In late September, Bulgaria’s national security agency DANS ordered two Russian bishops who served at a Bulgaria-owned church adjacent to the Russian Embassy in Sofia to leave the country over “activities jeopardizing the country’s national security.”
While this is not an extraordinary event for Russia, the spy scandal damages its long-standing reputation as “the liberator of Bulgaria” and risks to discontinue a lucrative propaganda channel.
Abbot Vassian (Nikolai Zmeyev) and archpriest Yevgeny Pavelchuk, head of the St. Nicolas Church and his secretary, respectively, as well as their driver/bodyguard, were taken to the Serbian border in less than 24 hours upon notification, without receiving an official explanation regarding the reason of expulsion, the outlet Telegra.ph reports.
Left: St. Nicolas Church in the Bulgarian capital. Right: Russian abbot Vassian, born Nikolai Zmeyev.
Bulgarian media linked the move to suspicions of espionage and propaganda involving the Russian clergy who serve abroad.
Almost simultaneously, North Macedonia declared abbot Vassian a “non-grata person.”
Due to the absence of two key clergymen, the Russian Patriarchate in Moscow has decided to close the St. Nicolas Church, which is located next door to the Russian Embassy in Sofia downtown.
Telegra.ph, which has investigated the incident, said the two bishops were undercover agents for a major Russian intelligence service. Interestingly, Vassian’s predecessor - abbot Filipp (Vasiltzev) - was expelled from Bulgaria too, in 2013, with formal accusations of meddling in the country’s internal affairs. Sofia sent him home with a note of protest.
Who owns the church premises?
In an effort to deviate public attention from espionage and propaganda allegations, Russia pictured the incident as a result of “mounting pressure on friendly Bulgaria from the true masters who sit in Washington and Brussels” and Sofia’s intention to take over the St. Nicolas Church building.
Nicolas Church, however, was never a Russian property, the Telegra.ph found. It was part of an agreement of concession of the church premises from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to the Russian Orthodox Church, under the condition that Bulgarian priests continued to serve there under Russian religious administration.
"The defense of the Shipka Pass by Russian troops and Bulgarian volunteers" by Alexey Popov. The Russo-Turkish War in 1877-78.
After its closure, the Russian Patriarchate began preparations for a property litigation with the Bulgarian counterpart.
The St. Nicolas Church was built in by the Bulgarian side 1914 on the ruins of a Muslim mosque and offered to Russian diplomats as a place for praying. This was a gesture of gratitude from Bulgarians for the Russian Empire’s role in termination of Ottoman rule in their country.
The church closed next year because Bulgaria fought on the Central Axis’ side against Antanta during the World War One and the Russian diplomats left Sofia.
In 1920, the Bulgarian Tsardom recognized the anti-Soviet movement as the legal successor of the defunct Russian Empire and reopened the church for emissaries of White Army General Anton Denikin, but in 1934 Bulgaria established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and closed it again.
When Soviet Russia’s diplomats returned to Sofia, they showed no interest in using the church, which was located on embassy land. Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria nationalized the St. Nicolas Church in 1936, and in 1952 the Soviet side officially dropped all property claims on the premises.
Yet, the Moscow Patriarchate has used the church for undercover intelligence operations while running religious services ever since, without demanding altering its status.
This changed after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Secret notary document
In 1997, the Russian Embassy asked a notary official in Moscow to issue a notarial act - secretly from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church - that named the Russian Federation “the legal successor of the Russian Empire” and the St. Nicolas Church “a property of the Russian state.”
Later on, Bulgarian journalist found and interviewed the notary official – Ivan Dachterov – who issued the controversial document 26 years ago. The latter pointed to a notarial act issued in 1898 regarding the transfer of the land upon which the church was erected later to the Russian diplomatic mission.
However, Dachterov overlooked the fact that modern Russia is actually a successor of the Soviet Union, not the Russian Empire, which ceased to exist prior to the formation of the Soviet state.
The matter is that when the Bolshevik party grabbed the power in Russia in a coup d’état and in 1922 formed the Soviet Union, Moscow officially denounced all of its binding obligations from the imperial past – along with the appropriate rights.
This could be a strong argument for the Bulgarian side, should Moscow file a legal suit to claim control on the St. Nicolas Church.
Russian Patriarch Kirill and President Vladimir Putin. Credit: Kremlin
In the meanwhile, Russia mobilized Moscow-leaning parties for protests in Sofia to attack the pro-EU government of Nikolai Denkov, reminding Bulgarians of Russia’s role during their independence war against the Turks.
Patriarch Kirill, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, provoked a diplomatic crisis between Moscow and Sofia in 2018 by saying he was disappointed that “the Bulgarians treated Russia as an ordinary ally during their independence war.”
Prime Minister Valery Simeonov parried that he would not take advice from a known KGB agent (Kirill has a high officer rank in the FSB) who runs a massive contraband business with cigarettes.
The Russian Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs work in tandem to spread anti-Western and anti-NATO rhetoric in a bid to terminate Bulgaria’s support for Ukraine, which irritates the Kremlin.
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