Serbia, Bulgaria Fall Out over Leaked Video of Russian Agent Bribing Serbian Officer
Top Serbian officials have been making comments about Bulgaria despite the fact that a leaked video indicates spying by Russia.
A diplomatic row has been raging between Serbia and Bulgaria in the wake of a video leak showing a Russian operative, who is believed to be a military intelligence officer, bribing a Serbian military officer.
A video showing two unnamed men, supposedly a Russian intelligence agent and a Serbian military officer, was leaked on YouTube last week. The two men are seen exchanging bags, with the alleged Serbian officer taking out cash from the bag, and counting it.
Christo Grozer, a Bulgarian journalist collaborating with British investigative site Bellingcat, was the first to post on Twitter that the Russian man in the video was an operative of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence.
Subsequently, the man was identified as Georgiy Kleban, a now former deputy military attache at the Russian Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed for Radio Free Europe.
Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic confirmed last week the authenticity of the leaked video, turning to Russia, with whom Serbia has been a rather close ally, with a single-word question, “Why?”
While Serbia has been investigating the spying scandal involving the Russian GRU operative, statements on part of senior Serbian official have ignited a rhetorical crossfire with neighboring Bulgaria.
Last week Serbian Member of Parliament Milovan Drecun accused Bulgaria of maintaining a network of spies in Serbia, and of threatening Serbia’s territorial integrity by supporting Kosovo’s independence together with Germany and Austria. Shortly after that Serbia’s Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin, who is described by some as the Cabinet minister who is closest to President Aleksandar Vucic, also weighed in.
“Bulgaria is capable of letting somebody else chose its friends and enemies. Serbia doesn’t allow such things. As an independent country, Serbia decides for itself, and chooses its friends on its own,” Vulin said, as cited by BGNES and News.bg.
On Sunday, Vulin made additional comments about Bulgaria accusing it of being involved in the “arming of terrorists.”
“Do you know how many Bulgarian weapons have gone to terrorists?” Vulin asked rhetorically while speaking live on Radio Belgrade’s show “The Week” on Sunday.
“From among our neighbors, Bulgaria has two [military] factories producing the exact same products as ours in the military plant in Krusik,” he added.
“Bulgaria is our largest competitor in the military industry, and that’s where the attacks on our defense industry come from. It may or may not be an accident. Everybody judge for themselves. It’s very interesting why nobody has checked how many Bulgarian arms have ended up in the hands of terrorists,” Serbia’s Defense Minister stated when asked about the role of Bulgarian journalist Christo Grozev in the leak of the Russian – Serbian spy scandal video.
Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Ekaterian Zaharieva was quick to comment as early as last Friday on statements coming from Serbia and implicating Bulgaria in the spying scandal with Russia.
“On the leaked video, I don’t see a Bulgarian intelligence officer recruiting Serbian senior officers. It’s another country that’s doing that… Yesterday, we issued a statement repudiating any such allegations. Bulgaria has always been supporting and aiding Serbia. We are perplexed by these allegations and categorically reject them,” Zaharieva said on Friday.
“The fact that Serbia has problems doesn’t mean that Bulgaria must be a sacrifice, or a duck for diverting attention from the domestic Serbian problems. Any MP in the Serbian Parliament can speak whatever they wish but the things the Serbian deputy talks about don’t exist and are not true,” Bulgaria’s Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, head of the nationalist party VMRO, also weighed in.
“By fabricating a made-up spying scandal, in which Bulgaria is getting implicated, certain pro-Russian circles in Belgrade are trying to divert attention from the real scandal – Russia’s spying activity in Serbia,” commented in turn the Atlantic Council of Bulgaria, a pro-NATO NGO based in Sofia.
Bulgaria itself has had a spying scandal involving Russia recently, after in October 2019, the leader of the Bulgarian “Russophiles” (“Rusofili”) movement, Nikolay Malinov, was arrested on charges of spying in favor of Russia, while a Russian diplomat was expelled, and another one was refused entry to the country.
Subsequently, however, Malinov was released on bail, and, even though he was not supposed to leave Bulgaria, he did manage to fly to Moscow and be awarded a medal by Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 4, after which he flew back to Bulgaria.
“[The fact that Russia has not retaliated in kind] means that the evidence that our [intelligence] services have gathered of indeed absolutely unacceptable activity do not correspond to the bilateral relations. Apparently, after they [Russia] assessed the facts, they have decided not to react reciprocally,” Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Zaharieva commented with respect to the EU member’s own spying scandal with Russia.
(Banner image: Video grab from YouTube)