The peak of the migration crisis in Europe might be over, but it has provided lasting excuses for paramilitary proto-militias to continue to mobilize support in Bulgaria. Via their “defense of the European fortress” from a new “Islamic conquest,” they provide a platform for both overt and covert international cooperation between leading figures of the European radical far-right and local volunteers, who seek to acquire specialized training from Russian ex-special ops instructors.
Two self-styled proto-militias called Shipka Bulgarian National Movement (Българско Народно Опълчение “Шипка”, usually transliterated as BNO Shipka in English) and Vasil Levski Military Union initially gained their five minutes of infamy at the peak of the migration crisis in Europe several years ago.
And while they seem to be two separate entities that united for a common cause, their public appearances and activities strongly suggest in practice they are a joint entity under the predominant guidance of BNO Shipka’s leadership, with an overlapping membership base.
Although these groups have received only sporadic press coverage, their case deserves more detailed attention. That’s because they function not only as a militia, but also as a semi-covert instrument of sweeping anti-EU and anti-NATO propaganda, flying under the radar of wider public attention.
A Toxic Mish-Mash Of Ideas
Yet anti-migrant and “voluntary border patrols” continue to proliferate and increase membership. Why do people join them?
It is helpful to take a closer look at their core ideas. Their official platform and key creed documents make it obvious that they represent a chaotic mix of ideas directly challenging the constitutional order of Bulgaria and are heavily influenced by simplistic notions about direct democracy.
In addition, their so-called “platform” is supplemented with documents regarding the “genocide of Bulgarian people” and “its rights and obligations to revolt against the illegitimate government.” These are coupled with open appeals for a “ban on political parties” and strict punishment of “the greedy and useless political party elites.”
The documents are also meant to elicit “socialist nostalgia,” making calls to return to the communist era “People’s Republic,” “People’s armed forces,” and other government structures. Such radical ideas are meant for local consumption, to be utilized among impoverished and discontented Bulgarians.
There is a second cluster of ideas that mainly appears as links to websites and videos dedicated to “alternative news”, sensationalism, and signaling imminent threats to Bulgaria and the “European civilization.” These “warnings” inevitably feature “the Islamic invasion of Europe,” “radicalized Muslims,” “criminal and radicalized Roma,” “migrant sexual violence,“ “terror against Bulgarians in Ukraine,” “Ukrainian terror in Donbass,”, “the scourge of liberal NGO’s,” and so on.
Non-original conspiracy theories reposted, translated into Bulgarian, and endorsed by the organization deserve separate attention. These feature a plethora of conspiratorial themes, with some of the most egregious examples including: “9/11 was an Israeli/American inside job,” “Russia’s struggle against Zionism and liberalism,” “Holocaust did not happen,” and “the US as a fascist enforcer of the New World Order.”
This second layer of ideas bears close resemblance to pro-Russian propaganda, not only because of the timing of the publishing (i.e. the peak of reposts at the height and the aftermath of the Russian-backed campaign in Eastern Ukraine) and the direct reposting of unedited Russian language material without translation, but also due to its predominant content. Topic coverage ranges from Western-inspired subversive plots and anti-Semitic conspiracies in Russia (i.e. the workings of a so-called “fifth column”) and the “near abroad” (i.e. ex-Soviet republics), to virulent anti-EU, anti-NATO and anti-democratic alarmist reports about dangers looming.
The propaganda is fine-tuned for a local Bulgarian audience by utilizing strong anti-Turkish sentiment. Apart from general Islamophobia, one can easily detect the other major trend in framing, namely alarmist “reporting” that calls for mental and physical mobilization for repelling an invasion by the ultimate “other,” an invasion allegedly instigated by the West and deployed by the boogeymen of the CIA, MI6, and Mossad.
The framing portrays NATO, EU and the West in general as effeminate, weak, and unable to protect the local Bulgarian population from the “migrant invasion” or the perennial “Turkish threat.” The latter is a strong message for older Bulgarians especially, as the country restored its independence of the so-called “Third Bulgarian State” from Ottoman rule only in 1878.
This approach calls for popular mobilization and militarization of civilians in Bulgaria, something quite familiar for Russia and ethnic Russian communities in neighboring countries that strive to achieve something referred to as a “mobilization state.”
The lexical constructs used in this propaganda, as well as the groups’ distinct “brand,” closely mirrors separatist “branding” in parts of Eastern Ukraine. All of these are not native to contemporary Bulgarian lexical discourse and seem “imported.”
BNO Shipka’s choice of name for their organization’s type in Bulgarian is not random, as „опълчение“ (roughly translated to English, as a “patriotic militia”) has a patriotic connotation and is tied to Bulgarian resistance efforts against Ottoman rule in the context of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878 that led to the creation of independent Bulgaria. Note that this specific term also is being used to describe separatist forces in Ukraine and has connotations spanning back to resistance during World War II.
The Context Of The Migration Crisis
Until several years ago, BNO Shipka was quite unknown to international and Bulgarian audiences. This situation changed dramatically with the “high tide” of the refugee wave in 2015-2016.
When the wave arrived, Sofia was found to lack infrastructure and coherent policy toward the newcomers. Abandoned sites were hastily transformed into refugee camps, which quickly became overcrowded.
The biggest winners of the policy and infrastructure vacuum were nationalists and ultra-nationalist of all stripes. The Western media that covered their so-called “voluntary border patrols,” which were mostly run by BNO Shipka, created a sense of mystique surrounding these vigilantes. As they gained publicity, important details regarding their modus operandi, structure, financing, networks and foreign support remained overlooked.
Watchers On The Wall Of The “European Fortress” & A Possible Christchurch Connection
Public representatives of these organizations include leader Vladimir Rusev, national coordinator Ivo Borisov, and Krasimir Simeonov, the organizational secretary of Vasil Levski Military Union. Their personas bear more than a passing resemblance to members of pro-Russian groups in occupied Eastern Ukraine, a combination of ultra-nationalists, ex-military, motorcycle clubs, mixed martial arts fans and gun enthusiasts.
The leadership demonstrates that their allies are in Moscow, while their enemies are the EU and NATO.
According to a local intelligence officer, whose identity we are keeping anonymous as they are not officially authorized to comment, the organization was initially considered to be an odd assortment of “clowns and lunatics that did not pose real danger.”
According to this source, in 2016, with Shipka’s visibility enhanced, there was an increase in the number of volunteer enrollment, mainly from young men from the coastal cities of Varna and Burgas, who wanted to “patrol” the Bulgarian-Turkish border.
“Cynically or not, for us there was no problem for these boys to stroll along the border, as partially they were executing part of the work of the official Border Police. And if they wanted to pose as ‘migrant hunters’ — even better. Then, that was our main line of thinking,” our source added.
The Bulgarian security services’ opinions on BNO Shipka then underwent a change. At the end of 2018 they began to scrutinize Shipka more closely. The reason was information about arms shipments going through the port of Varna that — via intermediaries — allegedly end up with the “border patrols” and are possibly used for training and exercises at “Svejen hut” and Strandzha mountain.
Several events held at the above locations have been attended by known members of the Western European far-right. Open source data suggests that people from different European countries come to Bulgaria for meetings with “patrol” members and remain for several days for trainings and exercises, which possibly include automatic weapons.
On one of the pictures from an alleged exercise, an AR-15 can be spotted — this is the weapon similar to the one used by Brenton Tarrant (i.e. the so-called “Christchurch shooter”) in his attack on New Zealand mosques. Tarrant visited Bulgaria in the autumn of 2018 and has toured historical sites connected to struggles against the Ottoman rule.
The initial lack of interest from local security services created a window of opportunity for the “border patrols.” From 2016 onward, they have received a boost in membership and online following.
According to our source, they developed a network of volunteers, may collect membership dues and, are cultivating an international network of contacts not only in Russia, but in Western Europe as well.
The links to Western Europe deserve specific attention, as the operational funds for these groups partially come from donations. The source admits that “the money is transferred by hand and thus tracking [it] is a tedious task… In fact, we do not know how much has been transferred by hand.”
Finance and logistics bring us to scrutinizing connections between the Western European far right and BNO Shipka. The figure that has drawn the most media attention in connection with her appeals for outside support for “border patrols” is ex-PEGIDA frontwoman Tatjana Festerling.
Festerling, who comes from Germany, has a business connection to Bulgaria, as her LinkedIn professional profile describes her as a General Manager of Black Sea Consulting company in Bulgaria — this is besides her designation as the International Relations Manager of Vasil Levski Bulgarian Military Veterans Union / BNO Shipka and spokeswoman for Fortress Europe.
Judging by her public activity and efforts to promote Bulgarian “border patrols,” she seems to have been an interlocutor for establishing more stable links between the Bulgarians and figures gravitating around PEGIDA in Germany, the Netherlands, as well as possibly other countries. The main accent of activity, besides publicity for both sides, seems to be the search for additional material support.
Speaking of material support, a backer and “investor” into the Bulgarian venture is Jim Dowson, a well-known figure on the British radical right. Personally and through his favorite “vehicle,” Knights Templar International (KTI), Dowson has paid visits to Bulgaria along with former British National Party leader Nick Griffin.
KTI has supported BNO Shipka with drones, uniforms, bags, clothing, and even bulletproof vests. In a video published in 2016, Dowson claimed that the “patrols” have been fighting Ottomans and Islamists crossing the border. According to him, this was an epic battle between ‘’good and evil.” He invited others to come and train with the militia, or else fund and supply them.
In another video, Dowson joins a BNO patrol alongside the Bulgarian-Turkish border. In the video, he expresses gratitude to supporters from America and the Philippines for funding the organization.
KTI is usually described as a religious organization that, according to its leadership, has strong support outside the UK, mainly in Eastern Europe and the U.S. It is aggressively anti-liberal, Islamophobic and seeks to form alliances with participants in right-wing forums, such as the infamous International Russian Conservative Forum, where the notion of modern-day Russia as a “Third Rome” and “Savior of Christianity” is shared among fringe right wing participants invested in the idea of an anti-EU rebellion.
KTI has been fundraising for various militias in the Balkans and constantly getting involved in serial scandals related to escalation of tensions from Budapest to Kosovo, while reportedly frequenting Serbia with Alexander Dugin’s close aides. Dugin is probably one of the most well-known representatives of the Russian neo-Eurasianism philosophy today, and was once dubbed “the most dangerous philosopher in the world” in regards to his past influence over certain key decision-makers in the Kremlin, particularly in the context of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Dugin and his associates continue to act as intellectual “magnets” and organizers for segments of international far right nationalism.
In 2015, KTI members visited Syria and met with members of the SSNP (Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party), a political party with an armed wing aligned with Bashar al-Assad. During the same visit they managed to meet with Assad and prominent members of the Baath party and visit Latakia and Damascus, in areas with a predominantly Christian population.
KTI’s Bulgarian allies appear to share the former’s sentiments toward Dugin and the Syrian regime. Rusev has been spotted in rallies in Bulgaria where Assad loyalists have also been present.
We should also note that Bulgarian groups have obviously also focused on creating connections closer to home. Recently, participants in the proto-militia’s activities have been drawn from regional neighbors, such as Romania.
In their search for legitimacy, Bulgaria’s proto-militia have also sought to create partnerships with the so-called Cyberpol organization and ECIPS (The European Centre for Information Policy and Security), as part of Cyberpol headed by Ricardo Baretzky. Their partnership was signed to promote the fight “against corruption and global illegal traffic.”
Reaching Out To Russia
Core ideas and anti-European propaganda are not the only links this proto-militia has to Russia.
The organization advertises the opportunity to receive military-style training “abroad” for potential recruits. What they do not advertise widely are the occasional visits and training courses offered in Bulgaria by Russian ex-special forces operators, such as the Afghanistan veteran Igor Zorin.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense website and his own social media activity, Zorin appears to be an elite special operations veteran and specialist in firearms, military exercise and especially close range physical combat and martial arts. It would appear that Zorin fought for a parachute regiment affiliated with the GRU (Russian Military Intelligence).
Zorin appears to have a business that conducts regular seminars dedicated to tactical hand combat skills that have been offered not only to various branches of the Russian military and security forces but also abroad.
Zorin’s tours have included many countries, including Bulgaria, where he trained BNO Shipka members (here we see him with the leader of BNO Shipka, Vladimir Rusev). His trips seem to taken him, as far as North Korea. This picture might be from occupied Ukraine, but this could not be confirmed for certain.
It could be speculated that the possible facilitation of contacts between such a high-profile Russian veteran and specialist and the Bulgarian network might have been conducted by at least one of BNO Shipka’s members with Russian citizenship, namely Yevgeniy Shchegolikhin. This man is a resident of the Black Sea port of Burgas with his partner Elena Alexeeva. Both seem to be fond of weapons and airsoft and often are practicing at a specific shooting range in Burgas.
Shchegolikhin is a curious representative of the substantial Russian diaspora that has acquired properties in Bulgaria, mostly along the Black Sea coast. A graduate of the military department of Tomsk State University, Shchegolikhin is no stranger to controversy in Bulgaria.
In the summer of 2016, as part of their so-called “Slavic March,” the Russian Night Wolves biker gang was set to visit Bulgaria and tour multiple cities, coinciding with the visit of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. As the Wolves were set to pass through Burgas, local Ukrainian residents decided to hold a protest that was in turn ambushed and disrupted by BNO Shipka’s members.
One of the attackers was Shchegolikhin. Despite the negative publicity surrounding the incident, he did not since shy away from his affiliation with the paramilitary network and regularly attends political protests and drills.
Another possible connection to Zorin is a Russian expat and resident of the Black Sea coast town of Sveti Vlas by the name of Timur Seyfetdinov. This man, who poses in fatigues like Shchegolikhin, is also frequently seen in the company of BNO Shipka’s leadership and participates in its regular activities.
These two Russian expats seem to have а connection to Russian specialists and military veterans with specific sets of combat skills that are clearly sought after by the local membership. The proto-militia’s leadership stress the necessity for these skills in order that one may survive the catastrophic events they say will follow the “incoming huge financial crisis” and the subsequent “plans for liquidation of the national states.”
Survivalism As Cover And The Need For More Monitoring
While militia propaganda is a mix of often self-contradictory statements and logical fallacies, we have demonstrated that their bias is clearly pro-Russian and anti-EU. This is reflected not only in activities that draw larger media attention pertaining to patrolling the beginning of the so-called “Balkan migration route,” but also to a smaller but highly symbolic gestures during Bulgarian historical national holiday celebrations and commemorations where their members pose with Russian flags and anti-Western slogans.
Their core membership tends to be associated with protests against shale gas exploration in Northeast Bulgaria — and almost every other protest initiative deemed to be instrumental in obstructing Western and particularly American business or political interests in Bulgaria.
Last but not least, they associate with local Bulgarian “patriotic bikers” from various cities on the Black Sea Coast and beyond in assisting Russian “patriotic bikers” in the execution of their propaganda trips across Europe. And while not many people in Bulgaria would hold commemorative services for deceased “heroes of Novorossiya” in occupied Eastern Ukraine, BNO Shipka’s supporters in Ruse, for instance, have held a memorial service for Arsen Pavlov (Motorola) and Mikhail Tolstykh (Givi).
Same goes for organizing humanitarian aid to entities in the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” in Eastern Ukraine and other gestures aiming at recognition and advancement of Russian interests in the “near abroad.”
Available evidence suggests that these groups have in many ways been modeled after their foreign “cousins” in Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. They have also masked themselves as “survivalist” organizations fueled by ideas that go against the constitutional form of governance as well as doomsday scenarios involving “the global banking elite,” “the global Zionist lobby,” as well as the “bankrupt U.S. seeking to begin a new world war.”
Survivalism can serve as a good cover for obscuring the groups’ ideological leanings and pro-Kremlin biases, while also helping to maintain active links with Western European radical entities and individuals.
Steady monitoring of this group should continue to shed light on how it is evolving.