From the time when the Yugoslavian Dusko Popov, a double agent, a lover of fast cars and beautiful women, roamed Europe and inspired Ian Fleming to design James Bond, almost everything – except espionage itself – has changed.
The methods and techniques have advanced, but agents around the world are still active in foreign countries and do their best not to get caught.
Still, no one is like the legendary 007 agent, and a few are like Popov.
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Individuals suspected of “working for Moscow” are more and more becoming targets of investigative bodies across Europe, including the Balkans.
“That has always been and still is the case. States and empires come and go, but espionage remains, “Vremena journalist Milos Vasic told the BBC in Serbia.
What happened now?
Bulgaria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked the Russian ambassador to Sofia in late October to recall a diplomat accused of espionage and deport him to Russia.
A day earlier, on October 28, the Polish Security Agency announced that an official of the Ministry of Defense had been arrested on suspicion of spying for the Russians.
Bulgaria, Moscow’s closest ally during the Cold War, has acceded to the European Union and NATO over the last 15 years, but remains almost entirely dependent on Russian energy sources, Reuters reports.
The request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was preceded by a statement by the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office investigating the diplomat, the first secretary at the Russian Embassy in Sofia.
Since September 2018, this diplomat has had regular meetings with Bulgarians, including a senior official who has access to confidential information about Bulgaria, the EU and NATO, and has offered compensation in exchange for information, according to the prosecution.
A similar thing happened a month and a half earlier, when a Bulgarian prosecutor accused Nikolai Malinov, the leader of a pro-Russian NGO, of working in Moscow’s interest.
Russian officials have not commented on these cases.
In early November, however, Malinov received an award in Moscow – from the Russian President Vladimir Putin himself – for “contributing to the cooperation between the two countries,” the Blumberg news agency reported.
“Soft espionage” is an increasingly important segment of the Russian intelligence activities, Gzegorz Kuzinski, an expert at the Polish NGO Warsaw Institute told the BBC.
“This strategy does not involve covert diplomats, who are usually under the watchful eye of the local counterintelligence, but involves hiring influential agents – who sometimes willfully, sometimes because they are manipulated, and sometimes unconsciously, work for the interests of foreign countries,” Kuzinski explains.
Russia is expanding its influence abroad by using Russophile circles – as well as starting businesses and media projects, according to Kuzinski, author of the Russian Hybrid War publication in the Western Balkans.
“Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin often finance such moves,” he said.
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In this way, Moscow provides a higher level of security as it is more difficult for the local authorities to detect such activities.
“It is easier to convict a classical spy for a specific crime than to prove the malicious actions of journalists or civil sector activists,” Kuzinski emphasized.
Why is the Balkans important to them?
Russian agents have enforced the activities in the Balkans since 2014, Kuzinski said.
“Today, the Balkans is the first and primary battlefield between Russia and the West,” he said.
The US, he recalled, succeeded in Montenegro when authorities there recently ordered the expulsion and arrest of a group of Russian spies.
“In Sofia, Moscow is getting stronger because the nationalist and socialist opposition of the country and the ruling GERB party do not hide their pro-Russian sympathies,” the Polish analyst adds.
Turkey and China enter the region mainly through economic investment.
“In weighing of the forces, Beijing and Ankara appear to be playing on the same team with Russia,” he said.
The EU’s recent refusal to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania has made America the only effective Western actor in the region, Kuzinski said.
“If the West does not want to lose this part of Europe – which Winston Churchill considered strategically crucial when the Allies discussed the site of the invasion – it must firmly resist Russian as well as Chinese and Turkish influence,” he notes.
Where are the strongholds of the Russian agents in the Balkans?
Serbia and Republika Srpska are considered vital Balkan targets for the Russian intelligence operations, this analyst points out.
“Belgrade is home to the informal headquarters of a Russian civilian intelligence agency behind the intelligence operations in the neighboring countries.”
He believes that the tacit approval of the Serbian authorities and the pro-Russian actions of some local authorities work well for Moscow.
“Of course, in an effort to maintain this state of affairs, Russia further encourages anti-Western attitudes in Belgrade, basing its narrative on the fall of Yugoslavia, the air strikes on Serbia (in 1999), the loss of Kosovo and the secession of Montenegro,” Kuzinski said.
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Another key country for Russia in the Balkans is Bulgaria, he notes.
“More importantly, she (Bulgaria) is a member of both NATO and the European Union. This is where the headquarters of the Russian Military Intelligence Agency is based, “Kuzinsky said, adding that Moscow’s activities in the region are being coordinated there.
These allegations could not be verified from other sources.
What are they doing here?
A journalist from “Vremena”, Milos Vasic, points out that “Russia under Putin is rebuilding its imperial grandeur of which espionage makes a completely inseparable part.”
Vasic cites attempts to influence various internal policies, collecting, and even more, disseminating information, as examples.
“As Matija Beckovic would say, the list of sad things includes the secrets of the state of small nations,” he says.
Vasic ironically states that foreign agents of the great powers do not have much to learn in countries such as the Balkans.
“I don’t know what they are going to be spying on, they care much more about their influence.
“That influence could be seen in Macedonia as well as in Montenegro – in this extremely cumbersome and dumb operation called a coup,” Vasic said.
A coup with 13 people
Last spring, the so-called “trial of the century” for the coup of the year ended in Podgorica.
Thirteen people were sentenced to years in prison for “attempting to overthrow the Montenegrin government in a coup on the day of the parliamentary elections on October 16, 2016.”
Montenegrin opposition leaders Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, another Montenegrin citizen, eight Serbs, and two Russians – members of the GRU intelligence service were sentenced to many years of prison.
Russian citizen Eduard Shishmakov was sentenced to 15 years and Vladimir Popov to 12 years in prison for aiding and abetting a criminal organization.
Shishmakov and Popov, as much as it is made known, are not in Montenegrin prison, as they are known to have left the Balkans ten days after the 2016 elections.
At the time, Russian Secretary of the Security Council Nikolay Patrushev was visiting Belgrade.
The British Guardian soon reported that Belgrade had quietly expelled a group of Russian nationals suspected of involvement in the coup attempt in Montenegro, citing unnamed sources that Patrushev’s apologized because of the “Russian nationalists who intended to kill the Montenegrin prime minister.”
“This is a classic provocation aimed at knowingly spreading false information,” replied Maria Zaharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Moscow, Assembly, Lazanski
Just a few months later, in April 2017, protesters broke in the Macedonian parliament building, counteracting Talat Dzaferi of the Democratic Union of Albanians’ election as a Speaker of the Assembly.
Conflicts have occurred in which several members of the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia of Zoran Zaev were injured, as well as he himself.
“Russian influence is already being felt through the increased staff presence and statements of the Russian Foreign Minister, as well as through the activities of the Russian Embassy in the country,” Zaev said in an interview for Euronews at the time.
Zaev later turned North Macedonia into European and NATO integration as prime minister, and is credited with reaching a name agreement with Greece, which has been stopping Skopje on its way to Brussels for nearly 30 years.
Former security advisor at the Serbian Embassy in Skopje and an officer of the Security Information Agency (BIA), Goran Zivaljevic, participated in the intrusion in the Assembly.
Zivaljevic is a longtime intelligence officer and from January 2003 to March 2004 he was also the Deputy Director of the BIA. He has been with the diplomatic service since 2005.
He perpetuated his presence in the Macedonian parliament with a selfie, Krik reported.
Krik, referring to the documents by the Macedonian intelligence officials, announced that the president of the Democratic Party of Serbs, Ivan Stoilkovic, who allegedly had frequent meetings with the Russian diplomats, as well as the SNS deputy and journalist Miroslav Lazanski were also in the Assembly.
Lazanski is now the ambassador of Serbia to Moscow.
Intelligence-prone diplomats are not uncommon in these areas.
Rade Bulatovic became a chief of BIA in 2004, after years of experience in diplomacy.
He returned to that position shortly after the shift in the BIA in 2008 and until recently, he served as an ambassador of Serbia to Ukraine.
And Nebojsa Rodic, the first person of BIA from 2012 to 2013, is now running a second ambassador’s term.
In 2018, he was transferred from the position of an official Belgrade representative to Azerbaijan to the position of ambassador of Serbia to Vienna.
Who are the diplomats and who are the spies?
The intersection of diplomacy and intelligence service has been explained by Professor Anthony Gliss, Director of the Center for Security and Intelligence Studies at Buckingham University.
“There are spies in every embassy in the world,” Gliss told the BBC when British Prime Minister Teresa May called 25 exiled Russian diplomats “covert spies”.
Since all states do this, there is an “unwritten rule” not to peek too much into what’s going on inside the embassies, Gliss explained.
That tacit agreement, however, has boundaries and lapses when there is a clear violation of the law.
“That’s why poisoning of the former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter is such a problem,” says Professor Glis.
Vasic says “experienced states are doing very well by keeping the ordinary diplomats out of touch with the intelligence workers.”
“They probably know who is who, but they don’t talk about it,” a Time journalist points out.
Gliss has a similar attitude, and says that “agents are actually spying for money, because they are blackmailed or for ideological reasons.”
“The intelligence at the embassies manages these agents. So they don’t have to get their hands dirty,” says the professor.
On September 2, 2016, agents of the Security Information Agency (BIA) arrested a 57-year-old man in Belgrade under suspicion that he was a “Croatian spy” who has Serbian and Croatian citizenship.
The next day, then Prime Minister Tihomir Oreshkovic said that according to information from the Security Intelligence Agency (SOA), the person was not a Croatian spy.
The expedited arrest action was accompanied by a lightning trial – four days later, the Belgrade High Court announced that the arrested Chedo Cholovic had admitted that he was working for the Croatian intelligence service.
He was sentenced to three years in prison, and his sentence recently expired.
What happens to the expelled Russian agents?
“Nothing. He would get reprimanded by the “class teacher” if he messed something up and they caught him because of his mistake,” Vasic says satirically.
“He can pursue a career, but no longer abroad, because he is discovered.”
He is likely to remain in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – the SVR (foreign intelligence service) headquarters, but behind some desk,” he concludes.
Echoes of the Skripal Affair
Following last year’s attack on the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, for which the United Kingdom suspects Moscow, more than 25 countries have expelled Russian diplomats by March this year.
On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that more than 600 foreign spies were detected in Russia in 2018 alone.
“We did not reach the level of the Cold War when dozens of spies were expelled, but it would not surprise me if it came to that,” Vasic said.
This project was funded in part through a U.S. Embassy grant. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed herein are those of the implementers/authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government.