Bulgaria investigates four arms depot blasts for Russian covert action

TV grab from the blast in Iganovo in 2015. [EURACTIV BULGARIA]

The Bulgarian prosecution announced on Wednesday (28 April) it suspects sabotage carried out by Russian intelligence as the probable reason behind four blasts in Bulgarian military depots. The blasts appear similar to the one in the Czech Republic, which recently led to a major diplomatic scandal with Russia.

According to the prosecutor’s office, the three depots held products of the Bulgarian arms company EMCO, intended for export to Ukraine and Georgia.

EMCO is the company of businessman Emilian Gebrev, whose merchandise was reportedly at the centre of the blast in the Czech Republic in 2014, and who was personally the target of a poisoning attempt with Novichok in 2015.

Bellingcat connects the dots between Czech explosion and Bulgaria poisoning

Vladimir Putin dismissed as “absurd” Prague’s accusations against Moscow after Czech authorities accused the Russian secret services of being behind a deadly arms depot blast in 2014. But the investigative website Bellingcat connected the dots back to Russia.

The prosecution said six Russian spies were suspected, some of whom were linked to the attempted poisoning of Gebrev, which at the time the Bulgarian authorities failed to investigate.

The four blasts occurred between 2011 and 2020. At the time, the authorities treated them as incidents of negligence or possibly sabotage by a local competitor.

But now the prosecution says otherwise and has identified a common “signature”: each blast was preceded by a nearby forest fire. According to the investigation, the fires were meant to pull away the people from the depots, and after that, the blasts were triggered from a distance.

The prosecution says Russian intelligence is suspected of sabotaging a depot of the state military plant VMZ “Sopot” and its production plant in the village of Iganovo near Karlovo in 2015.

The third explosions took place in a depot in the village of Dolni Dol in 2011 and the fourth one in 2020, in a depot for capsule detonators of the arms production plant “Arsenal” in the town of Maglizh.

So far, the Bulgarian authorities had given no indication that they were taking seriously the blasts or the poisoning attempt against Gebrev. Outgoing Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has condemned at EU summits the alleged Russian attempt to poison the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny with Novichok but has never raised the issue of a similar attempt against his compatriot.

In 2019, the former Minister of Defence Boyko Noev, a critic of Borissov, publicly mentioned the possibility of Russian sabotage behind the 2015 blast at the depot of VMZ “Sopot”. He also said the explosions coincided with the visit of a Russian citizen who had come to Bulgaria two weeks before the poisoning of arms businessman Gebrev.

According to the investigative website Bellingcat, the explosions in the Czech Republic are part of the Russian state’s strategy to prevent the import of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine.

EMCO was said to be one of only two EU companies that specialised in manufacturing state-of-the-art munitions compatible with Soviet-era weapons, especially in the large-bore (120 mm to 152 mm) range.

According to one of the sources, in 2014 the other manufacturer “was under effective Russian control”, leaving EMCO as the only possible foreign-based provider of munitions for Ukraine’s army.

The revelations and the investigation came at a time when Bulgaria is in political limbo. Borissov’s government has resigned following the inconclusive 4 April general elections, but the formation of a new cabinet is unlikely and snap elections are expected in July.

Bulgaria's anti-elite party says will not lead a government, snap election likely

Bulgaria’s new anti-establishment party, There Is Such A People (ITN), said it would not try to form a government despite a surge of support in this month’s parliamentary election, bringing the Balkan country closer to snap polls in the summer.

The blast in Czechia has triggered an unprecedented number of expulsions of diplomats. Bulgaria has so file kept a low profile on the matter.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov commented hours after the announcement, quipping that the Bulgarians have surpassed the Czechs in terms of digging in the past.

“It’s good that they don’t blame us for the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand”, Lavrov said, referring to the Sarajevo assassination that triggered World War I.

“The time frame covers the last 10 years. It turns out that either the Bulgarian side knew nothing and only now, when the Czech Republic remembered the events of 2014, it decided to surpass the Czechs and look much deeper into the historical retrospective, or all this time they knew what is happening, but for some reason they have not made it public”, Lavrov was quoted as saying.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe