As murderous war still rages in Ukraine, the outcome still unclear, Russia is already working out how to win the peace as success in the war is evading Moscow.
In Bulgaria, it seems Stefan Yanev might be central to its formula.
Nondescript and soporific though he might be, Stefan Yanev is always worth listening to. After all, he was caretaker Prime Minister last year and Defence Minister earlier this year – though admittedly he was rather quickly sacked from the latter job by current Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. But even out of office he seems to carry weight. At least, his recent public anti-EU and anti-NATO statements would seem to be indicators of the Kremlin’s new masterplan. It appears to come in two variants.
In the first, leftists, nationalists and Russophiles pool resources and concentrate their efforts on trying to pull Bulgaria out of the EU and NATO.
In the second – which might be an alternative but is more likely to be an interim strategy – they continue with the process, already in place, of quiet erosion and undermining the country’s status as a member of both organisations.
Bye-bye to Brussels?
Just in case you’re wondering, yes, you’ve read that right. Pulling out of NATO is no longer enough, it seems. The Kremlin wants to demolish the European order altogether. That includes the EU and Bulgaria’s entry into the Eurozone, so it’s worth breaking up the EU as well. As Putin & Co understand things, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) need to exit the EU.
To a limited extent that corresponds to what is already happening. Hungary seems to be on that track already. And it certainly corresponds to a key line that has been nurtured in Moscow’s propaganda labs: that globalisation (a bacillus of which the EU is one variety) has eroded national sovereignty and denied Russia its sphere of influence.
One of the Kremlin’s top foreign policy experts, Sergei Karaganov, made a revealing observation:
“In the Soviet Union, we could not exist without an enemy, and we cannot exist [without it] in Russia either, because we are genetically a country that grew up on defence. If we take it out, things start to fall apart for us”.
He further proclaimed the established world order and the security system in Europe “illegitimate”, thus adding anti-Europeanism to pre-existing militant anti-Atlanticism. Well, if that was a valid position a few months ago, it’s certainly even more valid now. The prospect of neutral Sweden and Finland joining NATO is genuine enough – largely thanks to Mr Putin’s Ukrainian adventure – and is a compelling reason for Russia to beef up its efforts to destabilise Europe and to get it done soon. With the Kremlin dealing with a militarised version of the EU and with a NATO that is both more potent and closer, peaceful co-existence would seem destined quickly to become a precarious relic of a bygone age. Russia will face a hostile Europe and a long and devastating Cold War.
And there’s another change. The Russian military has proven inadequate to achieve Moscow’s objectives. So secret-service operations and “hybrid total war” are now, it would seem, being prioritized. And where Russian natives seem handicapped abroad as agents, local Kremlin proxies step in.
It’s against this background that Stefan Yanev’s latest antics must be seen. Like a Balkan Harry Potter, he has hastily hopped on the broomstick of anti-Europeanism so kindly provided for him by pro-Russian circles and Bulgarian nationalists, has wrapped himself in the national tricolour, and is now flying around claiming to be the spokesman for the “national” interest.
However, one might ask: whose national interest? It’s notable that, as soon as parliament had voted Mr Yanev out as Defence Minister on the last day of February 2022, he met the Russian Ambassador Eleonora Mitrofanova – as if they both insisted he was “Moscow’s man”. Whether Ms Mitrofanova corresponds to Hermione Grainger or Minerva McGonagall is an interesting question, but maybe the J K Rowling parallel shouldn’t be pushed too far. For we all know who Voldemort is. And, in this volume Harry and the Dark Lord are, disconcertingly, on the same side.
Now, Mr Yanev’s personality does not deserve much attention. He is unimpressive as a speaker. His answers often betray a lack of depth. And, though he has a military background, his career seems less than impressive. Still, he represents a possible “Putinesque” option in Russia’s long-term planning for Bulgaria in the years after the Ukrainian war. And it would be an option that directly involved the undermining of Bulgaria’s fragile democracy.
Ms Mitrofanova is using her ambassadorship in Sofia as a testing ground for seeking new horizons for Russia’s hardened post-Ukraine version of soft power – a discipline in which she aspires to excel. And, for her experiment, Stefan Yanev is the perfect “laboratory rat’.
In a recent interview on one of Bulgaria’s leading TV channels, Mr Yanev dwelled on the need to end membership in the “amorphous” space that is the EU+, which “contradicts Bulgaria’s national interests and infringes its sovereign rights”. So his recent thrust is unambiguously to preach Bulgaria’s exit from the European Union.
When the same TV programme presenter interrupted him by saying “But we are the European Union!” Yanev went on:
”We are, but we still have some national identity. Do we want to be citizens of Bulgaria or do we want to develop in the global space with memories of our heroic past and our traditions…”
Please note the line, reminiscent of Russia’s consistent foreign policy objective: EU integration runs counter to Russia’s national agenda. As for Bulgaria, in Mr. Yanev’s reading, as a nation, we can’t reconcile national dignity and build on our historical traditions and heroic past while Bulgaria is an EU member. In other words, we should be leaving the EU, and returning to Russia’s sphere of influence.
Only it won’t be the game of Quidditch that our new Harry Potter will have been playing. No, it could be a much more dangerous game. For, in the interim, a return to “history-based pride”, with talk of a Great Bulgaria – led, of course, by the new Great Leader – could well amount to a Bulgaria resorting back to the Putin classics of taking back territories which the country lost in previous wars. It is not difficult to discern a copycat version of Russia’s imperial zeal based on military victories, not on sharing prosperity and security with neighbours. Such a zealous pursuit of nationalistic dreams could easily tap into the general climate of dissatisfaction with falling living standards and unmet EU promises. Yet the “national interest” of wellbeing and security, which can only be shared within the EU, is one thing. The “national interest” of Putinesque revisionism is quite another.
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The Kremlin completely lacks present-day grounds for deriving self-esteem and pride from Russia’s current economic and welfare achievements. The facts just aren’t there. So it has resorted to the only method it believes Russia has for converting power into financial gains: use of military power to wage war and to intimidate people.
And so our Mr Yanev, as a faithful acolyte of Vladimir Putin, preaches the Kremlin’s gospel to his compatriots: leave the EU and NATO and follow Russia’s lead. Mr Yanev is not the first general-turned-politician to play the pro-Russian version of the ‘nationalistic’ tune (and he certainly won’t be the last). But he is the first senior figure – close to President Radev and a former PM (albeit not an elected one) – to associate himself openly with the Kremlin’s agenda. And it is naive to believe that he does not coordinate his acts with Mr Radev, giving voice to the president’s thoughts, while ostensibly remaining a “free-lance” politician.
A Bulgarian Medvedev?
In fact, the key to understanding Mr Yanev may be the “Putin-Medvedev” scenario that Mr Radev seems to have in mind, in which he picks his avatar (Yanev/Medvedev) as his formal successor while himself, in practice, remaining in the driver’s seat.
You may remember how, in 2008, faced with a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms on his tenure as president, Vladimir Putin had resorted to backing his trusty lieutenant Dmitri Medvedev in elections as his successor and stepping into the formally more junior post of prime minister that Mr Medvedev had hitherto occupied. It turned out, of course, that Mr Putin was still the real leader, still calling the shots. And suspicions that Mr Medvedev had just been keeping Mr Putin’s seat warm for him were confirmed in 2012, when, with relatively little hesitation, Mr Medvedev stepped aside and the nomination of his boss for a new term as president proceeded.
Well, Mr Radev may have something a little similar in mind as a way of remaining a key actor in Bulgarian politics after leaving office in 2026, when his second term as president ends. Maybe the analogy won’t go as far as Mr Radev getting an eventual third presidential term. And, of course, the Bulgarian system of government is a lot less “presidential” than the Russian one, in terms of roles, spheres of influence, powers of decision, powers of appointment, and so on, so really detailed parallels are not appropriate. All this said, however, Mr Yanev does seem a plausible candidate for the role of “Bulgarian Medvedev”.
Now, many continue to see Mr Yanev as a party leader or a politician with party ambitions. Yet this is not his immediate forte. He has neither the charisma nor the intellectual capacity, cunning and talent for political intrigue and manoeuvre to thrive in the party-political jungle. And without a party, he will not remain for long in the public eye unless the President calls him to head a caretaker cabinet again.
But during these moments in the shade, Mr Yanev’s enablers can safely keep him in the spotlight and groom him to succeed Mr Radev or Mr Petkov and build up his political power base. The same agents of influence who pushed Mr Radev to the fore (the Leonid Reshetnikov plan) from obscurity are now tacitly generating attention and captured media popularity for his avatar. Indeed, they could bet on Yanev’s continuation of Radev’s strengths – the image of a disciplined military man, with civil experience in the high echelons of power, comfortably positioned in the inter-party space.
I do not believe, however, that Yanev will ever make a strong party on his own. He is far from being a “party engineer”, like Tsvetan Tsvetanov (long-term “organisation man” for Boyko Borisov in the formerly ruling GERB party) or Korneliya Ninova, leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (who is now enjoying the reward of being deputy PM in Kiril Petkov’s rather complex government). There are those who build parties and those who manage parties. And Mr Yanev belongs to neither category,
But he is the perfect executor of someone else’s will. And that’s a pretty good qualification in the circumstances.
Filling a vacuum
For nationalist and pro-Russian forces in Bulgaria are deeply concerned about their current loss of influence, triggered by how slowly and unsuccessfully it has gone for Mr Putin, and by its sheer nastiness, which is provoking outrage at a basic human level. They are well aware that not one of pro-Kremlin politicians would stand a chance against a pro-European candidate in any election.
Not Ms Ninova – the leader of the Socialists. Not Kostadin Kostadinov, the Russophiles’ rising star and head of the Vuzrazhdane (Rebirth) movement, who is too extreme to stand a chance in serious politics. And certainly, none of the various nationalist faction leaders who have spent the last decade sniping at each other and discrediting themselves in alliances and coalition governments with bigger parties.
No, none of them will do. And that’s why they are launching the “non-party”, “independent”, “Bulgarian nationalist” general Stefan Yanev.
It is striking how systematically Mr Yanev is being positioned in the mainstream media. Any stance he takes becomes a counterpoint to the government, echoing not grassroots sentiments, but those of the internal opposition within the establishment, which seeks to replace the Petkov cabinet with a pro-Russian one.
It’s still too early to look into the details of the Radev-Yanev joint plan. But its broad outlines are clear. The Kremlin managed to impose an acceptable presidential candidate on Bulgaria back in 2016, immediately after the annexation of Crimea. And although 2026 – the year of the next presidential elections – seems far away, preparations have begun. Mr Yanev is not actually on the pitch. But he’s there on the sidelines, warming up and looking for the best way to position himself as The Successor, profiting from Radev’s popularity and the shock effect of emergencies and crises. And always ready to present an alternative to failed governments.
Bulgaria’s exit from the EU and NATO forms the centrepiece of Mr Yanev’s strategy, which is not his brainchild but and might as well have a “Made in Russia” label on it. Russia is getting ready to win the peace regardless of the outcome of “Vladimir’s War” in Ukraine. This Mr Putin plans to do by rocking boats – Europe’s in general and Bulgaria’s in particular – in every way he can. And by calling in all that is owed by all the Kremlin’s agents of influence. Whose name is Legion, for they are many.
Ultimately, these efforts will be in vain. Vladimir’s war will have lasting consequences, leaving no room for copycats of the Putinesque power plays. But it is to be hoped that Bulgaria — and Mr Yanev in particular — realises this sooner rather than later.
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