Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Bulgaria: textbook case of Russian penetration?

The procurement of other nations’ leaders while the EU looks on, has possibly been Putin’s greatest discovery.

Evgenii Dainov
14 September 2020
Detail: Abandoned hotel on the Black Sea coast. September 4, 2020.
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Instagram/ Dimitar Karanikolov photographer. Some rights reserved.

On the Black Sea coast, the Lukoil-owned port of Rossenets is out of bounds for Bulgarian officials. The Russians can land anything they desire on EU soil and nobody will be the wiser. Once this Russian base on European territory was up and running, Moscow-backed gangsters descended on the coast further south.

Bulgarian state institutions boldly disregarded national and EU legislation and allowed notorious Russian criminals to build “holiday villages” in protected natural areas. At least one of these gangsters has since been killed by others. His “holiday village” still stands, crumbling (see photo above) as Bulgarian authorities continue to refuse to enforce the law and clear the rubble.

We are now seeing the people who, hiding behind legitimately elected politicians, really benefit from such regimes. And among the expected motley crew of gangsters, confidence tricksters and embezzlers, we see a much bigger figure: Vladimir Putin. This means that Europe’s oligarchical regimes are not only distasteful and wasteful; they are also a massive security risk.

Free-for-all

Once European and national laws were waved aside for incoming Russians, a free-for-all inevitably followed. Currently, Mr Borisov’s government is officially engaged in the construction, at Bulgarian expense, of a gas pipeline, linking Turkey to Serbia by way of Bulgaria. The gas will be Russian, as will be the profits; but it is the Bulgarian taxpayer who is footing the bill for the pipeline. This is not only gross corruption: it is also a national security issue. As has recently been pointed out by former Bulgarian Ambassador to Moscow, Mr Ilyan Vasilev, the Borisov regime has specifically allowed Russian state companies and institutions access to strategic infrastructure, waving aside all applicable procedures and laws.

Waving aside all applicable procedures is, of course, a recipe for helplessness in the face of hostile intentions, which may include the taking of human life.

The Navalny investigation

As the democratic world gears up to bring Moscow to account for the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Bulgarian authorities have officially suspended the investigation into a similar attempt on the life of Bulgarian citizens.

Back in 2015, Mr Emelyan Gebrev, his son and a director in one of his companies were poisoned. Saved by the efforts of the country’s top military doctors, they turned out to have been poisoned by a Novichok-type substance. The Bulgarian authorities refused to investigate, because Mr Gebrev had long been a thorn in their side, refusing to hand over his profitable armaments business to associates of Mr Borisov.

Then came the Skripal poisoning in Britain and, with it, intense international pressure on Bulgaria to investigate the attempt on Mr Gebrev. The then Chief Prosecutor flatly refused, however, declaring contemptuously that Mr Gebrev must have fallen ill after “eating badly rinsed rucola salad”.

More pressure followed, as the international investigation discovered that the Skripal poisoners, all agents of the Russian intelligence-cum-sabotage agency GRU, had been based in Bulgaria and had been in situ during the Gebrev poisoning. As the international investigation gathered speed, it transpired that the GRU had long since established its European base of operations in Bulgaria, from where it had launched its coup attempts in neighbouring Macedonia (2015) and Montenegro (2016).

Finally bowing to international pressure, the Bulgarian authorities began investigating the Gebrev poisoning, handing the case over to two overworked detectives at Sofia’s central police authority (in Europe, hundreds of police officers were engaged in investigating the Skripal poisoning). Although the case was given the lowest possible priority, the two detectives did come up with the names of three Russian suspects. At that moment, according to inside sources, they were taken off the case and further work was quietly discontinued.

Then came the Navalny poisoning of 20 August 2020. On 22 August, he was flown out to Germany. On 2 September, German doctors officially declared him poisoned by a Novichok-type substance similar to that used in the Gebrev case. On 3 September, Bellingcat and The Insider reported that samples taken from Mr Gebrev and kept at a laboratory in Finland, had inexplicably disappeared, presumed stolen by the Russians. As Germany, the EU and NATO began talking about sanctions, information on the Gebrev case was requested of the Bulgarian authorities. In response, the Bulgarian Chief Prosecutor announced that he had discontinued the investigation of the Gebrev poisoning on 25 August. Bulgaria was to take no part in the international pressure on Moscow.

“Providing aid and comfort to the enemy” is the usual definition of treason in most countries’ laws. The Borisov regime has been doing just this, providing aid and comfort to the GRU while jeopardizing the lives of its own citizens. Given that, under the EU treaties, all persons in the Union are both citizens of their nation states and of the EU, the implications are clear: treason is no longer an exclusively national matter.

Inexplicably, Mr Borisov continues to enjoy the support of the European Commission and of the European Parliament, with only the Socialists and the Greens siding (to date) with Bulgaria’s anti-corruption protests. I have been told by minor EU officials that Borisov “ensures stability” and, unlike Hungary’s Victor Orban, does not go out of his way to provoke Brussels with neo-fascist rhetoric.

There is, however, no such thing as stability based on corruption. A corrupt regime is one of the least stable constructions in the known universe. It is also, by definition, unsafe. It may be able to demonstrate a veneer of “stability” to its foreign partners, but it is a carrier of acute security risks.

I have been told by minor EU officials that Borisov “ensures stability” and, unlike Hungary’s Victor Orban, does not go out of his way to provoke Brussels with neo-fascist rhetoric.

Anti-corruption protests

For two straight months, massive anti-corruption protests have been confronting daily the government of Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister since 2009. The onslaught from the citizenry has been relentless and, although Borisov continues to pretend that nothing untoward is happening, his oligarchical model of power has been slowly disintegrating. As more and more bits fall off the façade, we begin to catch glimpses of what was once hidden.

Somewhere between the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia (1968) and of Afghanistan (1979), the Kremlin decided to abandon the exercise of “soft power” abroad. They no longer had a model of society to sell as an alternative to Western democracy. So the Russians concentrated on various aspects of “hard power”: from waging “proxy” wars against the West in Latin America and Africa to financing various opposition groups and anti-establishment movements in western Europe. Today, Putin’s Russia has neither that reach, nor that kind of money. So it has concentrated on smaller-scale interference, such as waging limited wars in neighbouring countries and buying up foreign national leaders and politicians.

The procurement of other nations’ leaders was possibly Putin’s greatest discovery. It costs billions to support opposition parties and movements; it only costs millions to buy well-placed individuals, who can then use their power in the service of Russian interests. This is, naturally, easiest to do in countries whose elites are already devoted to corruption and pilfering, to the exclusion of all else.

Bulgaria is a textbook case. By the beginning of his third term in office, starting in the spring of 2017, Mr Borisov dropped all pretence that he was in the business of serving the common good. Parliament began passing legislation pointedly designed to profit specific individuals, or to discriminate against other individuals and whole industries. Virtually all public funding and all European grants were diverted to a handful of persons close to the Prime Minister. We learned recently that his favourite bodyguard had received 500 million euros in EU funding, having suddenly turned out to be a specialist in railway construction. Dozens of critical journalists were sacked and, for the first time since 1989, political prisoners re-appeared as a class mostly composed of vociferous government critics, or of entrepreneurs who had refused to hand over their companies to persons from Mr Borisov’s entourage.

This is the kind of habitat that Mr Putin thrives in. Corrupt politicians are easily corruptible. Bribes began flowing from Moscow to Sofia, securing for the Kremlin a toehold inside the perimeter of the EU and, more significantly, NATO. You support corrupt oligarchical regimes, you welcome Russians into Europe. This is what Americans call “a no-brainer”.

Corrupt politicians are easily corruptible. The Kremlin uses corruption as an instrument for penetrating the EU and NATO, with the intention of undermining, destabilizing and defeating the West. If the West sees this as “stability”, then its governing elites are long overdue for a radical re-haul.

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