Bulgaria regularly exposes Russian secret service agents, whilst Russian media write about espionage-mania fuelled by Americans and blame Bulgarians for historical ingratitude.
Tensions in relations between Russia and Bulgaria have risen in recent months. As in the case of the Czech Republic today (and Poland two years ago), this is due to conflict over monuments and memorial sites dedicated to the Red Army. Attempts were made to damage them: in the town of Dobrich, near Plovdiv, and in the Lozenets district in Sofia.
These cases prompted a wider conversation amongst the Bulgarian public on the location of these monuments and their sociocultural significance. And, of course, an important external actor has not been passive in the matter: Russia immediately engaged with these events, framing itself as a victim, as it has in previous instances. At the same time, it seeks to be seen as an arbitrator.
However, as is often the case, these disputes over the past mask the context of current developments. The situation in Bulgaria is no exception.
The controversy over the fate of the monuments was based on the current state of Russian-Bulgarian relations, which now include espionage scandals involving Russian diplomats, suspected murders committed by members of the Russian secret service, the activities of the domestic pro-Russian lobby and, in recent days, a growing controversy about shared cultural influences.
Russophiles in action
In the second half of last year, a scandal broke in Bulgaria about the head of the ‘Russophiles’ movement, Nikolai Malinov. The movement claims that it aims to “develop friendship and cooperation between Bulgaria and Russia on the basis of historical traditions, Orthodoxy and Slavic solidarity”.
In May 2019, Russian President Putin even honoured the leading Bulgarian ‘Russophile’ with the Order of Friendship for “fruitful work aimed at bringing together and cultivating the cultures of nations and nationalities”.
However, the relevant Bulgarian authorities had a different view on his activities and in September 2019 they accused him of treason and espionage.
The pro-Russian media immediately responded with their notorious tactic of pushing an angle of foreign – meaning American – influence. The daily Izvestiya published the opinion of Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee on International Affairs, who attributed the situation to external pressure through “very strong politicians who would not want the rapprochement between Moscow and Sofia”.
According to Kosachev, Bulgaria began to reconsider “its own sad experience” after “succumbing to the pressure of Americans and their allies in Europe without uttering a word, and blocked the South Stream project”. Therefore, the Russian MP was not surprised that “such positive trends are opposed by those who would like to keep Bulgaria in maximum anti-Russian positions”.
The FAN agency, from the media portfolio of oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s Cook”, reacted more openly and sharply. In the article “Bulgaria is appalled by the anti-Russian hysteria of American puppets” it offered space to the Bulgarian editor of the Russian news agency News Front, for whom there were no other reasons for the deterioration of Bulgarian-Russian relations than American intrigue:
“The USA is heavily involved in Bulgaria. They have a plan “B” – Bulgaria, analogous to Ukraine. The United States themselves boasted that they had conducted the most successful operation, ‘Ukraine’, in the war against Russia. And apparently they got a taste for it now and decided to apply the same scheme in Bulgaria… What they managed to develop in our country is a living example of how they deeply penetrated into Bulgarian state structures and do not hesitate to give orders.”
Spies and killers
In January 2020, Bulgaria was shaken by another espionage scandal, this time with the direct participation of Russian diplomats and secret service agents. It had two storylines.
First, the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announced that it has designated two employees of the Russian embassy as “undesirable persons” and expelled them from the country.
According to the Bulgarian authorities, one of the embassy workers had been focused on obtaining classified information related to the country’s electoral processes for three years; the other had been collecting classified data on the energy sector for two years.
Second, the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office announced that it had launched an international manhunt for three citizens of the Russian Federation accused of the attempted assassination of the Bulgarian arms businessman Emilian Gebrev, his son and one of his associates.
The attempted assassination took place in February 2015 in Sofia; the motive was retribution for the supply of Bulgarian weapons systems to Ukraine, which at the time was fighting against Russian aggression in Donbas.
Investigators used findings from the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK to conclude that these two cases are linked through the people who prepared and carried them out.
The pro-governmental Russian press responded promptly. It platformed official representatives of the Russian state, who again were quick to identify Western and American footprints in the case, portraying Bulgaria as the centre of anti-Russian activities in Eastern Europe.
The daily Vzgliad wrote that there was no serious evidence to confirm the veracity of the Bulgarian authorities’ statements about the activities of Russian diplomats, and that “the behaviour of the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office can be explained either in the context of internal events in Bulgaria or by external pressures.”
The same version was supported by the Regnum agency, which published the opinion of the Russian ambassador to Sofia, Anatoly Makarov:
“Relations between Bulgaria and Russia can be assessed before and after October 21, 2019. Until October 21, 2019, everything was developing successfully, but on October 21, an 11-kilometre section of the gas pipeline was opened, which connected the gas transmission systems of Turkey and Bulgaria. It was a solemn event with the participation of the Prime Minister, and only after this event the problems began”
The Russian ambassador somehow forgot about the case of the Bulgarian ‘Russophiles’ of September 2019 in his interpretation of events.
Who liberated Bulgaria?
In April and May 2020, as the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe approached, Bulgarian-Russian relations were affected by incidents involving monuments to Soviet soldiers and by different interpretations of the consequences of the Second World War for developments in Eastern Europe.
In April, unknown persons splashed white and red colour onto a statue of a Soviet soldier nicknamed “Aliosha” in the town of Dobrich. In May, the mayor of the Lozenets district in Sofia, Konstantin Pavlov, proposed moving the monument of Soviet soldiers to the museum and moving their remnants from a mass grave to a cemetery.
The proposal was motivated by security considerations, i.e. efforts to protect the monument from repeated cases of vandalism.
The Bulgarian authorities have always strongly condemned any attempt to damage memorials and places of worship, and their approach was the same here. However, events of this kind usually lead to an intensified discussion about what happened in the country after the Second World War, the causes of many human tragedies and how all this should be processed and remembered.
It should be noted that understanding Bulgaria’s participation in the Second World War in the context of its relationship with the USSR goes beyond the basic questions of how Bulgaria was liberated, and by whom.
In March 1941, Bulgaria, under pressure from Hitler, joined the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis, but after Germany’s attack on the USSR, it maintained neutrality towards Moscow, did not fight the Soviet Union, and until September 1944 maintained regular diplomatic relations with the USSR.
In September 1944, Bulgaria withdrew from the pact with the Axis powers, declared war on Germany and tried to reach an agreement with the USSR. However, the USSR declared war on the (until then) neutral Bulgaria. The Red Army entered Bulgarian territory but did not conduct military actions.
After the government (headed by the Communists) took power in Sofia (also in September 1944), the army of the Bulgarian state began to fight alongside the Red Army.
Although Bulgarian troops fought with the Allies against the Nazis in Albania, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Austria at the end of the Second World War, Bulgaria was considered one of the defeated states at the Paris Peace Conference in 1947.
Not a single Soviet soldier was killed in battle on the territory of Bulgaria itself. Several hundred Red Army soldiers buried there died in Bulgarian hospitals from injuries and diseases.
During the communist era, numerous monuments to Soviet ‘liberators’ were erected throughout Bulgaria. Their function was to demonstrate the ideological orientation of the regime and the geopolitical dominance of the USSR.
Respect for the Soviet victims of the fight against Nazism did not change the fact that the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria, did not receive freedom after the Second World War, but a new type of repression.
Real freedom came after the collapse of the communist regimes and the paving the way to a united Europe.
However, such an interpretation was a red rag to propagandists in Moscow. In May 2020, publicist Ognjan Stamboliev unexpectedly added fuel to the fire over the assessment of post-war developments.
In response to an exhibition on Slavic writing culture organised by the Russian Cultural and Information Centre in Sofia, he published an article entitled “On Russia, our Cyrillic alphabet and the truth”, in which he rebuked Russia for deliberately concealing the contribution of Bulgarians to Slavic and Russian writings and culture.
The Russian Centre in Sofia has recently become known for its conflict-provoking events. Last September, in response to the exhibition “Road to Victory: Historical Sources Witness”, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry stated that “without denying the USSR’s contribution to the defeat of Nazism in Europe, we must not turn a blind eye to the fact that the Soviet army brought to the inhabitants of Central and Eastern Europe half a century of repression, distortions of economic development and separation from the processes of developed European countries.”
EurAsia Daily commentator Vadim Truchachev immediately wrote angrily about “the culmination of cynicism and black ingratitude”, asking Russia to show strength to the “brazen Russophobes in their feeling of impunity”:
“What distorted development and separation from Europe are Bulgarians talking about? They were one of the poorest countries in Europe with relatively primitive agriculture, almost no industry and complete illiteracy… Bulgaria, which hung round the neck of the Soviet Union, should remain silent… Bulgaria owes Russia for its liberation from 500-years of Turkish domination. If not for Russia, the Bulgarians could have been turned into ordinary Turks.”
A commentator of the daily Vzgliad, Dmitry Bavyrin, responded to Stamboliev’s article, not forgetting to recall that “the country, liberated by Russian troops from Ottoman rule, fought on the side of the Germans in both world wars” and called Bulgaria’s foreign policy line “ungrateful” to Russia.
According to him, Stamboliev “proceeds not from the real politics, but from the national complexes of the small Bulgarian nation that claims its historical greatness. It is currently the poorest EU country, failing to meet the demands for greatness from Bulgarian patriots.”
RIA Novosti commentator Irina Alksnis (who, during the scandal over the statue of Marshal Konev, warned Prague politicians that they could be abducted for their actions, similar to Nazi criminals after the war) has a “conceptual” explanation for the situation in Bulgaria. She elaborates it in the article entitled “Bulgaria cannot forgive Russia for its own mistakes.” Alksnis also considers the Bulgarian case to be characteristic of other former “socialist” states.
According to her, these states envy Russia and regret their choice made in favour of the West. It is worth concluding by quoting one passage of the article, to demonstrate how ignorance of the facts can be combined with an inability to appreciate basic historical trends – such as the natural desire of peoples and nations for freedom, dignity and escape from oppression. Alksnis writes:
“The fact that our country [Russia] serves them [the nations of Eastern Europe] as evidence of their wrong choice and as a silent reproach of betrayal – not Russia, but themselves – plays a role here. Previous socio-economic and political successes of Western Europe have engendered in many of its eastern and south-eastern neighbours an inferiority complex and a feeling of being second-rate countries. [Meanwhile,] Russia has returned to a new phase of development and power influence – it did not lose its own identity, refused to play by the rules of others, living not just with sweet memories of its former greatness, but right here and now making history again. This causes great pain to many countries with which Russia has cultural and historical closeness for centuries, because their very existence allows them to understand that everything on their part – self-harm and self-humiliation, degradation and oath of loyalty to the West – was unnecessary.”
This article is the sixth of a monthly series called “Central Europe in the mirror of Russian media“ run by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) and the supported by the Open Information Partnership. It will also be available in Slovak on Denník N.