The anguish of the Bulgarian political elite following several interviews given by the chief of the influential Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), Leonid Reshetnikov, has surprised few if any. In the interviews, Reshetnikov sheds light on the activity of his institute and its role in the design and execution of Russian foreign policy in the Balkans, as well as in shaping the new ideology of the Third Way and the contours of what may be designated as the project Novorossiya for the Balkans.
Reshetnikov confirmed that last summer while vacationing on the Black Sea coast that he held meetings with leaders of several Bulgarian political parties, discussing the candidate selection process and the platforms in the then-upcoming presidential elections. The fundamental interests of the Russian lieutenant general, who is a key figure in the Russian intelligence community, goes beyond who is in place as head of state and into the upcoming parliamentary elections and the planned diversion of Bulgaria from the EU course toward Eurasian orientation.
There are no ex-intelligence officers, and that especially applies to those holding senior posts in civilian institutions functioning as the front office for Russia’s intelligence services as their visible information-analytical hand, offering advice to the top level of the Russian state — the Russian president, the government, the Security Council of the Russian Federation, both chambers of the Federal Assembly and other branches of the intelligence community. In fact, the hidden or secretive nature of the activities of the “cloak and dagger” knights is becoming less relevant, not least because recruiting agents is often not as effective and useful as open support and engagement with politicians and decision-makers. The vast majority of the work done by information researchers and analysts worldwide rests on the timely analysis of open information flows using the latest AI and deep analysis software and data processors.
If top level state officials wait for information to arrive via confidential or secure channels, and only then be interpreted, then intelligence officers will be fatally late to respond to decision-making needs in modern public governance that in most cases must happen in real time and requires almost instant reactions. This becomes a must when top statesmen deal with crisis management and response mechanisms, where decisions have to be taken “live or on the air”.
These days most government analytical centers operate in routine open mode, and Mr. Reshetnikov’s use of his summer vacation on the Black Sea coast to meet the leaders of key Bulgarian political parties is hardly innovative. His colleagues from the SVR (the foreign intelligence service) would have lesser chance as active agents to meet the top politicians of Bulgaria for fear of compromising their contacts and attracting uncalled-for attention. The head of RISS would not have the same problem as a head of a Kremlin civil institution to engage in exchanges with top level officials — the president, prime minister, ministers, MPs and others. The forthcoming parliamentary elections will be the key battleground for Russia to derail Bulgaria’s current political orientation to trigger the standard process of “zachistka” (removal) of the pro-Western part of the Bulgarian political elite (these are the exact words of the general). Upon the conclusion of these efforts, which are hardly noticeable as individual acts, Bulgaria will wake up with immune-to-counterintelligence action networks of agents of foreign influence, with local politicians’ interests accommodated in respective schemes.
One should overestimate the role of ideological or idealistic drivers behind carefully disguised moves by top Bulgarian politicians to get along with the Kremlin’s plans and allow Mr. Putin or Mr. Reshetnikov to claim yet another “victory” in the hybrid war with the West for supremacy on Bulgarian home turf. They are looking for the highest bid, the most promising foreign powerhouse opening up for them as individuals and groups.
Most likely, all the verbiage will be wrapped up in elevated moral talk worth public attention — higher incomes, better employment, greater social justice, human rights, safer neighbourhoods and secure borders. But the bottom line and common denominator behind all these high ground social pursuits will rest in individual and group benefits or carrier gains.
Leaders of leftist parties in CEE are the natural soft targets torn between their past instincts, which are still essentially totalitarian, and the EU modernity in politics and public governance. What is deemed natural in the political mainstream in Germany, France, Greece, Sweden and some CEE countries is considered extremist, unthinkable or undoable in Southeastern Europe, and certainly in Bulgaria, where the social democratic grafting on the still solid totalitarian and post-communist base of political parties is essentially impossible — lacking proper emancipation from their russo-centric political, business and ideological gravity.
While European leftist parties seek and find their social legitimacy and ideological roots in the history of the European and Atlantic political tradition of protecting basic social rights, the welfare state, gender equality and human and civil rights, their homologues in Southeastern Europe place at the epicenter of their current platforms postulates congruent with the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist, “traditionalist” set of values, chartering the course to the Third Way, the Russian neocon revolution and the emergence of a new controlled democracy state (euphemism for soft totalitarianism), deeply immersed in Russian Orthodox cannons, justifying the primacy of collective interests over those of the individual, preaching a return to national egoism and gut-level distrust of western civilization.
Leftist, nationalist and right-wing party leaders, crusading against the decadence of the EU and NATO and their failures to deliver more, pin their strategies to exploiting their new camaraderie with the Russian president and Russia in general, heavily relying on nostalgic members who feels ignored or lost in the transition process. New leaders are limited in their endeavors to modernize their parties and are accepting a new range of expediency on the way to political modernity and electoral dominance in the EU, without compromising the umbilical cord to the generic Eurasian pole.
Most members or supporters of pro-Russian parties are always ready, especially with their survival instinct at a pivotal milestone in international relations, to seek a return to the East, while current rulers at the Kremlin keep on craving revenge for the global “loss” in 1989.
The ongoing anti-Western wave, instilling distrust and hatred towards the EU and NATO is an almost inevitable course for pro-Russian circles as the West and Russia continue to drift apart. What sustained the leftists’ new political correctness and their residual Atlanticism was Russia’s weakness and failures to come up with viable alternatives to membership in the EU and NATO. Moscow is still struggling to challenge the West in the material and tangible metrics of modern life, but is exploiting vulnerabilities both perceived and real in the virtual and idealistic plane. Left-wing and nationalistic parties increasingly lean towards Putinism as the Russian leader succeeds in selling his vision of a world reminiscent of the Cold War with him and President Trump agreeing on new spheres of influence.
Lieutenant General Reshetnikov, as head of RISS, provides a sufficiently detailed ideological explanation of the content and timing for this turning point — the Russian imperial doctrine developed in the political engineering laboratories of Surkov and Dugin — which is the bonding material behind the Kremlin’s policies in the Balkans and Europe in general, following the set of resounding failures in strategic projects to bypass Ukraine and to force the West into a realpolitik “fait accompli” acceptance of the annexation of Crimea.
It is a matter of surrealistic interpretation and the departure point of a new indoctrination to preach the demise in absolute or relative terms of western societies, especially lacking a current proper competitive development model, providing benefits, prosperity, global mobility, education and professional and personal life achievements. Recourse to a new ideologic extreme, while bringing to the fore a fresh edition of Russian imperial nationalism serves a most immediate need of the new Russian tsar — to create a parallel reality and to translate governance deficits into political gains, swapping virtual for real power, changing Russia’s global status from a loser in globalization into a global leader on the merit of its ability to build on and exploit vulnerabilities. The long list includes vintage mantras of Slavic origins, ‘eternal’ brotherhood; spiritual unity based on perceived-as common history and culture; and neglect for minority rights — Roma, homosexuals, immigrants, refugees — that borders on ideological extremism.
The doctrine of Russian nationalism evokes anti-globalist sentiments and calls for a return to the nation state and national sovereignty at the prime level of decision-making. This line defies basic EU values as the resurgence of blind nationalism leads to territorial claims between member states and almost certainly ends up in wars to resolve differences. The EU’s main premise rests on individual countries giving up on historical claims in favor of an inclusive type of European integration.
It is suffice to read the interviews and statements made by General Reshetnikov in Belgrade in June during the presentation of his book “Back to Russia: The Third Way or the Dead Zones of Hopelessness” and compare them with what he preached in other countries in the region. He calls on the Serbs to return to the foundations of the Serbian nation, to King Lazar, to protect Serbian territorial claims and to defend Serbian minorities in all countries as a top national priority instead of pursuing membership in EU and NATO.
A reality check of this doctrine shows it is an upgraded version of the timeless classical imperial chord of “divide and conquer” that Russia and other Great powers used to apply when ruling Europe and the Balkans. There is nothing new or original in the what General Reshetnikov says along the same lines to his followers in Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia or Greece — as if nothing has changed since the days of the Russo-Turkish War some 140 years ago, with the diplomatic cables from the infamous Asian Department of the Foreign Ministry in Tsarist Russia or the Comintern instructing communist zealots on how to discredit or destabilize countries in Central and Eastern Europe. History has attested that the Russian doctrine of the conservative revolution is most likely to lead to the same result as its German parent back in the 60s of the 19th century — namely to regional and world wars.
The Third Way and the traditionalist revolution that the Kremlin preaches in the Balkans, if not challenged, will turn the region into a zone of national ego clashes and ultimately into a war zone. After all, if the Serbs return to King Lazar and to his glorious times as the Bulgarians go back to their dreams of a return of Macedonia and the Aegean Thrace; the Greeks to the Megali Idea; and the Romanians to the pursuit of Great Romania, the region will be torn apart.
The only ally that Putin might find in undermining peace and security in Europe and the Balkans is the neo-Ottoman Turkey of President Erdogan, whose appetite for “new” borders suspiciously coincides with Putin’s recent assertions that Russia has no borders.