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Alternatives & Analyses: The Kremlin – new ambassador, old prejudices

Perusing articles in one of Kremlin’s ‘official’ media outlets – RIA Novosti – I was stuck with an obtrusive headline “We will join Russia: Bulgarians express a desire to leave NATO.” Next to it, one more of the kind, “One thing are the allies, but the liberators are in a different league – Bulgarians vouch for brotherhood with Russia.”

The crisis in the propaganda genre is indeed profound.

Moscow keeps missing a key point – Bulgaria is breaking away from its orbit, albeit slowly and painfully, often suffering heavy losses, with Bulgarian “wealth” drainage beyond the legitimate investment profit repatriation. With more expensive natural gas, corruption-ridden schemes and large infrastructure projects, such as the Belene NPP and Turk Stream, tax-free transfer pricing from the oil refinery, VTB’s strategic investments, thousands of smaller business schemes in tourism, trade, industry involving Russian capital that evoke previous instances of embezzlement of the country’s gold or assets (the liquidation shares of the Comecon) or other forms of imperial rent payable to the Tzar at the Kremlin.

The Russian media has kept inventing a virtual reality to supersede deficits in evidence, alleging hordes of Bulgarians worshipping the ingenious and infallible President Putin and Russia as an epicentre of their global gravity.

Things border on tragedy as the Russophiles’ first attempt to enter Parliament, relying on the transformation of loyalty to the Kremlin into votes, ended in complete failure. Nikolai Malinov insolently shared with President Putin the ‘fact’ that more than 80 per cent of Bulgarian citizens are born Russophiles. Strangely enough, his ‘Renaissance of the Homeland’ party traced its popularity to 0,41 per cent of the vote.

Agents of Russian influence have consistently failed to dominate public opinion, despite occasional moments of success, overreported back to Moscow as propaganda coups.

Against this background, the Kremlin is sending as ambassador to Bulgaria, its highest-ranking Russian diplomat ever, with a mission to impress the Bulgarians with a blend of imperial talk and flattering. Eleonora Mitrofanova was the first Russian woman ever appointed First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2003. She made history building on legacy of Kolontai, the first Russian woman appointed ambassador. Hadn’t it been for the misfortunes of her brother Alexei Mitrofanov, her career could have reached further heights.

Although Ambassador Mitrofanova’s first posting as ambassador to a specific country is to Bulgaria, she is not alien to diplomatic work under disguise. It is a family tradition starting with her father Valentin Mitrofanov, a top general from the First General Directorate of the KGB, who helped her career at the Foreign Ministry. She has personal experience with expulsions sharing one with her husband Vladimir Tirtishnikov, an agent of the Russian intelligence services. He was declared a persona non grata in Spain in 1982 for industrial espionage, while serving as Aeroflot technician.

As part of her job description, ambassador Mitrofanova had close interaction with both the military intelligence GRU and the civil intelligence service – SVR, as First Deputy to Minister Igor Ivanov, overseeing Roszarubezhcenter, and later as head of Rossotrudnichestvo. Dozens of associates of Rossotrudnichestvo, nominally engaged in work with Russian diaspora and cultural and educational exchanges, have been expelled while serving as diplomats in countries in Asia, North America, Africa and Europe.

Therefore, any statement from Ambassador Mitrofanova, with the trivial: “we are not engaged in intelligence activities” rings, mildly put, hollow. Rossotrudnichestvo seems frequently used by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence – the SVR and Bulgaria is no exception.  Its current head – Sergey Naryshkin, has a long track record representing Russia’s interest in bilateral relations. His privileged access to President Putin has also boosted agents’ activities to secure Turk Stream – Kremlin’s top priority. SVR’s has undoubtedly recruited top Bulgarian politicians and state officials, which could explain why both expelled Russian diplomats could tip off their Bulgarian agents on the ongoing super-secret operation by Bulgaria’s counterintelligence.

Such acts qualify for state treason, punishable by life imprisonment and confiscation of personal and family assets, which gives an idea of ​​the deep infiltration and dependence of SVR’s recruits in Bulgaria’s political establishment.  Perception of guaranteed impunity is the only credible explanation for such a high level of risk-taking. Not many people in this country would match such a profile – one can count them on the fingers of one hand.

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In a recent interview with the ’24 Chasa’ daily, Ambassador Mitrofanova preaches the main virtues of “healthy conservatism” in Russia’s foreign policy – predictability and trustworthiness of the Kremlin. She is right – examples of predictability abound – the annexation of Crimea, the occupation of neighbouring countries’ territories, and military operations far beyond Russia’s borders. Such actions are in flagrant violation of international law, which explains why Russia is pulling out of the International Criminal Court and has recently passed internal legislation overruling the European Court of Human Rights’ decision.

Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has warned that the Kremlin is “very likely” preparing to annex the pro-Russian separatist-controlled part in the Luhansk and Donbas regions. More than 20 Ukrainian soldiers have lost their lives in the last months, signalling the end of the truce reached last July. A new escalation seems pending, yet this serves another example of healthy conservatism in Russia’s foreign policy or when words lose their meaning.

Ambassador Mitrofanova’s ill-placed morality preaching and spiritual sermon on ancient Rus’s legacy, omitting its Kievan origin, is widely off the mark as Bulgarian monks have brought Christianity to that same Rus. Bulgaria has deeply rooted and stand-alone traditions that needs no external guidance.

Patiently but irreversibly, Russia is losing its grip on a country emerging from dependencies that have been dominant since its liberation in 1879. Bulgarians have mentally left the socialist “camp” that presumes automatic hierarchical subservience. The bond between Communist parties has vanished, religious or cultural ties pale in significance to previous centuries. This new reality is not the work of devious Bulgarian politicians but the logical end of Putin’s successful export of corruption, degrading bilateral relations to a few geostrategic projects benefitting Bulgarian and Russian oligarchs.

Bulgaria’s exports to Russia are entirely negligible, the result of years of Russian administrative and political barriers.

Imports of energy and raw materials have substitutes – crude oil, natural gas and nuclear fuel – after years of arbitrary supply cuts and dominant position abuse with high prices, have alternative suppliers and routes. The Russian ambassador’s quote on Lukoil’s 6 per cent share in the GDP role is equally misplaced. It could serve to argue the opposite – that due to more than 12 years of transfer pricing, export of value and declared losses, the company’s net asset value has been substantially compromised, at odds with trends for similar oil-refining assets in the EU.

More sobering facts for Ambassador Mitrofanova – with the ‘help’ of the Russian government, Bulgarian tourism has cut its critical dependence on Russian tourists. The COVID pandemic has exhibited who’s who as trustworthy partners –  and Ukrainians are coming in big. In 2020, Bulgaria was visited by 46 thousand Russian tourists, against 204 thousand Ukrainians !? Any bell ringing?

Russian apartment owners are selling them en masse because most can ill afford to pay their mortgages to Russian banks because of the collapse of the ruble and income.

None of the above is due to ill intent or anti-Russian sentiments among Bulgarians. On the contrary, we are pragmatic people. Still, our government or hotel owners cannot alleviate our Russian friends’ problems with falling incomes and arbitrary efforts by the Russian government to discourage outbound tourism and redirect them to Crimea.

The new generations of Bulgarians have no direct knowledge of ​​Russia, do not speak Russian and do not associate their dreams with studying, working or visiting Russia. Ambassador Mitrofanova could quickly check with her consular section the number of tourist visas issued to Bulgarians these last years – this might come as a shock – less than 10,000 !?, against millions to the EU.

Affection for Russian literature and music does not translate into support and compassion with Kremlin’s rulers’ aspirations. Russophilia in young Bulgarians is family grown, an integral part of their openness to the world, but is a far cry from the subservient and aggressive type under Soviet rule.

Pro-Russian political parties’ failure in the last elections should serve as an eye-opener for Kremlin strategists.

The lack of spiritual underpinning to Russia’s conservatism and claims on being the third Rome of Christianity, while trying to take by brutal force Kyiv Rus, exhibit the hypocritical nature of Russia’s foreign policy. Suppose we judge the words of ‘merchant’ Putin’s against the ancient Russian merchants’ sacred word tradition, which Eleonora Mitrofanova eulogizes in her interview. The Russian president will score poor – against a background of promises made and not honoured in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, the EU and the US. The last definition that could fit Vladimir Putin’s record is of a ‘reliable and trustworthy partner’. He has undermined even his closest partners – like Donald Trump, or Macron and Merkel, by interfering in their country’s sacrosanct election process. Ambassador Mitrofanova herself dealt a crushing blow to Borissov’s Euro-Atlantic façade, essential for his double game on Turk Stream, immediately before the elections. She acted as a spokeswoman for the Bulgarian PM, shedding light on the tacit Moscow-Sofia partner agreements, shielding him from criticism in the US State Department’s annual human rights report.

Vladimir Putin did not hesitate to send his GRU agents to poison a Bulgarian arms dealer, not bothering to check the allegations. The Bulgarian government chose to condone Kremlin’s aggression and refused to expel Russian diplomats in solidarity with Britain and NATO allies over the Skripal case.

The Russian embassy’s hiked activity, whether intentional or not, puts Borissov’s government in a ludicrous position.

No doubt the Kremlin has sent an ambitious diplomat, who burns in her desire to impress, shine and set the tone in bilateral relations.

But a measured approach in turbulent times with due respect for the host country’s national interests that could diverge from Moscow’s without necessarily being hostile to Russia is more than warranted if ambassador Mitrofanova wants to be reckoned with. To paraphrase Chatsky, Griboedov’s character in ‘Woe from Wit’, “the ambassador is new; the prejudices are old.”

Ilian Vassilev

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