian state. "I warned President Putin years ago that I can't allow such things happening on Bulgaria's territory," Prime Minister Borissov said after the latest spying charges were made public. However, a deeper look into the case of Mr Malinov's indictment and another, already semi-forgotten example of Russian subversive action in the country, paints a different picture.
A spy makes a party
The spying charges against the Russian-Bulgarian citizen and openly Russophile Nickolay Malinov seemed fishy from the outset. According to the State Prosecution, Mr Malinov was not spying for Russia, but for his friends - retired Foreign Intelligence Service (FIS) Russian Lieutenant-General Leonid Reshetnikov, ex-head of a quasi-state strategic institute, and media mogul Konstantin Malofeev.
The case turned even more absurd when, a few weeks after Mr Malinov was charged with one of the severest offences in the Bulgarian criminal code, he was pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin who had just awarded him a State Prize in the Kremlin. It turned out that Specialised Criminal Court judge Andon Mitalov released the alleged spy on bail to leave Bulgaria for a limited period and go to the country that he supposedly spied for. The US State Department would subsequently sanction Mr Mitalov for high corruption following this decision, but so far, no publically available evidence supporting this claim has been presented.
The same goes for the case against Mr Malinov. A year after the dramatic announcement of the spying charge by then-Prosecutor General Sotir Tsatsarov and his heir-to-be Ivan Geshev, the investigation has not reached court. The Prosecution did not respond to the RFL/RL's Bulgarian section on the topic and Mr Malinov's lawyer says his client has not been interrogated or apprehended by the authorities in the past year.
The cherry on top of the spying charade case is that, at the end of September, Mr Malinov himself announced he is planning to launch a Russophile political party by the end of the year. "We need legislative protection," he told bTV, adding: "We are being persecuted for our views, our ideals, and our values." So far, the entire case against Mr Malinov seems to be a product of the desire of the State Prosecution and some elements of the government to appear more "Euro-Atlantic," rather than genuine attempts to limit Russian interference in the country.
Ignoring more dangerous spies
Another glaring example of the insincerity of Bulgarian institutions vis-à-vis Russian spying efforts in the country comes from the almost forgotten case of the poisoning of arms dealer Emilian Gebrev. The investigation into his 2015 poisoning with an unknown pesticide stalled for years, only to be reopened by the State Prosecution a few weeks after a Capital Weekly report linked it to the March 2018 Novichok attacks in Salisbury, England.
Then, after a yearlong spell of enthusiastic collaboration with partner Secret Services, the Prosecution announced that there was indeed a link between the two poisonings - the presence of a certain Russian operative "Seregy Fedotov", an alias of Major General Denis Sergeev from the Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) in both the UK and Bulgaria during the times the two poisonings took place.
The State Prosecution indicted Fedotov/Sergeev alongside two other Russians who had supposedly participated in the operation against Mr Gebrev - Sergey Lyutenko (alias "Sergey Pavlov"), and Egor Gordienko (alias "Georgy Gorshkov") and put them all on the Interpol Red Notice list.
However, the initial outburst of enthusiasm seemed to be waning and then, on 26 August 2020, the Prosecution announced it was "freezing" criminal proceedings against the three officers. According to the authorities, they could not proceed with the investigation because the suspects were still at large and because Russia refused to cooperate in extraditing the three men.
The case could have been simply forgotten - as it wasin 2017, before the Skripal poisonings - if the announcement did not coincide with another Novichok poisoning - that of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny at the end of August. International attention then immediately swung back to the Gebrev attack.
A botched investigation
It turned out that the Bulgarian authorities had grossly mismanaged the investigation on at least three counts. According to the investigative website Belingcat, "the role of at least one accessory to the crime has not been investigated despite credible evidence of his involvement". Additionally, Mr Gebrev himself complained that Sofia had failed to check with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) regarding the nature of the substance he, his son and their associate were poisoned within 2015.
"Everything could have been much easier if Bulgaria didn't do all that was possible to keep the OPCW, which has all the instruments to point to what material caused this sort of poisoning, away from the case," Gebrev told RFL/RL - Bulgaria in September. He maintained that Bulgarian authorities said they contacted OPCW when, in fact, they did not. Lastly, the Bulgarian investigators indicted the Russian officers using their aliases rather than their real names and failed to even ask Russia for their extradition. Instead, the Prosecution formally conceded that it did not ask for the operatives' extradition because there was a Russian law in place forbidding extradition of Russian citizens. Basically - they did not even try because there was no point.
The two sagas illuminate a similar pattern. First, Bulgarian authorities, and especially the State Prosecution, become hyperactive when pressured by external partner services, or when they want to appear strongly Euro-Atlantic. These flurries of activity give way to a formalistic approach to the cases; they are then left on the back burner, hopefully - until forgotten. And in the end, little in terms of justice is achieved. Unfortunately for the victims, so far this approach seems to have been over-indulged by Bulgaria's Western partners.