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Spy saga in Bulgaria: a game of imitation or Sofia's real attempt to counter the Kremlin?

Last week, another exposé of Russian spies was a major topic in Bulgaria's information space. In particular, on January 24, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry announced its intention to expel two Russian diplomats accused of espionage from the country. An official statement from the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry states that the agency received a letter from the Bulgarian prosecutor's office "regarding two Russian citizens who were collecting information containing state secrets for transfer to a foreign country or a foreign espionage organization."

According to the prosecutor's office, in one pre-trial proceeding, it was found that from 2017 to the present, a Russian citizen, who holds the position of the first secretary of the Consular Section of the Russian Embassy in Sofia, conducted intelligence activities on the mechanisms of the election process in the country. As a result of actions taken in other pre-trial proceedings, it was found that from October 2018 to the present, an employee of the Russian Trade Representative Office in Sofia has been collecting intelligence, including that which is a state and official secret in the field of energy and energy security of the country which he then transferred to Moscow.

On the same day, the department summoned the Russian ambassador to Bulgaria and handed him a note demanding that two Russian diplomats, who, according to the prosecutor's office, be spies, leave Bulgaria within 48 hours.

However, the Russian Embassy has traditionally stated that "no evidence was presented" and that Russia "reserves the right to a mirrored response."

It is interesting in this case that information about the expose of Russian spies came just hours after Attorney General Ivan Geshev had a meeting with the US Embassy in Bulgaria Jessica Kim on a regular meeting, the main topic of which was the renewal of a partnership between law enforcement agencies Bulgaria and the United States in the fight against corruption, money laundering, organized crime and cyber security.

It should be noted that the day before, on January 23, the Bulgarian prosecutor's office issued a statement in which three Russians were accused of poisoning the Bulgarian armed businessman Emilian Hebrev. According to the prosecutor's office, the businessman was poisoned in the spring of 2015 with the help of "unknown organophosphorus substance". The agency issued a European arrest warrant for the Russians and placed them on an international wanted list.

Immediately after both statements by the Bulgarian prosecutor's office, a number of Western embassies in Bulgaria issued statements in support of such actions by local authorities.

The beginning of the "spy saga"

The detection of Russian spies in Bulgaria in January this year is not the first such case in the last few months. The story of Russian spies began in September last year, when, on suspicion of espionage in favor of Russia, the head of the National Movement of Russophiles Nikolai Malinov was detained. Then the reason for his detention and accusations of espionage in favor of Russia was his report entitled "On the necessary geopolitical reorientation of Bulgaria, or what we call the" Bulgaria Project ", which, according to the investigation, he prepared for his Russian curators. After a while, a rather paradoxical situation occurred in this case: the spy suspect, Malinov, received permission to serve Moscow for 5 days in a local court to obtain the Russian President's Order of Friendship.

The continuation of the "spy saga" was a public accusation of spying on a representative of a Bulgarian diplomat accredited in Bulgaria. In particular, according to information received from the State Prosecutor's Office from the State Security Agency (DANS), the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy has held regular secret meetings with Bulgarian citizens since September 2018, including a high-ranking official who had access to Bulgaria, EU and NATO classified information . As a result, a Russian diplomat was declared a persona non grata and expelled from the country. In addition, the Bulgarian side at that time refused to accept the country's new Russian military attaché, who turned out to be a person forbidden to reside in EU countries.

As with the case of Russian spies being exposed in January this year, it is interesting that the story of a Russian diplomat in October last year appeared a few days after the visit of the then Attorney General, Sotir Tsatsarov, his (now - successor) Ivan. Geshev and DANS chiefs, foreign and military intelligence services. There, they held a number of high-level meetings, after which Free Europe Radio stated, citing own sources, that a "foreign malicious influence" of the Kremlin in Bulgaria, in particular, a spy scandal surrounding the Russophiles, was a priority issue for the United States.

Sincere intentions or a game of imitation

At first glance, this chain of revelations of Russian spies in Bulgaria may indicate that the Bulgarian authorities have finally decided to take seriously counteracting Russian influence in the country. This is especially striking when you understand that this is not happening in any Western country dominated by anti-Russian sentiment, but in Bulgaria, which is known for its traditional close ties with Russia, which has a rather strong influence on its politics, economy and society. On the other hand, given the above-mentioned influence of Moscow on the former "16th republic of the USSR" and the peculiarities of the political processes that have taken place in the country over the last decades, the attitude towards these events changes from optimistic to skeptical. This is exactly how "spying" on Russian spies in Bulgaria refers to local, unrelated authorities, political scientists, experts and the media. Watching how the Bulgarian authorities actively expose Russian spies, they have quite natural questions. First of all, why have so many Russian spies been exposed during the last months? Why hasn't this been done before? Why were so many of them in such a short period of time that surprisingly coincided with the re-election of the country's new attorney general, holding important local elections for the country (held at the end of October last year), visit of the heads of Bulgarian prosecutor's office and special services to the USA, activation of implementation in Bulgaria Russian energy projects? Why in all these stories with Russian spies is the special role of the Special Prosecutor's Office and the new Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev emphasized? To what extent are the "big fish" in terms of Russian influence on Bulgaria exposed spies? Answering these questions, they agree that the main goals pursued by the Bulgarian authorities in this situation may in fact be:

- the legitimization of the new Attorney General Ivan Geshev, whose appointment was actively lobbied by the incumbent authorities, and which, at the same time, caused great dissatisfaction with the Bulgarian society and was accompanied by street protests. The role of the "first violin" of the Special Prosecutor's Office of Bulgaria in exposing Russian spies is a testament to the efforts of the Bulgarian authorities to raise the rating of both the new Prosecutor General, show its effectiveness, principle and involvement, and the law enforcement system as a whole and position it as such that can stand against Bulgaria.

Also, some local experts believe that the PR of the new Attorney General was the main purpose of the aforementioned visit of the heads of the Bulgarian Prosecutor's Office and special services to the USA. While in the US capital, Ivan Geshev was to be presented to the White House in a good light, amid protests in Sofia against his appointment, as well as to promise to be true to Euro-Atlantic values ​​and to change the pro-Russian course of his predecessor Sotir Tsatsarov;

- the efforts of the authorities (ruling in the GERD country) to prove themselves pro-European in power to their constituents and to Western allies. The start of exposing Russian spies in the run-up to the local elections, which was important for the ruling GERB in the context of maintaining power, especially in Sofia, suggests that it was thus trying to consolidate a pro-European-leaning electorate. In addition, in the recent activity and most importantly, the effectiveness in detecting Russian spies, the Bulgarian authorities thus demonstrate a commitment to the pro-European course of development of the country and the pursuit of its security and national interests. The great resonance of spy scandals also allows the Bulgarian leadership to show its allies from the EU and NATO that it is pro-European and Bulgaria an integral part of the West;

- distraction from the simultaneous advancement of Russian interests in the country, such as Turkish Stream 2 or Belene NPPs, or permit the transfer of Russian military equipment through the country's airspace to participate in joint Serbian-Russian military maneuvers in Serbia (second half of October 2019).

It should also be ruled out that the recent assault on Russian intelligence services in Bulgaria, which has been active in recent months, is the result of the aforementioned promises made by the new Attorney General during his visit to Washington and meetings with representatives of the US Embassy in Sofia. However, in order to see this offensive in Bulgaria and abroad as the beginning of a real counteraction to the Kremlin's influence, rather than simply an attempt to turn a blind eye to its society and Washington, then the official Sofia should show consistency in its actions. In practice, this could mean measures already taken to expose and discontinue Russian special services in Bulgaria, for example, at the same time removing the monopoly in the local economy of Lukoil and Gazprom and forcing them to work on market rather than preferential terms; limitation of influence, including the cessation of activities of Russian and pro-Russian organizations and movements in Bulgaria; reducing the influence of Russia and pro-Russian forces on the information space of the country; while enhancing European and especially Euro-Atlantic integration, which could be seen as a significant increase in NATO's military presence on its territory. Only when Sofia begins to speak of the need to increase NATO's naval presence in the Black Sea, and not to make it a place for "sailboats, tourism and peace", will it be possible to believe in the sincerity of the Bulgarian authorities' intentions to counter Russian influence. at home in the country. Meanwhile, its decisions and actions in this direction are more like playing in imitation.

Igor Fedyk, TsDAKR-Balkan