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Alternatives & Analyses: Bulgarian Russophiles form a party – Part One

Moscow diversifying proxy networks.

The news that the Russophile movement in Bulgaria has decided to form a party is a major development.

In elementary particles’ physics, we deduce information on the processes by their impact on the surrounding space. Similarly, we monitor changes and accents in Kremlin’s policy towards Bulgaria and Eastern Europe by following the acts of the local Russophiles, deducing Moscow’s intentions and plans.

The move builds upon the Reshetnikov model, named after the notorious Russian spy. His role is undoubtedly overrated, as he is hardly the only mastermind that guides everyone in Russia when it comes to its interest and policies towards Bulgaria and the Balkans. However, it is always a good idea to measure current moves to past benchmarks in Russia’s foreign policy.

After the South Stream project collapse, Putin blamed the “insidious” Bulgarian leadership.
The experts’ community quickly identified the causal relationship between the project’s demise and Crimea’s annexation. However, by definition, the Tzar in the Kremlin is infallible, so his propaganda cohorts sought and identified the scapegoat – the Bulgarian government.

After Crimea, Gazprom continuously tried to pass on to its partner in the South Stream project – Italy’s ENI – a larger share of the funding burden. De Scalzi, the then CEO, visiting Sochi on November 24th, 2014, refused to underwrite a $1 billion funding obligation, which effectively killed South Stream. Putin had no choice but to acknowledge failure a week later in Turkey.

Sofia did not protest Putin’s narrative and agreed to play the blaming game as it had Euro 800 million reasons to mute its reaction. The Russian President relied on all top Bulgarian statesmen – President Parvanov, Prime Minister Stanishev, Energy Minister Ovcharov, shortly followed by Boyko Borissov to see their South – Turk Stream commitments. The Russian President organized successful coup overthrowing Borissov’s government in 2013 to make sure his local partners heed his call. Despite all reassurances, however, the Kremlin lost confidence that money alone can buy the loyalty and the obedience of Bulgaria’s elites, whose wealth skyrocketed over the years and made transactional deals ever more expensive. Henceforth, Moscow changed tactics – coercion was added to the incentives list and Russia’s foreign policy resorted to its classic tool – divide and rule, playing off one group of oligarchs against another. The first prey and target of such punitive action were Tzvetan Vassilev and the Corporate Commercial Bank, who had failed in the loyalty test – questioning the playscript and delaying performance bonds for Bulgarian proxy companies in Gazprom’s project.

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PM Borissov agreed with the post-South Stream version of the shared control over Bulgaria during his meeting with Leonid Reshetnikov at the end of February 2016, and a series of unreported meetings with Putin’s special envoys. Moscow tested its new divide-and-let-compete approach.
The Bulgarian Parliament was cleared of dissenting voices on Kremlin’s wishes. The Reformist party was ousted, and the pro-Kremlin Patriots enrolled to support and balance GERB.
After clearing the legislative branch of ‘unfriendly elements,’ the Kremlin repeated the exercise with the executive and the judicial branch too.” Reformist ministers became immediate targets of persecution and indictment by the Prosecutor General, which allowed PM Borissov to fully thrive in his role as the sole arbiter right of center.

The reformers lost not only because of their own mistakes but also due to GERB’s systematic endeavors to undermine their influence and split their ranks. PM Borissov played a critical role in this part of Kremlin’s operation.

This deal with the devil placed Borissov in the pinnacle of Russia’s strategy, remaining the sole politician acceptable to both the West and the East. Note that President Radev’s lack of Western credentials significantly impeded his ability to compete with the Prime Minister.
Without its main protagonist – Borissov, Russia’s corrupt-and-charm model cannot deliver; no one else can sell as “Western” and “conservative” stock his underlying pro-Russian transactional diplomacy in Bulgaria and the West.

However, with time, his balancing power eroded with the return of the Cold War binary set of geopolitics, exposing façade democracies as links of vulnerability in the EU and NATO chains. The Bulgarian leader is gradually turning into a pariah, a toxic partner in European capitals and Washington, whose only way out is to dig in heels and resort to open autocracy, scrapping all democratic pretense.

Although Borissov’s value for the Kremlin has shrunk, his replacement at a time of escalating uncertainty is considered by Moscow a riskier option. This is a typical case of crisis management, where the lesser evil is picked among competing and complementing choices offered by different Russian analytical centers.
The Kremlin is contemplating Comintern type of Russophile international that could consolidate and streamline anti-Western opposition in the EU and NATO countries.

Bulgaria is a testing ground for Russia’s new EU strategy, raising the Russophiles NGO profile to a party level of direct involvement in internal and foreign policies through Russophiles directly represented in the Parliament and the different branches of power. However, it will be premature to pass an ultimate judgment that this line will dominate Russia’s foreign policy and that the Kremlin has picked a winner among the competing Russophile groups.

On the contrary, it lets them outperform each other, hoping that their actions’ cumulative effect will exceed the impact of a more focused approach with one single favorite. This policy line also mirrors the different institutional set up of Russia’s foreign policy – different and often competing routes of pursuing its strategic interests – via formal diplomatic, media, secret services, intelligence, cultural and education, business, and religion channels.

On the one hand, Russia uses former President Purvanov’s fiduciary Rumen Petkov to attack the pro-Western non-systemic opposition leaders, gaining electoral power from the protests. On the other, it uses its field players such as the Vazrazhdane Party leader, Kostadinov, to let him navigate the anti-corruption drive in the protest away from Moscow’s zone of concern.

Ilian Vassilev

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