Easy prey? Russia’s influence in Bulgaria

Newly released investigations have shed light on how corruption and the weak rule of law in Bulgaria enable Russian influence to thrive

March in support of Russia in the center of Sofia, Bulgaria on 10 December 2022
Image by picture alliance / NurPhoto | Hristo Vladev

In early January, investigative journalist Christo Grozev addressed the Bulgarian parliament via videolink. His words shocked parliamentarians and the wider online audience alike. Standing in front of an anonymous wall in an undisclosed location, Grozev explained that in April 2016 Russia had attempted to overthrow the government in Sofia. According to his account, Russia’s military intelligence agency (the GRU) planned the coup, which was supposed to be carried out by two paramilitary groups in a similar fashion to the attempted coup in Montenegro the same year. Grozev’s testimony suggested that the government at the time – led by Boyko Borissov and his GERB party – had already tiptoed around the issue of Russian meddling in Bulgaria before the coup. But, although the coup attempt was uncovered and stopped by chance, it seemed to make the government even more cautious about dealing with Russia’s influence in Bulgaria. As Bulgaria approaches its fifth parliamentary election within two years, tackling Russia’s influence in the country through media and corrupt public figures should be a priority for Bulgarian and European policymakers.

As Bulgaria approaches its fifth parliamentary election within two years, tackling Russia’s influence in the country through media and corrupt public figures should be a priority for Bulgarian and European policymakers

Between 2014 and 2015, there were six explosions at Bulgarian warehouses and production facilities for military equipment, killing 16 people in total. Similar incidents took place in the Czech Republic around the same time. Yet, while the Czech authorities worked to connect the explosions with the goal of disrupting deliveries for Ukraine – where military action had already started in the east – Bulgarian authorities failed to seriously investigate the explosions. In his testimony, Grozev told parliament how his own investigation had found that the Russian agents Prague identified as the culprits had visited Bulgaria at the time of the explosions. However, when asked by the Czech authorities to share relevant information, Bulgarian institutions did not submit the data connecting them to Russia, claiming instead that the explosions simply resulted from human negligence.

This was not a one-off case. Grozev has traced Russia’s influence in Bulgarian affairs over several years. He explained that a large number of Russian agents operate in Bulgaria throughout politics, media, and institutions, working to advance Russian interests. “They see Bulgaria as easy prey”, Grozev said. In 2018 the Bulgarian government did not publicly condemn the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, unlike other European governments. As part of an investigation with Bellingcat and Capital weekly, Grozev uncovered that the method used was identical in the poisoning of the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in 2015, who was selling military equipment to Ukraine, among others. The investigation also found that Gebrev’s poisoning with the radioactive substance Novichok was not properly investigated until 2019 and that after his poisoning, his business was all but overtaken by powerful businessman and politician, Delyan Peevski. The US government later included Peevski on the sanctions list under the Magnitsky law for his role in corruption. The United States Treasury Department described Peevski as an oligarch, former Bulgarian MP, and media mogul who “has regularly engaged in corruption, using influence peddling and bribes to protect himself from public scrutiny and exert control over key institutions and sectors in Bulgarian society”. The statement alleged that Peevski negotiated with politicians to provide them with political support and positive media coverage in return for receiving protection from criminal investigations.

The European Union’s institutions and member states have been concerned about corruption in Bulgaria for many years, even before the first GERB government was formed in 2009. With their accession to the EU in 2007, both Bulgaria and Romania had to agree to be monitored by the European Commission via a special rule of law mechanism on their progress on judicial reform, the fight against corruption, and – for Bulgaria – tackling organised crime. But instead of subsiding, corruption allegations grew in the following years, and Bulgaria remained ranked as one of the most corrupt EU member states. During the latest debate on the enlargement of the Schengen area in late 2022, EU leaders expressed concern about Bulgaria’s reliability in security terms, border surveillance, and progress on reforms like justice and crime, and in November the Dutch parliament vetoed the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen.

This corruption is also concerning given Bulgaria’s importance as an energy corridor for other European states. In 2017 the Russian majority state-owned energy company Gazprom started developing two strategic projects to enhance its already substantial presence in Europe – Nord Stream 2 and the lesser-known Turkish Stream pipeline, which ran between Russia and Turkey under the Black Sea, circumventing Ukraine from the south. Turkish Stream may have been less important for western European capitals because of its geography and smaller capacity, but for Serbia and Hungary it delivered Russian gas cheaply and securely. The pipeline transits gas through Bulgaria, but does not deliver gas to the Bulgarian national transmission system, and yet Bulgaria paid around €1.5 billion in taxpayers’ money to build the stretch of the pipeline that runs through the country. The pipeline was finished in record time, within two and a half years. In 2015 the Greek and Bulgarian governments agreed to construct the Greece-Bulgaria interconnector, a natural gas pipeline which was supposed to bring true diversification away from Russian gas. In contrast to Turkish Stream, the interconnector was not completed within Borissov’s 12 years in office, despite Gazprom first cutting off supply through Ukraine to south-eastern Europe in the cold winter of 2009. The interconnector was finally complete and operational in October 2022. Bulgarian politicians had warned that Turkish Stream would isolate Ukraine from gas supplies and that Bulgaria would not receive any through this pipeline, yet Gazprom was still able to make use of Bulgarian funds for its project.

The story of Russia’s reach in Bulgaria demonstrates that corruption is a very convenient channel for malign foreign influence. The Bulgarian government has a history of allowing Russian meddling. But with the beginning of Russia’s latest war on Ukraine, covering up Russian actions has become less attractive. The Bulgarian government and law enforcement agencies need to address corruption and the rule of law in Bulgaria. Revisiting what happened between 2014 and 2019 is probably politically too much to hope for, but if Grozev’s testimony is accurate, these reforms should be both a national priority and a matter of European security.

In December, Russia put Grozev on a wanted list, producing a more resolute, and this time, public reaction from Sofia in his defence. The government was forced to call in the Russian ambassador in Sofia and ask for an explanation, and Bulgaria’s national security agency started working with Grozev on his safety concerns. Through the parliamentary hearing it became once again clear that there is public desire to strengthen the rule of law in Bulgaria. It is therefore pressing that the parties that enter parliament after the elections in April harness this attention and focus on the reform of the judiciary and the fight against corruption. If these loopholes are not closed, Russia will continue to fire arrows through them.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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