He, who speaks of Russia as a threat to Bulgaria is a complete idiot
Relations between Bulgaria and Russia go beyond the format of standard bilateral relations. The Kremlin rarely relies on the services of its embassy in Sofia or its diplomacy in order to realize its plans, as it has at its disposal sufficient local alternatives in Bulgarian proxies – parties, organizations and politicians.
As Russian opposition politician, Boris Nemtsov’s partner and Alexei Navalny’s adviser, Vladimir Milov, said:
“Putin wants to colonize you and your elite helps him.”
Succinct and clear.
A detailed debate on the “Russian threat”, which appeared as a standard text in a report by the Bulgarian secret services, never happened. “The Sound Forces”, including the defense minister (!?), promised to correct the mistake in the next edition and refuted the notion of a threat from Russia.
Recently, the spiritual guru of contemporary Russian foreign policy, Alexander Dugin, beamed in one of Bulgaria’s leading TV channels the thesis that Moscow has greater strategic goals than to engage with Bulgaria. This is a tried and tested approach — to highlight the insignificance of the partner and thereby avoid his claims of equality and respect. This motive was immediately reiterated by senior Bulgarian state officials and politicians.
Carefully removing the thin ideological packing, it becomes crystal clear — Dugin actually reminds us that the Kremlin, disposing of a sufficient resource base in the country itself, does not need a special foreign policy instrument to control and retain Bulgaria in its orbit. Therefore, the Russian foreign policy’s goals are attained by means of Bulgaria’s internal policies.
Let’s try to analytically dissect the contents of the Russian threat.
First of all, we need to specify the measurement metrics; otherwise one could easily find that assessing the objective parameters of the Russian threat can be subdued by suggestive and virtual categories. It is important not to measure the Russian threat “at the border” of Bulgaria. It is not exogenous, as the main battleground and consequences occur inside the country – via the captured elite, the constraints on its development and the footprint on its social, economic and political fabric.
Differences regarding perceptions of Russia and its role in the history of Bulgaria vary. Therefore, feelings ranging from hatred to gratitude in the public mood are natural. Some will opt to revere the Kremlin for its role in restoring Bulgaria’s statehood after centuries of Ottoman rule, others will deem it a terrorist, citing the funding of the bombing of the St. Nedelya Church in 1925, which killed almost 300 of Bulgaria’s elite and many more killed in Stalinist ‘justice’ after the Second World war.
In analyzing the parameters of the Russian threat, we should turn to the common denominator of interests of Bulgarian citizens. People are different; some crave for the Soviet past, born and bred with images of the brave Soviet soldiers liberating Europe from the fascist evil, while others mourn the demise of Bulgarian democracy and the genocide on its elite under nearly 70 years of communist rule. There is and will always be one thing in common — we are all taxpayers and consumers and personal gains and loss are easily understood. Let’s go back to Usta Kolyo Ficheto’s ‘metering’ — how much we owe others and how much they owe us. In this balance of give and take in the current relationship map we should end with the understanding of whether Putin’s Russia is a threat or a risk to our development. For ease of reference from now on, under the notion of Russia, I will imply the official authority and the Kremlin.
There are two types of impacts to assess risk and threats. One is generic and refers to the systemic impact, including the cross border penetration of the role models in Russia and the overall susceptibility of Bulgarian social, political and economic life to events in Moscow. There are people in the poorest EU member state that still bow before Stalin and Putin as his worthy successor. For them, the Kremlinophilia is just a nostalgic escape and an attempt to return the lost “paradise” of socialism, as well as internal revolt and non-acceptance of Western standards and lifestyles.
The mindset of these folks resonates with the tune of the Soviet war classic “Vstavai Strana Ogromnaya” – “Arise, Great Country.” Stalin’s portrait is on their wall, and Putin is their hero. The newsfeed, the facts, the arguments just do not matter. Even the most objective and independent analysis of the risks of the Russian threat will not hold water for them. They will remain fixed in their religious stupor that Putin is infallible, just as were the Russian kings, Lenin and Stalin, Brezhnev and any other Secretary-General of CC, the Communist Party, or boss at the Kremlin. In a way, such people have never been part of the Bulgarian nation, since their self-identification begins with the interests of the man at the Kremlin.
It is an acknowledged fact that today’s Bulgaria is the most vulnerable EU and NATO member.
The potential risk inherent in being too close to Moscow easily translates into an antithesis to Bulgaria’s Euro-Atlantic track and a henceforth an inherent threat without a particular need for additional catalysts.
Bulgaria has a legacy of interconnectedness and dependence on the internal policies and events in Russia, disproportionate to Bulgarian export and investment volumes, but closely related to investments and imports, mostly energy, dating back to the long years of Soviet domination. Oil and gas, however, emerged rather late in the bilateral trade, whereas political, cultural and mostly non-governmental exchange platforms, formed a durable channel for Russian Tsarist and Soviet foreign policy interference, with one feature in common – influence through subversion – the controlled chaos theory.
Tsarist, Soviet and Putin’s Russia have each enjoyed a common and inherited interest in controlling their external sphere of influence within a colonial pattern. The reason is simple to understand: all Russian leaders – tzars, secretaries general and presidents – have never excelled at succeeding in reforming and modernizing the country’s economic and political life. If one looks at the brief periods of reformist elan, the “successes” and especially the general public perceptions, we will see that Stalin is much more popular than Stolypin.
Vladimir Putin wants Russia to be recognized as a global center with its own sphere of influence, where things happen as and when Moscow wishes. Yet because positive policy patterns and soft power defy the Kremlin’s reach – technological, financial and economic levers are missing or uncompetitive with Western ones – Moscow resorts to sheer, often brutal negative power – the ability to inflict damage, to destabilize others, to provoke and manage chaos and subduе immune systems, making countries in the zone of influence susceptible to control and command.
The Russian threat would not command much attention in countries with robust democratic institutions and rich historic traditions in warding off adversarial aspirations and in countries intrinsically intertwined within the European Union and NATO fabric.
Russia evolved in its attitude towards Bulgaria’s membership from muted reaction and passive negation in the early days of Putin’s rule to outright and aggressive opposition, not only directly challenging the fundamental need but also calling for referenda and exits. Whereas in the early years of membership Moscow grudgingly accepted the logic of a strategic allegiance shift of the countries in the CEE – making distinction between unacceptable NATO membership and the tolerable EU – since the annexation of Crimea and the total failure of the Kremlin’s efforts to drive a wedge and rollback sanction, these days, the EU and NATO are on par.
General Rehestnikov, head of the Russian top strategic institute RISI – openly admitted that in direct talks with the top political leaders of Bulgaria he had urged them to pull the country out of NATO and the EU. Not surprisingly, some of the leading contenders in the presidential campaign, in his words, had been receptive, with the question of timing remaining unresolved.
Moscow treats the situation as a zero-sum game; the win for Sofia is a loss for Moscow. Therefore Bulgaria should quit both alliances ASAP – no debate and no hesitation. The message from the Kremlin was even simpler: if Bulgaria is treated as a member of the Russian zone of influence, it should obey.
As Bulgaria is not a self-sufficient country, it expects NATO and the EU to guide its integration process and to represent and protect its interests on the global plane. Henceforth, any adversary to the EU and NATO, and Russia makes no secret of its goal to undermine and destroy them both, becomes by default a threat to any member country.
There is no third option.
If Sofia seeks to join the Schengen zone, for example, it needs verified and sustainable proof of the rule of law, efficient crime and border control (as organized crime is cross-border mobile and member countries should trust each other), and confidence that identical institutional and regulatory principles and norms are in place.
To put it differently, other Schengen countries should trust Bulgaria not only to mitigate the refugee problem and border sensitive issues, but to prove capacity to block the cross-border overflow of system failures in its internal development, including the captured state and institutions, the omnipresence of adversarial Russian interests and the Trojan horse complex.
Even the macro-level political dispute over whether Russia is a threat or not – by itself a set standard in the Schengen zone – is a sure sign that others might be losing faith in Bulgaria’s capacity to judge and defend others against common threats, including subversive activities by the Russian services, organized crime and business that is engaged in the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare against NATO and the EU.
Self-appraisal is no substitute for independent, objective reasoning – even if top Bulgarian politicians and institutions prefer to treat Rosneft’s oil terminal as a territory with limited sovereignty, the Schengen zone countries would not.
No wonder the interior ministers of Germany and of the Netherlands are at odds with Bulgaria’s desire to join the zone – few would reason differently if in their shoes?
It is not their job to suggest ways to manage the problem and seeks bypasses – rather, just to notice the problem and act to preempt it from spilling over across borders.