Kremlin’s disinformation labours are lost – Bulgarians are making practical choices

The story of Bulgaria’s entry into the unfriendly-to-Russia-countries list of countries marks a milestone in its history. The ‘news’ was “creatively” leaked to the public on April 29th in the “60 minutes” program of one of Kremlin’s prime channels – Rossia One.

In the meantime, Bulgaria was reported to have entered one more dubious merit list – that of Turkey’s and Egypt’s, top Russian tourists’ destinations with flight bans. There have not been official decisions nor announcements made, but the disinformation warfare is on the up.

The manipulative pattern replicates the traditional threat-curse therapy used by Moscow ever since Bulgaria joined NATO, that the ‘divine’ wrath of the Kremlin Tzar will befall upon the ungrateful Bulgarians.

I do not remember Bulgarian or NATO agents blowing up ammunition depots in Russia or poisoning Russian citizens with chemical weapons, much less NATO governments militarizing economic and social life, with the sole purpose of threatening neighbours.

Suffice it to quote Bulgaria’s top military professional at the MOD, who warned that after 15 years of rule by lieutenant general Borisov the army is in a lamentable state.

The horror shockwave and the inferiority complex of the little brother

Following a long-standing Russian tradition, whenever a country falls out of grace, joining the “enemies” camp, its citizens become fascists and traitors.

Leaving aside the mortifying position of Bulgaria’s pro-Putin “useful idiots” with the blind defence of Russian agents blasting warehouses and killing citizens, the role and place of Russia economy is hyperinflated.

Bulgarians are Moscow’s newly designated “enemies”  – the news, which triggered shockwaves among the 7-8 per cent of the population who trust in the Soviet times adage of the “eternal and indestructible friendship”.

Such “unconditional” and blind devotion goes hand in hand with Kremlin playing on the inferiority complex of Bulgaria vs Russia, with the key line – the world for Bulgarians would end without Russian gas, oil and big brother protection.

Tourism – how critical are Russian tourists for Bulgaria?

The Kremlin controls outbound tourism for numerous health, economic, political, financial and other reasons that have nothing to do with Bulgaria. All European governments have restricted travel due to the pandemic, as they do in Russia.

In addition, Moscow seeks ask Russian tourists to cover the bill and stop the collapse of living standards on the peninsula after billions poured from the central budget.

The weakening ruble and declining incomes of Russian citizens are making holidays abroad a distant goal. Russian owners are selling their properties on the Black Sea coast, bought in the days of relative prosperity before the annexation of Crimea.

If last summer season is any indicator of the one forthcoming, the main conclusion is – Russian tourists have long ceased to play a critical role for Bulgaria.

In 2020, the country was visited by 46,600 Russian tourists, compared to 204,000 Ukrainians. Russian tourists rank 17th as top tourist origination centre.

Pandemic concerns apply to everyone; Ukrainians face health barriers. Still, unlike Russian tourists, the government in Sofia gives no special treatment, no special discounts, or praises the Ukrainian tourist as an ‘eternal’ brother.

Do you remember a Bulgarian minister of tourism ever launchng a courtesy and charming offensive on Kyiv? No, but Ukrainians come in big numbers as they were deprived of their Crimean coastline.

At any rate, tourists from EU countries have long been the most trustworthy outbound tourist market for Bulgaria.

Russophiles are genuinely concerned that the diminishing dependence and importance of Russian tourists, commodities and investments, are a worrying predicament of future loss of contact with their mother ship and implosion of their influence within the country.

Foreign Trade

The picture is similar in Bulgaria’s foreign trade with Russia. Much ado about nothing.

Firstly, the classics goes – national interests rest with exports, where the myth of the “endless” Russian market is debunked. The Russian government’s task is to care about Russian imports to the country. Judging by Borissov’s addiction to helping Gazprom sell more gas to the region and sustain its market shares, one might questions whether he is a Bulgarian or a Russian politician.

There were times, not long ago, when the Kremlin could turn off existential supplies of nuclear fuel, oil and natural gas to Bulgaria. No more.

Today Bulgarians and Europeans enjoy greater competition and have credible substitutes for each of Russia’s strategic exports. Gazprom, Lukoil, Rosatom and other Russian companies still hold a disproportionately high share of the Bulgarian market because of the legacy of long-term contracts and Soviet time monopolies.

Bulgaria can meet its energy needs at current consumption levels if push comes to shove, without a single cubic meter of Russian gas under a direct contract, without a single metric ton of Russian crude oil.

Back to the myth of the “endless” and indispensable Russian markets – Russia ranks 18th as an export destination for Bulgarian goods and services. Fact. The current annual level – between 400m and 500m euros – was reached 15 years ago and has not changed since, with or without sanctions.

In the meantime, Bulgarian exports have risen due to a good blend of price and quality to the most demanding markets in the EU, North America, China, etc., underwriting the argument for a more significant export potential to Russia.

In theory, at least.

Bulgarian producers and traders, alongside their East European colleagues, enjoy a special fraternal treatment. With their Russian ‘experience’ – bruises and losses – even the most die-hard Russophiles wake up to reality and permanently pull out of the Russian market.

Russian investments and geostrategic projects

Bulgaria can forego proceeds from Russian gas transit and most joint geostrategic projects. The added revenues, juxtaposed to the debts they generate, indicate a sudden loss of sanity among Bulgarian state-owned business executives. No private company could afford such gambling.

The Russian market holds the highest and virtually unmitigable political risks as no one can predict Putin’s future moves that could invite further sanctions or administrative barriers.

Even Lukoil’s Neftochim, Russia’s most significant investment, is a case where the state has a winning strategy. Based on the classic price formula – multiplier of EBITDA, the asset business valuation indicates a heavy decapitalization after more than 15 years of persistent losses. It is a matter of resolve by the state to recover its dues.

So when Russian propaganda fires its salvos with a terrifying undertone, meant to spread panic, i.e. Bulgaria has lost Russian tourists, gas and oil – stay calm and treat condescendingly.

The economic fundamentals for lasting emancipation from Russia and a long-term crisis of Russophilia are in place. Impoverished, torn by internal contradictions, out of pace with the world, Russia can ill afford to sustain its network of Russophiles abroad.

The Kremlin does not have the money to bribe better off politicians, nor the moral high ground to preach and fascinate with ideology: it can only rely on of GRU, SVR, FSB agents to kill, destroy and launch disinformation campaigns.

The Bulgarian proverb about the pitcher that breaks the third time is right on the spot – the Bulgarian equivalent to the famous Lincoln quote: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

(Source: Analyses & Alternatives)

Ilian Vassilev

Diplomat, political analyst, energy expert (Bulgaria)

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