Alternatives & Analyses: With Russian diplomats-spies’ there are routine fixes, local fifth columns are a greater challenge

The former Bulgarian Minister of the Interior in the Tripartite Coalition government and prominent figure in the Bulgarian Russophile community Rumen Petkov was quick to serve the TASS agency with a statement that sharply criticized the Bulgarian Government for expelling the two Russian spies acting as diplomats.

The problem with Russian spies-diplomats who work against Bulgaria’s interests has a relatively easy fix – a note verbale, a non-grata person status, a plane destined to Moscow. It is a lot more difficult with the indigenous “patriots” who will not discern a threat to national security even if Russian tanks roll the streets of Sofia. Suffice to look at the proficient use of ultimate Russophile wisdom, that TASS quotes, and the reference to Petkov’s ministership and his political party leadership.

On Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry upscaled the reaction from Sofia Embassy to Moscow Ministerial level, calling the actions of the Bulgarian authorities “provocative” and “unfriendly.” By the same logic, one should deem the activities of Russian intelligence officers as “friendly” and “stimulating”.There is some room for interpretations that PM Borissov’s and Prosecutor General Geshev’s actions comprise a staged “performance”, aimed at repairing their image while buying media time off from the Pernik water crisis and other related ticking bombs.

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Just because Russian diplomats abuse their diplomatic status, however, does not mean that the Bulgarian Government has no right or obligation to call things by their real names. Nor is it obliged to mute reaction on flagrant Russian intelligence operations in Bulgaria, which grossly violate the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations.It seems that in some quarters in Moscow, it is excruciating to swallow their pride, even if it is at the behest of a higher order – to avoid US sanctions on the Turk Stream section in Bulgaria. The Kremlin has an issue with such sore manifestations of independence and self-assertiveness from a leader and a country that are usually subservient.What Borisov has done in the past, seem to be too little and ceases to matter. The Bulgarian PM’s list of friendly overtures to Putin is quite impressive – he recently shocked allies by allowing a C-400 flyover to Serbia. He remained silent when FM Lavrov announced Russia’s Security Council intent to turn a resort complex into a Humanitarian Base like the one in Serbia. Borisov chose to benumb when Putin insisted that the Russophile leader Nikolai Malinov is “his” man and should not be prosecuted. The Bulgarian PM has consistently remained shy, acknowledging Russia as a threat and an opponent. He refused to join the Black Sea NATO members’ naval force initiative, then played ball with Gazprom in keep natural gas prices in Bulgaria at levels almost 70 percent above the stock exchange in the rest of the EU.

The Bulgarian Prime Minister’s list of appeasement gestures is overly impressive, proffering Russian intelligence a free hand for operations in Bulgaria. The Government ignored substantial evidence and calls for solidarity, and expel diplomats over the Skripal case. The Bulgarian Secret Services, under direct orders from the PM, failed to investigate evidence of involvement of cells of the Russian GRU in Plovdiv in the failed coup d’etat in Montenegro. Borisov later persisted in refusing to admit evidence that GRU agents were behind the “Novishok’ type poisoning of three Bulgarian citizens on Bulgarian. The GRU agents acted on leads from a local Bulgarian arms dealer, competitor to Gebrev, who paraded close ties to the PM.Despite the video ‘proof’ of the ‘five kilometers-a-day’ progress on the Turk Stream project in Bulgaria, Putin treated the Bulgarian PM as a second rate proxy, and the Russian media on orders from the Kremlin mocked the Bulgarian’s PM conduct.The TASS article and the Foreign Ministry’s response, as well as other statements from the Russian side, imply that when presenting the verbal note to the Russian ambassador, Bulgaria was obliged to submit convincing “evidence”.

Let’s repeat the diplomatic classics – governments expelling foreign diplomats on non-compliance-with-diplomatic-status grounds are not required to present any justification, neither oral nor written. The fact that eld’proof’ is not shared with Ambassador Makarov does not mean it does not exist. The diplomat’s immunity offers complete protection from prosecution; he/she may not be searched, arrested, or indicted, may not be subject to what is called standard ‘due process.’ Evidence is due in court when charges can be brought up by the prosecutors, and the defense team challenges them. In the expulsion case, it is sufficient for the host country to act on its conviction that acts are incompatible with diplomatic status. What Bulgarian counter-intelligence has obtained remains at its discretion, as revealing ‘proof’ material might compromise operations.It is an overdone naivety to claim that Russian diplomats had a general interest in the energy sector. The frustration on the Bulgarian side, deciding to expel the diplomats,  implies a much more profound and sustained interest of the diplomats in national energy security, exploring vulnerabilities in infrastructure projects and the Bulgarian energy system. 

The Russian secret services have a track record of exploiting vulnerabilities to exert ‘carrot and stick’ pressure on the Bulgarian authorities and the management of energy companies. It is not the first time Russia engages in cyber and hybrid attacks on the energy sector in Bulgaria – including the interconnectors with Greece. History recalls similar instances of aggression against the energy sector Ukraine, the United States, and other NATO member countries.Moscow has crossed many red lines with impunity.Lamenting the expulsion of the second expelled diplomat defies common sense. Again, the issue at stake is not desktop research into electoral legislation that can be downloaded at a click of the mouse, but specific data on the mechanisms and methods of influencing elections that could be used to manipulate election outcomes in favor of pro-Russian candidates and parties. Worth noting is that the cables from Sofia by the two diplomats have been addressed directly to their peers at the Secret Services, which reveals the subordination line and identifies them as Russian spies.

While Russian diplomats are expelled, the indigenous Russian influence network will remain intact. Ex-Interior Minister Rumen Petkov, flirts with his impunity when he meets the head of the Russian intelligence chief at the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service – Sergei Naryshkin – see photo. Instead of being investigated for open cooperation with foreign intelligence services, he assists Kremlin’s propaganda against his Government. Petkov and his likes favor Russian state interests over his country’s ones. He engages in a defamatory campaign against the vital infrastructure that diversifies dependence away from Gazprom, pressuring Bulgarian authorities on the Turk Stream project, encouraging them to trespass European law and regulatory frame, in particular, the Gas Directive. Bulgaria has a lesser problem with Russian spies disguised as diplomats, than with Russian fifth column agents disguised as concerned citizens and patriots.

Ilian Vassilev

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