Alternatives & Analyses: Bulgarian PM Borisov between the sickle and the hammer

Thursday, February 20th, was a stressful day for Bulgarian PM Borisov. A publication in the Spanish El Periodico revealed that the Catalonian Special Prosecutor’s office has launched an investigation into alleged money laundering against him. The spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service also weighed in with a reaction on his own, but instead of putting out the fire, he poured more oil on it. 

Borisov’s loyal Bulgarian media centurions, obviously put on high alert about the looming storm, immediately alleged the two events are related, with malign intent originating in Moscow. They addressed timing and causality in reverse order, claiming that the Kremlin masterminded the attack on the PM in reprisal for his staunch loyalty to Bulgaria’s Western alliances. 

Judging by the reactions of the Prime Minister in Brussels, it looks like he is not so much contesting the separate facts, only that they do not add up to make up the alleged story.

One thing seems incontestable – if the PM starts bragging about receiving  ‘congratulations’ greetings, orders, and medals, this means he is nervous, low on self-confidence, and desperately seeking solace by escaping reality. He pumps up the volume, ignoring facts, turns to insults, intrigues, or runs away in isolation.

More intriguing and multi-faceted is the reaction of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, which falls within the Reshetnikov model of new relations with Bulgaria. It is extremely rare for the head or the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Intelligence service – the SVR, to respond and engage publicly with a developing story in the media. 
Worth recalling is that a week ago, one of the deputy chiefs of Bulgarian intelligence service Assen Tutekov, ostensibly “resigned “ his position. 

 The SVR now claims that an agent of the Bulgarian security services had provided the lead into the connection between Narishkin-U.A.E. visit  and Bulgarian gambling boss and oligarch Bozhkov’s release from custody in Abu Dhabi. In short, Sofia has committed a sin by allowing the Bulgarian intelligence services to spy on the Head of the Russian SVR ?!Russia, at least in theory, could intercede to get a prominent Bulgarian oligarch out of custody, but this would look highly suspicious. The gambling boss’s value for Russia’s intelligence might be overestimated, although he could be an essential asset, given his control over substantial cash flows, that could be used for Bulgarian politicians’ and political parties’ slush funds.

The Russian intelligence service’s influence over Bulgarian oligarchs is overwhelming, but this story seems much too convenient. Moreover, the narrative the Bulgarian authorities are selling has too many holes in it by fixating on UAE authorities’ role, and ignoring their own – for example, why did they let Bozhkov leave the country in the first place?News from the Spanish prosecutor’s office is yet to rock the newswires and unfold, generating a gravity of its own.

The potential charge is a media goldmine – an EU member country’s Prime Minister being investigated for “money laundering”? Too hard for Borisov to wrest himself free Houdini-style with such trivial excuses of a “recycled corruption story”. The story is no more about the ‘ill-intended,’ panic-wrapped in a hotch-potch narrative of a devious ‘Radev -Kremlin-opposition’ involvement.

The frontline is no longer between  investigative website Bivol versus Borisov’, but between an EU member country special prosecutor’s office and Bulgaria’s Prime Minister whom it is investigating.I have never believed that politicians’ personal lives should be subject to public scrutiny in the mainstream media, although their acts speak volumes about their moral integrity. If children are involved, it gets even worse. But when the allegations are about money laundering and EU funds misappropriation, things get messy, and public interest becomes legitimate and a must.
Regardless of Borisov’s boasting,  his political clout in Spain will hardly be sufficient to halt the money-laundering investigation. The issue is no longer confined to Spain, it’s turning into an EU and NATO issue, now that international media are also involved. The reputational damage to Borisov would be irreparable. He can plead his innocence all he wants and generate ‘Kremlin smoke and mirror’ stories, but this won’t work. His grip on the Bulgarian media allows him to ‘walk on water in Bulgaria’ but the international media will spare no punches. This is an entirely different level of the game, well beyond Borisov’s reach and ability to transact with the Kremlin or the White House.

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Ultimately, it will also boil down to whether the Bulgarian citizens’ trust in him will ignore waves of international media exposes. There is a level of state capture and public indifference that Bulgarians and the political class could accommodate before they realize that Borisov’s reputational problems are damaging the country. Predicting the future is always tough, but there is a great chance that this time things  will be different. The ‘Kremlin is attacking me” charade is just a blatant lie; SVR’s intervention seems more of a rescue mission.Beyond the narrow confines of his core electorate and party coterie, Borisov’s fate will be decided by the Bulgarian establishment’s calculation of the cost-benefit of keeping him in power. His track record of lies vs. truths is abysmal, as with any populist. He backtracked on the euro, lied that he has never intended, or wanted to be a president, lied that he had never met Moscow’s intelligence top man for the Balkans – General Reshetnikov. Attempts to discredit the Spanish El Periodico for alleged ties to the Kremlin are futile and counterproductive, and only betray Borissov’s level of panic and impotence. The Spanish media recently received one of the world’s most prestigious investigative journalism awards, Stigma 2020, along with The Guardian, the Globe and Mail, Suddeutsche Zeitung, the BBC, and 18 other reputable international publications.The loyal NATO ally disguise worn by Bulgaria’s top political performer cannot obscure his links to Russia and the Kremlin, evident in his actions on TurkStream and the flyovers of Russian military cargo planes en route to Serbia. This move goes well beyond a balancing act between the East and the West that the PM claims is necessary to accommodate Bulgaria’s geography and historical determinants.  Moscow would never attack Borisov in the most vulnerable stage of  Kremlin’s most cherished geopolitical project – the TurkStream pipeline, dubbed Balkan Stream in Bulgaria. The moment he turned his back on NATO allies’ warnings and allowed the Panzer-C1 anti-aircraft missile system to cross Bulgarian air space, he should have known he has crossed the line.

The Russian Foreign Intelligence, with advance knowledge of the EL Peridico publication, as the PM’s office was alerted by the media, decided to try and counter the effect of the newspaper article and play the geopolitical rivalry tune about the evil Americans, alluding implicitly that Borisov is their ‘victim’.

Reading the statement of the SVR spokesman carefully, there is no personal criticism of Borisov. SVR’s target are the “bad” Bulgarian intelligence or counter-intelligence services, who have teamed up with the West to engage in a smear campaign against Russian diplomats. It is no longer the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs talking and reacting to protect diplomats; it is the top foreign intelligence service of Russia targeting the insidious “non-governmental organizations”, as perpetrators of the attack on their agents.Not sure Mr. Narishkin, the head of the SVR, understands that by  ordering his spokesperson to bypass the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and intervene directly in an ongoing scandal, he has painted the Bulgarian PM into a corner. Many will be left to believe that Mr. Borisov’s trouble with the El Periodico publication is not so much a foreign policy conundrum, but a Russian strategic and intelligence issue.

Borisov and Putin agreed on TurkStream, avoiding any visible signs of direct Russian involvement, presenting the pipeline project as an independent Bulgarian undertaking. This alibi allowed the Bulgarian PM  some maneuvering space, including a green light  from Moscow to play the loyal Atlantic and NATO ally and kick out of the country Russian spies with impunity. The SVR is well aware of the Putin-Borisov’s deal, which explains why its spokesperson carefully avoids any mention of the Bulgarian PM and instead attacks the Bulgarian intelligence services, Bulgarian NGOs, and the ‘bad’ Westerners. We should also read into the hidden message SVR is sending to Borisov.

There are limits to Moscow’s patience, as expelling Russian diplomats from the most loyal EU country to Russia seems contagious, and other members are jumping on the bandwagon. An attempt to calm Moscow’s ire might seem like the logical explanation behind the ‘resignation’ of the Deputy Head of the Bulgarian Foreign Intelligence Service. SVR’s line is – you can expel diplomats, but spying on us, taking the game to the top level, allowing GERB’s coalition partner Simeonov to attack Naryshkin crosses well beyond the red line. Naryshkin is one of Putin’s closest associates, one of his most trusted people, and targeting him in line with U.S. and NATO policies, goes well above Borisov’s remit in Russia’s view. Russia is reminding Borisov that he should go after the Bulgarian NGOs, funded by U.S. organizations. This is nothing new for the Bulgarian political scene; former General Prosecutor Tzatzarov had already attempted this favorite of Putin’s policies in the past. The draft legislation to this effect was stopped in Parliament in the eleventh hour. Borisov does not trust Bulgaria’s intelligence services, very much like Trump doesn’t trust his.

His background is in police work and the secret services, which have never treated the “white collar spies” in foreign intelligence as equals. Implying that Bulgaria and the international investigative journalists are Moscow’s puppets is a cheap shot and this theory will hold no water. Nor will any Kremlin style attacks on the NGO sector branding them as “foreign agents”. However, as Borisov fights for his political survival, he will push the limits of his autocratic regime. He will undoubtedly go after the NGOs, a move that could be echoed by Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev. But this will be more a sign of his fear and weakness, rather than his strength. The fact of the matter is that in today’s Bulgaria, Borisov’s real opposition does not come from other political parties and the mainstream media, but from the Non-Governmental Sector and the social networks. Putin’s Russia is the natural psychological anchor and shelter for Bulgaria’s elite. But few if any Bulgarian politicians would pick the fate of Victor Yanukovich.The vibrant NGO sector has once again proven its resilience by exposing this critical vulnerability in the regime’s armor, and the Kremlin seems unable to counter the tide. 

Ilian Vassilev

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