The head of the Russophile National Movement in Bulgaria, Nikolai Malinov, has been accused of espionage and former KGB general Leonid Reshetnikov – a figure close to Vladimir Putin – has been banned from entering Bulgaria for 10 years.
This was announced at a news conference on September 10 by Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov, according to reports by Bulgarian National Television and Bulgarian National Radio.
Malinov is out on bail of 50 000 leva (about 25 000 euro) and has been banned from leaving the country.
He has been charged under Article 105 of Bulgaria’s Penal Code.
This article says: “A person who places himself in service of a foreign state or a foreign organisation in order to serve it as a spy…shall be punished by imprisonment for five to 15 years”.
The announcements at the news conference followed media reports the previous day that Bulgaria’s Special Prosecutor’s Office and the State Agency for National Security (SANS) were investigating alleged espionage and had questioned a number of people.
Tsatsarov said that the two foreign organisations about which evidence had been gathered were based in Russia. He named them as the Double-Headed Eagle Society and the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.
The Russian Institute for Strategic Studies was part of Russia’s foreign intelligence service until 2009, and later was part of that country’s presidential administration. Reshetnikov headed the institute from 2009 until 2017.
Tsatsarov said that the evidence of a threat to Bulgaria’s national security from the Russophile Movement emerged during a pre-trial investigation into money laundering that began in July 2019.
This investigation resulted in the arrest of Malinov and searches on September 9 at 11 addresses, in Sofia, Breznik and Pernik.
Investigators found a number of documents, including notes, which, according to the prosecutor’s office, prove that Malinov worked against Bulgraria’s national interests.
The other result of the pre-trial proceedings was the ban on Reshetnikov entering Bulgaria.
“As soon as this scheme was established, the Prosecutor’s Office commissioned SANS to carry out a number of operational activities, including financial intelligence,” Tsatsarov said.
“As a result, it has been gathered that this scheme is also used for the transfer of funds from persons, heads of foreign organizations, who have certain interests in the political life of the country – Bulgarian public and political life, as well as with the activities of the Bulgarian state organs.”
In this way, various activities had been financed, which directly affect the national security of Bulgaria and represent attempts at purposeful influence also with regard to its foreign policy, he said.
Evidence had been collected of direct involvement of a Bulgarian citizen both in the funding scheme and in actions on the Bulgarian territory that serve the above interests in various forms, including through the transmission of information protected by law, Tsatsarov said. The Bulgarian citizen was Malinov, he said.
He said that Malinov had controlled accounts to which funds had been transferred by the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies and the Double-Headed Eagle Society.
The case was also directly linked to the draining of the now-defunct Corporate Commercial Bank, the news conference was told.
At one of the addresses searched on September 9, several brief notes, in Russian and Bulgarian, were found explaining how assets worth about 500 million euro should be transferred from CCB majority shareholder Tsvetan Vassilev to Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev.
The notes also said that there was a need to find a way to regain influence in a telecommunications company, as well as Dunarit and Avionams, the latter two companies dealing in weapons production.
In addition, a further report said that every opportunity should be used to reorient the country’s political behaviour toward friendship with Russia – using a television station or a powerful website.
The investigation is ongoing. So far, only Malinov has been arrested and charged.
According to its website, the Russophiles National Movement is a civil, non-governmental organisation established in Sofia on January 19 2003.
“The main goal of the movement today is to develop friendship and co-operation between Bulgaria and Russia on the basis of historical traditions, Orthodox Christian and Slavic ideas and values.
“The Russophiles National Movement defines itself as a patriotic organization, since it shares the understanding that good Bulgarian-Russian relations are an extremely important factor for the prosperity of Bulgaria and for the preservation of the Bulgarian cultural-historical and civilizational identity in today’s globalized world.
“We believe that Bulgaria made its civilizational choice as early as the ninth century with the adoption of Christianity, and this choice is not subject to substitution for geopolitical reasons.
“Today, the Russophiles National Movement is the largest non-governmental organisation in Bulgaria. As of September 2016, it has 224 organizations and more than 35 000 organised members,” according to the website.
Bulgarian media quoted Reshetnikov, in a post on Facebook before the prosecutor’s news conference, as saying that the United States was behind a campaign to allege Russian espionage in Bulgaria.
“The Americans have launched the ‘Russian Spies in Bulgaria’ campaign,” Reshetnikov said.
Reshetnikov, who is vice-president of the Double-Headed Eagle society, said that he was confident that “these actions of the current Bulgarian authorities are completely discredited in the eyes of the Bulgarian people”.
Bulgarian head of state President Roumen Radev, who was elected on a ticket backed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party – which favours warmer ties with Russia – told reporters on September 10 that it was extremely serious to allege that someone was committing espionage in favour of a foreign country.
“That is why I expect the investigation to present incontrovertible facts,” Radev said.
“Otherwise, it will be doubted that the Bulgarian institutions have been used in a directed domestic political scenario. I expect really strong evidence that the Bulgarian foreign policy has not become a hostage to internal party interests,” he said.
Asked by a journalist if he saw an attack on him through the questioning of the sociologist Zhivko Georgiev, who is a member of the Presidency’s strategic council, Radev said that common sense was departing from Bulgarian politics and especially from those in power.
“I think that the powerlessness of the government to deal with the grave problems in the country and the complete failure of the government in strategic priorities for our European development – Schengen, the euro zone, the monitoring mechanism of strategic investors, had resulted in a panicky search for an enemy,” Radev said.
Ahead of the news conference, one of those questioned the previous day, Yuriy Borissov – a former Editor-in-Chief of Duma, the Bulgarian Socialist Party mouthpiece – told Bulgarian National Television that he believed that the purpose of the investigation was intimidation.
Borissov denied that the Russophile movement had received funding from Russia.
He said that when he had been questioned on September 9, he had been asked whether he had received money from Malofeev and Reshetnikov, and whether he provided them with information related to Bulgaria.
Yuriy Borissov said that he was friends with Reshetnikov, but they had not seen each other for more than a year and a half.
“In my opinion, this is intimidation of the whole national Russophile movement, of people who have an active position, which does not approve of Bulgaria’s foreign policy. I think that this is also an element of forcing the negative relations between Moscow and Sofia,” Borissov said.
Russian media reported that the Russian embassy in Sofia was following up reports that Bulgarians had been detained in connection with espionage for Russia.
Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Kornelia Ninova told a news conference on the afternoon of September 10 that the questioning of Yuriy Borissov and of Professor Vanya Dobreva, a member of the party’s executive board, had been “a provocation”.
Espionage was a serious crime, Ninova said. “Of course, it has to be proven. We will very carefully monitor whether and how it will be proven.”
She said that the arrests were being used in the campaign ahead of Bulgaria’s autumn local elections.
“Driven solely by his desire to remain in power at all costs, Prime Minister Borissov is ready for anything, but has crossed a line,” Ninova said. She said that the case was being used to cover up other scandals involving the government.