Bulgaria is again in an election campaign – the ideal situation for Moscow to introduce new tension in relations with North Macedonia
The Russian intelligence agency scrambled the messages. As a result, they burned the Koran in Skopje and the Bulgarian flag in Sweden.
This joke appeared at the beginning of last week, when suddenly in Stockholm, in a nationalist protest, the holy book of Muslims was burned. And Bulgarians and Macedonians reached the lowest point in their relations for the last more than 30 years. As a result, Turkey blocked Sweden’s entry into NATO, and Bulgaria once again reminded North Macedonia that it has the right to veto the start of their negotiations with the EU.
Jokes usually rest on truth, only make it grotesque. And while in Sweden they quickly revealed that the burning of the Koran was ordered by Russian agents, Sofia and Skopje for now prefer to deepen the conflict that began after the attack on Hristiyan Pendikov – secretary of the Bulgarian cultural club in Ohrid.
However, it became clear at the end of last week that Bulgaria and North Macedonia really suspect something about the break in relations. On Friday, the two prime ministers, Galab Donev and Dimitar Kovachevski, had a telephone conversation – a matter of record and had every chance of remaining unnoticed. If Donev and Kovachevski had not agreed that the two counterintelligence services should work together to quell the tension on both sides of the border.
Bulgarian Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev and the head of DANS Plamen Tonchev are leaving for Skopje today with the publicly announced task of negotiating with the Macedonians how to secure February 4. Then groups of Bulgarian nationalists will head to Skopje to worship at Gotse Delchev’s grave. Their Macedonian counterparts are determined to wait for them with tractors and trucks to prevent them from entering.
It is clear that the celebrations of 151 years since the birth of Gotse Delchev can cause clashes. The strange thing here, however, is that DANS and the Macedonian National Security Agency are involved in law enforcement. Both services are counter-intelligence and maintaining order is not their first concern. In order to prevent fighting and bloodshed on the roads to Skopje, the police and gendarmerie on both sides of the border would do the job. Counterintelligence has another job, and it’s not to police protests with batons. And to find and neutralize those who benefit from another freeze between Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
The Macedonians were the first to say that Russia had a hand in spoiling relations. Their president, Stevo Pendarovski, even named the people in Bulgaria who are the most vocal against the RSM as Russian agents. After him, Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski saw a hybrid war being waged against North Macedonia.
To a large extent, these statements from Skopje also serve as internal political justifications. But the facts show that Russian influence is on both sides.
In fact, the beating that was inflicted on Hristiyan Pendikov was only the spark that ignited the long-smoldering coals. Which were still hot from the wrong steps of both Bulgarian and Macedonian politicians after the humbling of the French proposal and the fall of the Bulgarian veto for North Macedonia. In reality, almost immediately after removing the veto, Bulgaria entered an election campaign. And the supposedly pro-European prime minister Kiril Petkov went to open the Bulgarian cultural center in Bitola, named after Ivan Mihailov. Vancheto, as a great Bulgarian chauvinist, was ambiguously accepted in the RSM, and the use of his name was, to say the least, ill-mannered at the specific moment. It logically gave a wonderful motive for the club to be attacked. And after the Bulgarian club in Ohrid was named Boris III – another person who is at least controversial in the RSM, the North Macedonians even passed a law on the names they don’t like. Something characteristic of any pre-election situation on any side of the border.
And in the summer of last year, Bulgaria was already in another election campaign. As it is now, when Hristiyan Pendikov is “lucky” to be beaten. And thanks to him, the interim government of Galab Donev openly overplayed the game by blocking all interstate projects. Even the visiting Bulgarian theater in North Macedonia was stopped, although there is no better ambassador than the cultural projects. As was the case with the imposition of the veto by the government of Boyko Borisov in 2020.
Although it sounds like a spell, only Moscow benefits from instability between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. All the more so because the Macedonians had to be punished since, unlike Bulgaria, they bravely gave their tanks to Ukraine. And their current government has begun to openly fight Russian agents in the politics of our southwestern neighbor. The ties between the VMRO-DPMNE there and the Kremlin are no secret, especially since the former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski openly professed a policy of following Russian interests. Connections that often go through agents of the Yugoslav state security UDBA. Just as the connections of Bulgarian nationalists with Moscow often go through State Security agents still involved in politics. Which are at least publicly known, though not polished. While the Macedonians are still hidden.
Last year, the Bulgarian special services also described attempts to influence Russia on the processes in the Western Balkans. And for taking over the Bulgarian communities outside the borders of our country. The election campaigns in Bulgaria and North Macedonia were indicated as the main reason for the deterioration of relations in the second half of 2021 in the Bulgarian report on the state of national security.
“The Russian Federation has mobilized a complex toolkit, including diplomacy, military power, special services, economic levers and dependencies (mainly in the energy sphere), information propaganda and disinformation campaigns and cyber attacks, as the campaign is directed against the expansion of NATO to the east and the preservation of Russian influence in neighboring countries”, the DANS also described in its annual report, which was approved by the caretaker government last summer. The counter-intelligence agency also spoke openly about attempts at foreign interference in Bulgarian politics during elections.
“Bulgaria is the object of systematic intelligence interest, focused on our commitments in the EU and NATO, the modernization of the Bulgarian Army, the economy and domestic politics, especially because of the series of parliamentary elections last year. There are attempts to influence and influence in state, military, educational and religious institutions, the media, the non-governmental sector”, the counterintelligence also reported.
As these findings are valid for 2021. And last year, according to people from DANS, Russian attempts to directly influence Bulgarian politics only intensified. And Russian intelligence networks in the Balkans are becoming more and more active, with the center in Nis, Serbia.
Russia is behind the anti-Bulgarian hysteria in the Republic of Macedonia – the protests and the proposal for a referendum to cancel the Treaty of Friendship with Bulgaria. She has been working to destabilize the region for a long time, former Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski announced last year. Then in Skopje the hysteria was that because of the French proposal and the fall of the veto for negotiations with the EU, they were selling their country. If we do not remember, then the square in front of the parliament of North Macedonia was blocked by constant protests. Similar to the square in front of the Bulgarian parliament, when it decided to lift the veto. By the way, the hysteria of that time was no different from the present. Only there were no jokes about Stockholm and burning the Bulgarian flag yet.