Versed for decades in the mantras of eternal brotherhood and friendship with the Soviet Union, Bulgarians may find these lines bordering on heresy. Many would not sound the alarm even if the number of Russian speakers tops one million. Even though the immediate risk and threat profile of the rising Russian speaking minority is low, the impact on Bulgarian democracy, the political process, the national security and NATO-EU integration capacity can hardly be ignored or left unnoticed.
It is not only the demographic and immigration footprints that are in question – the Bulgarian authorities should be well aware of the number of holders of Russian passports who have Permanent or Temporary Residence Status, as well as the numbers of tourists with extended holiday stay.
The Bulgarian state is largely in the dark with regard to the number of Bulgarians, who have Russian citizenship. Although Russian law prohibits dual citizenship, there are ample including tacit exemptions and Bulgaria is one of them. This is largely a one-way street as Russian authorities are unlikely to disclose the numbers of Bulgarians with Russian passports, while the mirror information – Russian citizens with Bulgarian passports, is well known to the Russian authorities. There is no major difference between the fast-track and discrete procedure for Russian passports, extended by the Russian government to citizens of Ukraine, Moldova, other CIS countries, on one side, and Bulgaria, on the other. An indirect indication of the size of the problem with issued Bulgarian passports to Russian citizens, including under the investor’s pretense, is the fact that the investigation. ordered by the PM has covered more 40,000 cases?!
Dual citizenship, with people torn between geopolitically irreconcilable state identities, could breed foreign networks of influence beyond the control of the Bulgarian state and the grasp of the Bulgarian public.
The use of immigration as a foreign policy tool can exacerbate vulnerabilities to Kremlin policy overtures. Despite the weakening of the Russian energy grip following the EU drive on liberalization and diversification, shouldering the rising burden of resisting Russia’s hybrid warfare and dealing with pockets of Russian influence, requires adequate response potential well above what is covered by the national and collective defense systems of either the EU or NATO.
It is a fact that the energy dependence on Russia is shrinking and is soon to become a lesser or a non-issue. Russian crude oil imports are irrelevant as an extension of Russia’s foreign policy. Crude oil is a globally traded commodity and had not it been for the back-door support of the Bulgarian authorities, the Bulgarian fuels market would have been in line with EU standards.
Bulgaria’s dependence on nuclear energy is also a manageable risk, provided there is a will to keep a safe distance and not allow over-stretch with the hype of new nuclear projects.
The last frontier – the dependence on Russian natural gas – is rapidly eroding. The first import of non-Russian LNG is a sign of what’s to come. The reality is that the Kremlin can no longer afford to harass Bulgaria and seek favors by threatening to cut off supplies. Credible, immediate and competitive alternatives for gas supply are in place.
The indigenous root base for Bulgaria’s next generations of Russophiles is eroding too – for reasons of denigrated demography, trade and economic ties with Russia. The new entries to the rank and file of Bulgarian Russophiles are not driven by the appeal of Russia based ideology, business, history or culture, but mainly by their distrust for European and American values. Fewer Bulgarians read and even less speak Russian, even fewer have intimate knowledge of Russian traditions, culture and literature.
It is no coincidence, that at the coming nadir of Russian influence, the Kremlin has decided, evidenced by the infamous words of the Russian Deputy Speaker of the GosDuma Pyotr Tolstoy, to literally ‘buy out’ Bulgaria. The immigrants still politically loyal to Putin are the main conduit and vehicle of Kremlin’s influence. This has been the master plan ever since Bulgaria joined NATO and the EU.
The deepening Euro-Atlantic integration of the country is passing an important flag post with the modernization program of the Bulgarian Army, Navy and Air Force. Scrapping Soviet-era weapon systems poses an immediate threat for Moscow that Bulgaria could, once and for all, leave Russia’s imperial orbit.
Putin’s new targeted immigration might be a growing and potent force, catalyzed and politically serviced not only by the Bulgarian nationalists, populists and members of paramilitary groups, but by a complex network of old and new backstage figures, who have been directing Bulgaria‘s transition since 1989. The same post-Soviet elitists have kept reproducing the ruling matrix and the model of governance ever since.
One can argue only about the interpretation, the depth and impact, but the facts of the growing Russian immigration are undeniable.
The Russian-speaking minority is quickly becoming a major factor in shaping public attitudes and perceptions, both inside and outside the country. It has already begun influencing decisions of the Bulgarian government and to a small degree even the outcome of some elections. In a fragmented society, dedicated minorities are capable of determining the pace and direction of Bulgaria’s internal and foreign policy.
As a risk analyst I can attest that even seemingly remote risks and unlikely events are considered in analytical work. Different seemingly unlikely outcomes and scenarios could have disproportionately high impact. Areas along the Black Sea coast, where the refugees’ scare-mongering reaches peak levels, the inflow of Russian immigrants has led to record high 35 plus per cent share of the population.
Hysteria around “the Russians are coming” should be replaced by a cold assessment of the short-term and long-term consequences. Limiting the exposure to Kremlin’s channels of cross-border influence serves the best interests of those Russian speaking immigrants that are EU and NATO friendly. It is worth recalling the experience of the SMERSH units after the Second World War that were left behind the Soviet Army with the sole purpose of locating and punishing the ‘traitors’ of the Soviet regime. Many white Russian immigrants were forcefully expelled back to Russia and found their death in gulags and prison camps in Siberia. This should not be allowed to happen again.
As a state we owe protection of all immigrants against persecution from their home regimes.
Russification via greater Russian immigration is not a solution to any of our problems – least of all to the labor shortage, the demographic collapse or the Orthodox ‘Holy war’ against Islam. The percentage of Russian immigrants that add to the labor force and fill in critical qualifications gaps is negligible. As most of them are retired – they are unlikely to contribute to any increase in birth rates or to help sustain the pension system. Just the burden on the health system goes up.
With regard to their value as assets against radical Islam, their contribution should be regarded as a mixed blessing – Radical Islam in Russia itself is thriving, with the Kadirov sponsored Sharia Law taking center stage, overtaking the traditional more moderate version taught in Tatarstan (the former Volga Bulgaria). Russia’s Orthodox Church, itself is embarking on extremist track, exposing rifts with the EU compatible Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople.
The Russian home brew of nationalists, which are indoctrinated to defend the Motherland, regardless of their location could and will generate an explosive mix, undermining Bulgaria’s national security.
Behind Moscow’s seemingly erratic actions there is a game plan, aimed to control and sideline the Euro-Atlantic anchors for Bulgaria’s development. However, the trends in the Russification process is not linear and is partially reversible as Russia itself sinks in deep economic and financial crisis. The former easy credits for property purchases in Bulgaria – via the VTB and Sberbank, have dried since their peaks in property deals in 2012. Since then, both banks have dropped Bulgaria from their list of countries where they provide mortgage loans to Russian citizens.
The collapse of the ruble and its shrinking purchasing power have substantially compromised the ability of many borrowers to service their loans, which has led to a massive exodus and forced offering of properties on the Black sea.
A glance at the sites of Russian banks offering mortgage lending for properties abroad still provide loans to Russian citizen, willing to acquire properties in Bulgaria. However, the information has not been updated for quite a while since the reference is made to MKB Union Bank as the only bank extending mortgage loans to Russian citizens. The bank was acquired by First Investment Bank in 2013 and since then the new owner has confined activities to clearing the original mortgage loans portfolio.
The depreciation of the ruble has forced the Kremlin to pour substantial resources into banks, whose balance sheets have suffered from politically motivated Russian citizens’ property ownership abroad. In 2017 alone, the leading commercial bank VTB, has received state budget subsidies in excess of 350 billion rubles, allowing this bank to forego, amongst others, losses in operations incurred in foreign property credit defaults. However, the trend is unequivocal – the number of Russians buying Bulgarian real estate in 2018 has dropped by 75% when compared to the pre-Crimea record years.
In a recently published analysis on the trends in Bulgarian real estate market the conclusion is straight forward – the number of Russian property “tourists” shrinks and in most instances their properties are bought by Bulgarians.
This shows that the process Russian immigration driven by property purchases has stalled and is partially reversed. This process also corresponds with a general drop in Russian tourists to Bulgaria and the shift in their motivation, notably regarding vacation properties acquisition. It is also hampered by a change of mind at the Kremlin, effectively banning or restricting state employees from owning properties abroad in an attempt to contain the outflow of capital from the country.
The negative effects are deeply rooted in the legacy of the past, as the dominant orientation in the developments of tourist and coastline property market was to serve the post-Soviet, and more recently Russian basic tourist standards.
Russian tourism shifts allegiances and sympathies in line with general foreign policy directions from the Kremlin and forced pragmatic cost-benefit analysis. Aligning property development standards with the cheapest tourists and holiday makers in Europe risks long-term repercussions for the competitiveness of Bulgarian Black Sea resorts, closely relating Bulgaria’s county risks in tourism with the risks of Russia’s economy and market.
This explains why our holiday property market and tourist sector enjoy the shortest possible value chain and are subject to the whims of political and business conjuncture.
The absence of a thorough impact assessments Russian capital and immigration flows into Bulgaria, lead to extreme judgments and overlooked genuine threats.
A more pro-active approach is urgent and long overdue.