In less than a year, five Russian citizens with diplomatic status were declared persona non grata, and another was not allowed to become a military attaché. This always happened according to the same algorithm – the prosecutor's office made an official statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave the suspects time to leave the country and kept silent. In parallel, a case was initiated against Nikolai Malinov, the chairman of the Bulgarian national movement "Russophila," State Agency for National Security (SANS) banned businessman Konstantin Malofeev and intelligence strategist Leonid Reshetnikov from entering Bulgaria believed to be closely connected with the Bulgarian politics. At the same time, the soft position of Russia is impressive, as well as the fact that it never came to the exposure of the Bulgarian assistants to the underground. All of this raises some awkward questions.
Why did Bulgaria suddenly become active against Russian spies?
Bulgaria was one of the few countries that did not expel a single diplomat following the poisoning scandal of former KGB agent Sergei Skripal in the UK. In March 2018, more than 20 EU countries expelled at least one Russian diplomat as a sign that they considered the incident unacceptable. Against this background, Prime Minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borisov stood out, saying that at a meeting of the European Council on this issue, he asked for irrefutable evidence of Moscow's involvement. "We all trust the UK but I have already expressed my position, recalling that Saddam Hussein was also accused of using chemical weapons. Tony Blair, of course, later apologized, but everything was already done," Borisov explained. Six months later, he again refused to expel the Russian diplomat, although, by his own admission, there is more evidence of Moscow's involvement. Nothing changed when it turned out that people associated with the Skripal case were in Bulgaria and could be involved in the poisoning of Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in 2015. In early 2019, the prosecutor's office even stated that Gebrev was almost to blame for everything and was probably poisoned with an insecticide, arugula, or coffee.
The situation changed dramatically in mid-2019, and suddenly these same people and institutions changed course. Chairman of the Bulgarian national movement "Russophiles" Nikolai Malinov was detained on suspicion of espionage, the prosecutor's office admitted that Gerbev could have been poisoned with the same substance and the same Russians as Skripal, Konstantin Malofeev, and Leonid Reshetnikov were banned from entering the country, and in October last they even exiled a Russian diplomat. Then the prosecutor's office became even bolder – Russian diplomats were expelled both in January and September 2020. And here an obvious question arises – what has changed? Obviously, it is not about the prosecutor's office – since Emilian Gebrev is very inconvenient for the behind-the-scenes players, the investigation into his poisoning is dragging on. And the investigation of the case of Nikolai Malinov is generally at a standstill.
What role do Western services play in these scandals?
The inexplicable change in the position of the institutions gives reason to believe that in fact, the Bulgarian authorities have found themselves in a situation where it is impossible to stay idle without compromising themselves in the eyes of their Western partners. The intensification of the prosecutor's office, for example, coincided with the visit of then Attorney General Sotir Tsatsarov, his deputy Ivan Geshev, as well as the heads of the SANS to American intelligence officers. Immediately after the expulsion of the first Russian diplomat, Borisov was "rewarded" with a long-awaited meeting with US President Donald Trump at the White House.
"Borisov's words that we do not tolerate Russian spies and that the two we found we threw out are rather ridiculous. There are not many details. If these people were pointed out by the Americans, neither SANS nor the prosecutor's office had no choice, they could not help but act. When one of your main NATO allies says that these people collected specific information regarding NATO security, you have no choice - you just act," Philip Gunev, the former deputy of the Bulgarian Interior Ministry, commented.
In the same vein, the US made an official statement following the expulsion of Russian diplomats in January this year: “The US Embassy welcomes the recent actions taken by the Bulgarian government to protect the country's independence and sovereignty from malevolent influence, including the announcement of the expulsion of two Russian embassy officials accused espionage and indictment of attempted murder against three Russian citizens. We support the long-term efforts of institutions investigating and uncovering violations of Bulgarian law. Bulgaria, a strong NATO ally and EU partner, has an inalienable right to determine its future.”
Also, this thesis is confirmed by the fact that during the visits of British and American diplomats to Bulgaria, new data surfaced about the poisoning of Skripal, Gebrev, or money laundering in Venezuela. Western diplomats made it clear that it was they who provided the data, but this did not stop Boyko Borisov from constantly bragging that in fact, it was he who gave them information about who did what.
Why are the names of the Bulgarians involved in the scandals kept secret?
According to the prosecutor's office, every spy scandal involved Bulgarian citizens who either simply met or received financial rewards directly from the expelled diplomats. Thus, for example, in its latest communication, the prosecutor's office noted that “in some cases, a monetary reward was promised and provided to the citizens of Bulgaria”. But it is not clear who they are and what happened to them.
It is clear that, according to the Vienna Convention, Russian diplomats cannot be blamed and tried. But this does not apply to their Bulgarian assistants. Moreover, in one case we are talking about collecting information about energy, in the second - about elections, in the third - about the army, the military-industrial complex, and arms deals in Bulgaria. There was even talk of "more frequent strange incidents at the Bulgarian arms factories", since the deportees were suspected not only of collecting information about the deal for new F-16 fighters and Bulgaria's intentions to acquire combat drones, but also of sabotaging these "more frequent incidents at arms factories"... Not to mention the fact that, according to the prosecution, the diplomats have been acting since 2016. Therefore, it is strange that for all the "openness" of the state prosecution, which, when it suits it, does not hesitate to disseminate evidence in cases collected with the help of special intelligence means, it does not even name the initials of the involved Bulgarian citizens and does not say what measures were taken against them.
What is the role of PM Boyko Borisov?
If there is anything undeniable, it is that Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is doing the impossible by trying to please both Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump at the same time. An absurd ambition when we talk about the confrontation between Russian and American special services. Therefore, Borisov's behavior is often comical.
When Bulgaria first expelled a Russian diplomat last year, Borisov reacted to the scandal rather casually. “Russia did not send Bulgarian diplomats in response, as it usually happens in such cases, and it does her credit. Putin knows me well, he knows that I don’t succumb to pressure, that I didn’t expel Russian diplomats when everyone was expelled. if a high-ranking diplomat is caught recruiting my superiors, I will immediately detain him!” he commented then.
From the explanations of the Prime Minister, it became clear that there was an attempt to recruit the head of the Bulgarian special service, and he turned out to be a worthy patriot and told everything on time. Borisov said that the Russian president is well versed in such things, and expressed the hope that the Russian side will appreciate everything that Bulgaria has done. "If I send a spy to recruit one of the chiefs of President Putin's services, the expulsion will be a mild punishment for him," the Prime Minister said. Just a few days later, Russia reciprocated and expelled the Bulgarian diplomats, but Borisov decided to omit this fact.
A few days ago, he explained everything again: "A few years ago, I warned President Putin - through then Prime Minister Medvedev, who was on a visit to our country, - that I would not allow such things to happen in Bulgaria." It is obvious that by such actions he is trying to soften the situation and find an excuse for his actions. Thus, the Prime Minister of Bulgaria once again sharply distinguished himself from his colleagues from other countries, who used a much harsher tone when it came to Russian spies on the territory of their countries. However, in this case, we are talking not only about espionage but also about possible sabotage on the territory of Bulgaria, as well as an attempt to recruit the head of the special services.
Russia does not take Bulgaria's actions seriously. After the ouster of the first spy, Russia did not even postpone the visit of Bulgarian Foreign Minister Yekaterina Zakharieva to Moscow. Then the Russian side put forward a version that the reaction of Bulgaria was part of the NATO exercises, during which various reactions of the media and the diplomatic corps were played out. From that moment on, Russia began to respond with the mutual expulsion of diplomats, but without harsh comments, as is usually the case with similar scandals in other countries. This can hardly be explained by the warm feelings between Putin and Borisov. Rather, Russian interests in Bulgaria were not too much affected, and the exiled diplomats can be considered an insignificant sacrifice in the name of achieving higher goals.