Easy prey? Russia’s influence in Bulgaria

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.

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.

To continue reading, please visit the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Vessela Tcherneva

Vessela Tcherneva is deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of ECFR’s Sofia office. Her topics of focus include EU foreign policy and the Western Balkans and Black Sea region. Between January and July 2022, she held the position of Foreign Policy Advisor to the Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. From 2010 to 2013, she was the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov’s political cabinet. Previously, she was secretary of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and former German President Richard von Weizsäcker; supervising editor of the Foreign Policy Bulgaria magazine; and political officer at the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington, DC. Tcherneva holds an MA in Political Science from the Rhienische Friedrich-Wilhelm Universität in Bonn.