Numerous raids, increased police presence and several people arrested. March 18 was eventful in Sofia and on March 19 the Prosecution announced what was actually happening: a spy ring of local officials reporting classified information to Russia was uncovered.
Although Bulgaria expelled several Russians diplomats over charges of spying that were never fully explained, this was a rare case of an inside job and according to Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev - “unprecedented” and comparable to the “Cambridge Five”, the ring of spies in the United Kingdom that passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II.
However, when Geshev, often seen as a guarding figure for the ruling coalition of GERB and United Patriots and a target of numerous protests, is boasting about his colleagues breakthroughs, this is a red flag. Several cases didn’t live up to the noise that press releases wanted to create. On March 17 he attended the uncovering of a printing plant which allegedly produced millions of counterfeited dollars and euros but eventually the court released the two detained who claimed the money were intended only as party decorations for weddings. This caused some comparisons with an operation he attended back in August, when a children’s centre in the Danube town of Silistra was thought to be an illegal black market hub for cigarettes and alcohol. Several of the latest operations about uncovering criminal activity in his presence were secret spots for growing marijuana. Playing it close to the people, he has often travelled to small cities to congratulate local police work and console victims of crimes which has drawn mixed reactions as critics often see these as obvious publicity stunts.
So how “unprecedented” this one is?
The Sofia Six
Six were detained between March 18-19, but one was freed after making full confessions. At least three were in high positions at the Ministry of Defence. According to Prosecution’s reports, the informants were receiving up to 3,000 US dollars each for their contributions which included collecting information over Bulgaria’s military capabilities and details on NATO training on the territory of the country.
What was the prosecution’s original lead to the spy ring remains unclear. Videos released on YouTube show the group was under surveillance for half a year, basically since its very formation, before some of them were given any orders. The arrests were also made after the Prosecution had a presentation ready for the media, meaning there was a certain timing in mind for the operation - little before the elections on April 4, where GERB will face a growing opposition, albeit very fragmented and unwilling to build a coalition. The operation’s success might be seen as a way to boost the image of the political status quo in Bulgaria as dedicated to the West, especially in the eyes of the centre-right voters.
As the weekly Capital newspaper notes, a similar thing happened in 2019, when Russophile politician Nicolay Malinov was charged with spying and money-laundering little before the mayoral elections eventually won in Sofia (once again) by GERB-affiliated Yordanka Fandakova.
During the first reports over the recent bust, Minister of Defense and member of far-right party IMRO Krassimir Karakachanov said that the spies were collecting public information - another statement that raised suspicions over the seriousness of the damage done.
Meanwhile, Bulgaria quickly used the operation to pride itself as a keeper of the Western influence in the region. "The actions of the Russian spy network in our country are a threat to the entire Euro-Atlantic community. We need a consistent and realistic approach to Russia and we must defend our values - freedom, democracy, rule of law, human rights," Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zakharieva said during a meeting in Brussels on March 24.
The spies - more Austin Powers than James Bond
“For thirty years now we have cut ties with the USSR and the influence of the block, but we never did enough to completely eradicate what was left - we still face the consequences of that”, said on March 25 in an interview for Bulgarian National Radio Dimo Gyaurov, director of National Security between 1997-2003. He downplayed the spies’ abilities to do any serious damage but still congratulated the efforts. “The operative level of the people detained is very low. The lack of intellect and enough level of preparation of those in the spy ring however does not diminish what the Prosecution has achieved.”
Voices critical to the government also noted that while the Prosecution prides itself on this mission, it has never fully investigated many local affairs, from leaked conversations between politicians, assault on journalists by the police during the anti-government protest wave last year to the one when PM Boyko Borissov was photographed naked, sleeping in bed next to a gun and stacks of money in 2020. The poisoning of arms dealer Emiliyan Gebrev, allegedly with a Novichok agent in April 2015, remains unsolved after three Russian citizens who had entered with counterfeited documents were suspected but eventually a Russian link was no longer investigated. The prosecution distanced itself from the case in September 2020 shortly after Gebrev claimed his probes had gone missing from a laboratory for chemical weapons verification and analysis in Finland.
A dark past still lingering
Nonetheless, the March arrests also reminded about Bulgaria’s unsolved issue with former members of State Security, the one-time repressive apparatus of the communist regime, created in 1964 and engaged with surveillance, counterintelligence, controlling the intelligentsia and the informational channels until the dissolvement of the regime in 1989.
The main figure behind the spy-ring was revealed to be 74-year old Ivan Iliev, a former chief of Military Intelligence in Bulgaria and a graduate of USSR’s Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces where all agents of State Security were sent before 1989. His wife, who holds a double Bulgarian and Russian citizenship, was also part of the scheming and the couple was giving orders to four people on how to collect information. According to different sources, Iliev was arrested right in front of the Russian embassy in Sofia, where he had been attending a meeting, and tried to escape as at some moment the policemen left him out of watch. Iliev is still in custody.
This leads to a bigger issue connected with the forthcoming elections. There are no less than 87 former agents who are now members of different parties all around the right-left spectrum, running in the elections. According to new data, released by Bulgaria’s Committee for disclosing the documents and announcing affiliation of citizens to the State Security (ComDos) on March 23, with the exception of opposition alliance Democratic Bulgaria, every other party has former members of network, with the biggest concentration of them being understandably in the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party, as well as those in the fringes with both conservative and nationalist sentiments. Two of the above mentioned names, Minister of Defence Krassimir Karakachanov and the charged with espionage for Russia Nicolay Malinov, are both former agents of the state security.
After discovering the spy ring, Bulgaria also declared two Russian diplomats as personae non-grata on March 22. In the past two years, eight Russian diplomats have been expelled for similar accusations, usually followed by a tit for tat move by Moscow. However, so far no Bulgarian diplomats have been expelled from Russia following the most recent events and the response from Russia itself was somehow muted: “Unfortunately, this unjust démarche of the Bulgarian authorities will not contribute to creating a constructive Russian-Bulgarian dialogue,” the Russian embassy stated on March 22.
Right before the elections and after more than three decades of struggling to shape some form of a healthy democracy, Bulgaria seems to be preoccupied with the remnants of the totalitarian system as it still sees traces of it in every layer of its political life. However, while on the other side of the barricade in comparison to the Cold War times, when it was one of the most obedient allies of the USSR, every move by the Bulgarian authorities seems to be self-serving and imitative, making the government still an odd player in the gray zone between East and West.