At different times various Russian politicians have crossed the threshold of decency and good manners, with their revelations and arrogance generating media salvos aimed at a confused Bulgarian audience. One does not need to look beyond the immediate plan for a deeper strategic connotation. This is a vintage political hooligan’s reaction without inhibitions, the insolence of the imperial made possible only through the certitude of subservience of the oppressed. The news will generate some noise in the social networks, but few if any serious reactions from politicians, government officials and/or the special services guarding national security. While we might deplore the action of the Gosduma deputy, some of our compatriots may be already asking for the transaction price and their commission fees.
Just as Ambassador Chizhov called Bulgaria Russia’s “Trojan” horse in Europe after our entry into the EU, it is reminder that even though we trust to have crossed the Rubicon of total dependence on Russia, the Kremlin is still in charge.
Why do they this?
Let’s start with the overall context. There is nothing new in the words of the Russian lawmaker – the same old imperial school policy line since the Liberation, only somewhat starker and out in public.
Russia has never recognized an equal status to Bulgaria in bilateral political and diplomatic affairs. Before we start with the trivial self crusification for not doing enough to free our minds of this inferiority complex, one painful admission comes to mind – the job of setting up the Bulgarian nation is unfinished. While at least one quarter of the Bulgarian population fails to define national interests as independent and potentially contrary to Russian interest, the making up of the Bulgarian nation is still work in progress.
The Eastern question may have come to a resolution, but not the issue of the creation of the Bulgarian nation. This process will be complete only when Bulgarians are ready to face death at the barricades in defense of the motherland against foreign MPs such as Pyotr Tolstoy.
Russia’s patronizing of Bulgaria goes through different stages, as “brotherly” friendship or imperial hubris only change turns.
Pyotr Tolstoy’s words are no exception to the long series of similar revelations that aim to show and suggest that Russia can do whatever it pleases in Bulgaria, by cash, proxies or both.
The phrases used are not dropped by accident, nor was the BNT reporter there by chance or deliberately unprepared for such a “demarche” on the street — typical Stanislavski’s case of the gun we see in the first act firing in the third. You know what kind of bird the deputy is as a profile, and a servile question would lift the ball for a perfect verbal volley shot.
Such hard talk suggestions aim not only to demonstrate a sense of superiority, but also imply that Bulgarians are doomed and powerless, despite having the EU and NATO as allies. It is only through nourishing a sense of insecurity in the broad public that Russian hybrid warfare manipulative tactics can hope to succeed. Other psychological traps of the Kremlin’s mind control – such as the Pan Slavism, the notion of eternal brotherhood, Energy Grand Slam deals , etc. – close the vicious cycle of self-sustained subservience.
Pyotr Tolstoy’s bravado also serves as trumpet call calling to arms all pro-Russian groups as they enter the real heat of the election campaign for Bulgaria’s president — words that are meant to cripple our will and determination to fight back and move beyond the implanted inferiority complex that Bulgaria is doomed as a nation without Russia.
On many occasion I have repeatedly attested that Russia’s ruling elite ascribes geostrategic significance to the massive acquisition of property by Russian citizens in Bulgaria. It is nor by chance that the Russian government has tacitly supported lending campaigns by Russian banks for acquisition of real estate, often overlooking the standards for risk mitigation in foreign countries. The only possible explanation could be that the political risk was insured by the Government of Russia.
There is no shortage of Bulgarian politicians seeking the golden medium by balancing between an increasingly aggressive Moscow and their commitments to the EU and NATO. Mr. Tolstoy has the privilege to choose, and instead of delivering his message in public to the Bulgarian people, he could have used United Russia’s partners in Bulgaria. But he opted to speak to “the masses.”
As a TV personality, he knows well enough that there is fertile ground in Bulgaria that could grow the seed of scare into a servile policy.
Had we had a history of strong reactions against verbal assaults on Bulgaria’s sense of national independence and pride coming from Russia – for example, had we expelled the “night wolves” or brought to justice for contempt of Bulgarian and European flags the people who trampled them, or had we expelled Russian citizens who openly declare that Bulgaria is a Russian territory – we would be certain that Mr.Tolstoy would have hardly been so arrogant. He counts that the Bulgarian government and the public would lay low, one more time, and mute their reaction.
Bulgaria’s senior politicians kept on ‘balancing’ against NATO and the EU with the wishful talk of replacing gunships with “sailboats” and “sunbathing tourists” and promised to pay without appeal for nuclear reactors that are not needed, while doing their utmost to keep afloat Russia’s monopoly on oil and gas supplies. How can one be surprised that Russian hooligan politicians are treating us without due respect? This list is long enough, while the bottom line is that senior Russian politicians believe Bulgarian leaders have “no balls” and are afraid to collect their dues.
This is hardly a pioneering or a groundbreaking line of conduct, but follows the mainstream in European countries’ dealings with Russia and Russian companies.
Mr. Tolstoy’s media fireworks try to mobilize pro-Russian circles on the eve of the presidential elections. His words are an instruction to Russian sympathizers not to yield ground or to apologize for Crimea and Eastern Ukraine or for Moscow’s hybrid war. Russia’s local proxies are expected to copy his behavior and become equally arrogant and offensive to the degree of challenging the foundations of Bulgarian statehood.
Tolstoy is aware of what is happening in Bulgaria and is intimate with the details in real estate transactions as well as the short cuts to obtaining Bulgarian citizenship on the premise of “investing” in real estate. The necessary laws have been passed in Parliament by investor-friendly lobbyists, always immersed in national interests folklore, which ultimately boils down to money and influence.
What should be Sofia’s response?
Tolstoy’s words are a blessing in disguise. Similar revelations that sober up the public do a better job than thousands of analyses that have preached the case for emancipation, independence and, when necessary, “hard” talk in relations with Russia.
Our response should be a European one in the best tradition of “Aikido” policy where we the attacker’s energy is used for defense and counter play.
These words of Mr.Tolstoy must once again convince us that the geopolitical choice of the country is not cast in stone and must be the pivotal theme during the presidential elections. The attitude of the presidential candidates to this provocation should be our guide for assessing the net worth of the various candidates’ platform. We should not be satisfied with pro-forma or muted reaction that are certain to dominate the media landscape. We, as voters, should aim higher and deeper in understanding the baseline in the policies of the candidates on the key issues that define the Euro-Atlantic based new independence and national identity of Bulgaria.
We should “scan” the candidates and their promoters for external dependencies or commitments in projects, conceived by Moscow – including those for supply of energy from Russia, or specific ones related to advancing the interests of the Russian diaspora in violation of Bulgarian laws or in contempt of interests of local residents, especially in the coastal area of the Black Sea.
Ultimately we will come to the solution of the refugee problem, notably after solidarity and cooperation have returned to the table in the EU and NATO. But we stand lesser chance to come to terms with our homegrown sympathizers of Mr.Tolstoy, with the inferiority complex and the lack of will of some leaders to talk and act hard.
The Bulgarian President plays a crucial role in the national security system, not only due to his capacity as commander in chief but also being in charge and overseeing the work of the Bulgarian intelligence. Their capacity to deliver on the early diagnostics and the therapy of the “Tolstoy” virus is extremely low, especially in the economic field. Nobody or few work on the assessment of risks, associated with the increasing immigration of Russian citizens beyond those fleeing the regime of Putin.
We put Syrian refugees at the center of the domestic debate, while totally ignoring the problems associated with the far more numerous and dynamically growing Russian diaspora, which in many places forms ethnic islands that refuse to integrate into the Bulgarian society.
There is little action taken, at least in public, against the increasing role of Russian, or Russian-funded, local instructors of paramilitary units who imitate the hybrid soldiers that Putin used to invade Crimea.
Under no circumstance should we turn the Russian deputy’s provocation into a witch-hunt, and we must avoid treating all Russian citizens under one common denominator as a “fifth column”. This is exactly what Mr. Tolstoy would like to see us do – provoke outrage in the Bulgarian public that unleashes mirror hostile and aggressive action against Russians, who reside in the country, forcing them into further alienation and antagonism with the rest of the Bulgarian society…
The Russian deputy speaks aggressively out of weakness, aware that Russia will have fewer and fewer resources to make good on his “threat”. The Kremlin’s coffers are depleted, and Mr. Tolstoy could find an immensely better use of the cash he wants to spend on buying real estate in Bulgaria – pay and feed the Russian elderly or needy in order to avoid a repetition of the 1917 revolution…
Despite their increased numbers this year, Russian tourists will continue to command fewer resources in the future, let alone be in a position to “buy” us.
This time, however, the Bulgarian government and the public should be reacting strongly, with tough talk and even tougher action. I would recommend that Mr. Tolstoy is declared a persona non grata and added to the EC list of banned Russian politicians to enter the EU. This will automatically block his access to Bulgaria from another EU country – where border control is relaxed, even if and when we enter the Schengen zone.
Our special services should investigate his links with Bulgarian politicians and Bulgarian companies, as well as the history of residence in the country in order to expose the nature of the activities that match his assertion to have “bought half of Bulgaria”.
Far more critical is to engage in systematic build up of the capacity of the state and the citizens to cope with the extreme outbursts of new imperial aggression in Russia. While in power, the UDF government expelled three Russian diplomats for activities incompatible with their diplomatic status. Such a step should never be excluded from the arsenal of reactions of the Bulgarian authorities. It may not be the first or preferred choice, but Russian hard talkers understand only hard talk back. It can be communicated in public or often preferably in a business and discreet manner.
It is important to clearly mark the red lines that must not be crossed
Even more of an imperative is to streamline the debate in the upcoming campaign on these topics. This time timid reactions will not do, nor will sharp worded but empty in substance statements by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or by parliamentarians, which are almost axiomatic. We must use the negative energy contained in this message to clean our house of proxies or soft speakers who contend that we should keep silence when provoked. There is no point in pretending that we can play a bridge role between Russia and the European union in order to open space for new Grand Slam deals.
A total review and overhaul of the development policy in the coastal areas should start an immediate forced Europeanization of the tourist flows. One major reason for the mass migration of Bulgarian tourists to Greece is the ‘triumph’ of the post-Soviet mass market model of tourism development – investments from the shadow economy, mostly connected with Russia’s underground or grey economy, aimed to serve Russian tourists, which shape the perceived shoddy standards and worse price-quality ratio of most of Bulgaria’s Black sea tourist services.
There is little hope that we could change politicians like Mr. Tolstoy. He is beyond repair. It is his job to be agent-provocateur and to be liked by Russian nationalists.
Our job is to use his revelations to change our policies, leaving Russian law and policy makers like him where they belong – in their Eurasian world, far away and in isolation.