In Varna and Burgas, Labs of Russian Networks on the Bulgarian coast


Rosenec port. Photo: Milena Marincheva

Varna is dozing until the summer and its waves of tourists who will justify the very existence of the hotel resorts along the Black Sea coast. After three months of cheap booze, sound volume turned to the max, dancing on the tables, the second largest city of Bulgaria returns to its provincial slumber. However, the lethargy of the port city is not only attributed to the shortness of the season. It is the result of a sudden drop of blood pressure.

“Varna was very active after the fall of communism; it was one of the cities where democratic forces won all elections until 2000,” says Spas Spasov, local correspondent of several business editions. “And then it became a lab where the henchmen of the former regime, members of the secret services, tested all means to delay Bulgaria’s renewal. The cultural life collapsed, the politics exploded from the inside, the economy was monopolized by a few oligarchic groups.”


The city, looking as if it was struck by the return of the old ruling caste from the time of communism, has certainly experienced some bouts of activity. On the front stairs of the city hall, a pile of stones and cobbles, decorated with slogans, attests to this. It pays tribute to Plamen Goranov, who set himself on fire at this very same spot on February 20, 2013, and was followed by people in other cities, echoing the social protests that have largely faded since then.

The sacrifice of the 36 year-old photographer cost the mayor of Varna, accused of collusion with a powerful economic group TIM, deemed close to the Russian mafia, his post.

Denounced by martyr Goranov, the issue of privileged relationship with Russia is the major fault dividing Bulgarian society. Young protesters are questioning the historical loyalty to the big brother country, considered the source of all evil local habits, including this appropriation, a travesty even bigger than in Moscow, of the country’s resources by a caste of oligarchs. The ruling parties perpetuate this link that makes Bulgaria, a member of the European Union (EU) and NATO, one of the most consistent supporters of the great power with which it has no common border but which is facing it on the other side of the Black Sea.

For Atanas Tchobanov, this link is, above all, a matter of subjection. “All of our oil needs are covered by Russia, along with 95% of our gas purchases,” says the candidate of the Greens party in the European elections. Even Ukraine is less dependent. And no government has taken steps to get us out of this servitude. “In Varna, this resource link is embodied in a project, which should start south of the city. From the Russian port of Novorossiysk, the South Stream pipeline should emerge there to extend to southern Europe, its route bypassing Ukraine.


For now, the EU has not authorized the start of the works, but the consortium, led by Gazprom, is ready to do anything to secure local support. “A few days ago, I went down to the harbor to watch the start of the Tall Ships Regatta, one of the major events in the city this year,” says Spas Spasov. Along the way, I met dozens of schoolchildren holding balloons in the colors of South Stream. Films that detailed the future site were shown across the main tribune. Everyone was aware that the consortium had privatized the event to convert the city into a believer in the benefits of South Stream.”

The most glaring example of Russian influence on Bulgarian territory lies 120 km south of Varna, on the outskirts of the port of Burgas, the fourth largest city in the country. There, in 1999, the government gave away a large section of the coast to the Russian oil company Lukoil to set up a port terminal to supply the only oil refinery in the country, which it also owns. Today, this terrain really looks like a Russian enclave in the EU, guarded by concrete walls bristling with barbed wire, cameras every 30 m and private guards. “We no longer have access here,” says Assen Yordanov, a journalist whose investigations into corruption on the Bulgarian coast “earned” him a violent murder attempt in 2008, and who has since co-founded with Atanas Tchobanov the independent site “We are told that there is a Customs officer to check the incoming oil, but nobody has ever seen him/her. In fact, Lukoil does here what it wants, particularly by refusing to mount measuring gauges on the pipeline that transports the fuel to the refinery.”

From its strategic location in the heart of the Bay of Burgas, the group has a view on the movement of the nearby NATO base, which seems less protected than the oil base. The only concession was made after the publication of an article in L’Express in 2011, following which Lukoil provided free access to a small marina that had long been annexed. Assen Yordanov walks there and jokes: “Here is the only small piece of free Bulgaria”


But aside from this symbolic victory, entire sections of the Bulgarian economy have passed into the hands of the Russians. “Their investments in companies along the coast are more massive and often feed suspicions of money laundering,” says Assen Yordanov. And the financing of many large real estate developments throughout the coast no longer leaves any doubt about this: mafia money has come to Bulgaria to be recycled.”

Buyers or tenants of these unsightly developments, piled chaotically in the resorts, are themselves often from Russia. The number of owners of that nationality has reached 75 000 in the region of Varna, and 60 000 in that of Burgas. Alexander Klement is one of them. In 2013, this former architect of Bashkortostan, bordering the Urals, decided to settle in a residence in Sunny Beach, a resort which now keeps only its name as a national identity of mass tourism.

In the summer, his neighbors are British and Scandinavian tourists. Off season, the residence is populated by only a dozen of Russian families. The 60-year-old man does not regret his choice: his 32 square meter apartment cost him half of what he would have paid in Russia. A fierce critic of Vladimir Putin, he now dreams of convincing his grandchildren to join him. “This investment is for them. This is a shelter that will be very useful when things go wrong in Russia.”

Jérôme Fenoglio (Varna and Burgas, Special Envoy)

Translation from French by Bivol

© Le Monde 17.05.2014



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