The protests’ anti-corruption drive will reduce Russian influence
Kremlin’s quandary stems from the reality that the corrupt model’s dismantling in Bulgaria will inevitably weaken Russian influence, regardless of the efforts Borissov and Karakachanov (VMRO’s own corrupt business networks undeservedly remain under the radar of public attention) to see through all Russian projects. Western sanctions and the ongoing anti-corruption momentum are here to stay , which dooms PM Borissov transactional diplomacy.
President Radev has made the head-on collision with Borissov and Peevski’s cohort a political must, rating it, at least for now, above Russia’s interests.
The Bulgarian Socialist Party is also attempting to shape the next Bulgarian government, limiting its use as a support of Russian influence, insofar as their prime political opponent -GERB’s government, has taken up all the space to serve Russia’s interests in the energy sphere, leaving the socialists on the sidelines. The classic BSP “Sovietophiles” (in the words of Reshetnikov) have lost the turf war to please the Kremlin to the empowered ready, able, and willing tradesmen in the Borissov-Dogan-Peevski trio. Simultaneously, the Bulgarian PM’s upcoming mess with what happens next with TurkStream lies beyond the reach of indigenous Russophiles. The window of opportunity closes with the imminent U.S. Congress sanctions and the bipartisan commitment to confronting Russia’s reckless behavior.
Why has then Moscow decided to order Bulgarian Russophiles to leave the safe trenches of cultural, religious, and informational raison d’étre and embark on the treacherous road of building up a new transnational EU network of parties directly affiliated to Moscow?
The main explanation rests in Putin’s understanding that after Navalny’s poisoning and the crackdown on democracy in Belarus, Russia is going through stormy waters in its relationship with its leading voice and lever in Europe – Germany, having second thoughts supporting Moscow’s most important strategic outpost – the Nord Stream – 2 pipeline.
In anticipation of new rounds of extreme confrontation with the West, Moscow is calling upon all its ‘troops’ in the EU, engaging in a subversive war on EU and U.S. territory.
One could liken such an overture to a modern version of the classic Soviet-era export of “revolution” and destabilization, which are currently promoted by a new Comintern type of Russophile International. The subversive activities cover a wide range, from the old-time sabotage acts to new channels of influence, including digital media propaganda, cyber and hybrid operations.
The autocrat in the Kremlin is well aware that he is facing a complete breakdown in relations with the West and an unprecedented round of sanctions that his regime, lacking the resources of the Soviet Union, will find impossible to overcome unless Russia resorts to militarizing its internal and foreign policy with the wartime cry of besiegement. The Motherland is in danger; enemies are everywhere.
It is no coincidence that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that under pressure, the Kremlin would mobilize all its resources in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe, and will try to shift the battle away from Russia and in the EU and NATO countries. The fallout from a possible change in Berlin’s course is Moscow losing its priority position in relations with Germany to Eastern Europe, which resonates painfully in the Russian capital.
Putin’s negative legacy is rapidly building up – he lost Ukraine, now he is about to lose Germany, which Gorbachov won, and is barely capable of keeping Belarus in line.
In August, FM Lavrov, warming up an encore of Russia’s classic encirclement paranoia, warned Eastern European countries not to actively cooperate with NATO and allow a buildup of their defense capacities adding allied military assets.
In another interview with the Kremlin’s propaganda mouthpiece, Sputnik, the Russian Foreign Minister spelled out his blueprint for undermining the EU’s sanctions regime by encouraging dissenting voices – Hungary, Italy, and Cyprus. The mission of a Russophiles’ party would secure support for a future Bulgarian government’s EU vote on decisions important for Moscow,
Moscow has no choice but to utilize its influence, calling in past favors from proxies, partners – all those who can self-identify as Russophiles or share “a sympathy for Russia” as the base for a transnational anti-Western network.
Leaving the NGO’s cultural and education format carries risks for the Russophiles. Operating under party setup will inevitably expose them to charges of direct foreign power interference. The demarcation of Russia – West geopolitical fault lines, following emerging local party affiliations with Russia, Turkey, and the U.S. (the new Republicans for Bulgaria Party), will undermine the country’s ability to reach consensus on issues of national interest. Although Russophiles pledge their allegiance to their native country, their leader Malinov denies that Bulgaria’s interests could ever diverge with Russia’s, which explicitly positions them in the category of foreign power agents.
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Kremlin’s potential to transfer geopolitics into price premiums, funding its influence base in Bulgaria, while over-relying on energy flows involving the transfer of technology, resources, and related exclusive arrangements, is limited as the EU’s regulatory and competition protection paradigms gain ground.
The moment PM Borissov leaves, and a new anti-corruption government takes office, financial proceeds from the sale of Russian crude oil and Neftochim-Lukoil refined products in the part that currently end up funding Russian proxy activities, are likely to drop. Most of what Lukoil saves on profit tax, returns to support the model and its architects. What the budget loses, pro-Russian politicians gain.
Gazprom is already losing market shares and higher-priced gas sales revenues, which will, too, limit the Kremlin ability to generate a gravitational field of dependencies. Likewise, the demise of the NPP Belene project will deny Rosatom billions in potential revenues which then transform into a lever of influence.
Moscow’s energy-based foreign policy faces an uncertain future as the corrupt state-oligarchic model loses its grip. Historical and cultural, not to mention, religious and spiritual bonds between the two countries could hardly compensate for the widening deficits and general dislike among young Bulgarians of Russia’s governance model.
Fearing a loss of leverage in Moscow’s power base, the Kremlin tries desperately to preempt a mass surge in the anti-corruption aspects in the protests and their transformation into a broad anti-systemic social movement.
Little has changed in Moscow’s fundamental goal over the years as it has failed to generate a positive strategy with viable alternatives to NATO and EU, which has brought it back to the old-time classic of exporting corruption, bribing elites, and destabilizing Eastern Europe. However, the decline of Russian influence is not a foregone conclusion as Kremlin excels at adapting to circumstances, using limited resources to ever more effective use of its negative power, inflicting disproportionate damage in open societies and free-market democracies.
Bulgaria is likely to continue harboring Russia sympathizers with an inherited and somewhat irrational anti-Western mental and value matrix, which has never really accepted the choice made 30 years ago.
The pending breakdown in relations between Russia and the West will cause new rifts in Bulgarian society, which will again have to face the unresolved dilemma lingering since its Liberation from Ottoman rule on the country’s self-identification as Europeans, a democracy underpinned by rule of law instead of autocracy with a Tzar in disguise.
PM Borissov’s narrative of “bridging East and West,” of “balancing,” or mediating between the superpowers no longer impresses anyone.
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