The explosion at an ammunition depot in Bulgaria once again raises the question of the influence of Russian secret services in the former Russian satellite state. The incident comes at a time of peak political instability in the country.
The Bulgarian coalition government under Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was in crisis because of disagreements over military aid for Ukraine. Now, after a vote of no confidence in Petkov, Bulgaria is facing new elections for the fourth time in a year and a half. Bulgaria previously refused to supply arms to Ukraine. According to media reports, however, ammunition such as 152 mm howitzers were unofficially delivered to Ukraine via Poland.
The ammunition dump that exploded early Sunday morning belongs to one of the country’s largest arms manufacturers, Emco. According to the Bulgarian prosecutor, the owner of the company, Emilian Gebrews, was the victim of an assassination attempt with the poison Novichok in 2015.
According to research by the Bellingcat investigative platform, Russia’s FSB secret service has already used Novichok to poison Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny in 2020. Alexej Skripal and his daughter were also poisoned with it by the GRU military intelligence service in 2018.
The fire that caused the explosion was extinguished by local firefighters. However, the town where the weapons depot is located is still cordoned off. According to the law, the defusing work on the ammunition should only begin 72 hours after the fire.
Four ammunition depots in Bulgaria have already exploded, one in the Czech Republic
According to Gebrew, this is ammunition that was once “ordered by a company but not paid for”. Two security guards from the ammunition depot are said to have been present during the explosion, Gebrew told Nova TV.
A security system reported movement near the weapons depot, whereupon one of the security guards is said to have made his way to the depot. Nobody was injured in the explosion. Gebrew also said there was no way “a natural phenomenon” caused the explosion.
It is not the first explosion in an ammunition depot in Bulgaria: there have already been four such incidents in the past ten years. Two of them in storage facilities of Gebrew’s company Emco. A weapons depot also exploded in the Czech village of Varbetice in 2014, shortly after the war in Donbass in eastern Ukraine began.
At that time, Gebrew’s company Emco was renting the depot. According to Bellingcat research, the GRU’s elite unit 29155 is said to be linked to the explosion in the Czech Republic. Later, in 2021, the Czech government also accused the GRU and subsequently expelled 18 Russian diplomats.
In addition, three GRU officers of department 29155 – Sergei Fedotov, Sergei Pavlov and Georgi Gorshkov – were charged in Bulgaria for the poisoning of Emilian Gebrew, his son and the director of Emko. Fedotov was also accused by British authorities of involvement in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal.
Bulgaria’s Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev said in April 2021 that the explosions in Bulgaria were linked to the poisoning of Gebrew and the explosion in the Czech Republic – but only after the Czech Republic blamed the GRU for the explosion in Varbetice. Entrepreneur Gebrew has often criticized the Bulgarian public prosecutor’s office in the past and accused them of not investigating the poison attack with enough ambition.
The first explosion in Bulgaria happened in November 2011: a warehouse belonging to the Emco company in the village of Lovni Dol in central Bulgaria burst into flames, destroying long-range projectiles. Two years after the explosion, the public prosecutor’s office dropped the investigation into the case.
The second explosion affected a depot of the IMZ Sopot company in the village of Iganovo in 2015 – according to the Ministry of Economy, part of the destroyed ammunition also belonged to Emco. Emco denied this. Also, no fire is said to have preceded the explosion, Gebrew claimed.
GRU connections to the Skripal case
Just a month later, ammunition exploded again in the same village. Another month and a half later, a building of the former Institute for Special Equipment in Sofia caught fire. Evidence of the explosions in the depot in Iganovo is said to have been destroyed. At the time, an expert came to the conclusion that the incident was triggered by external influence, as the Bulgarian online medium “24 Chasa” writes.
Most recently, in 2020, a detonator store for weapons manufacturer Arsenal near Muglizh exploded. The causes of the four fires remain unknown. A special unit of the Bulgarian public prosecutor’s office is now conducting the investigation.
Last year, the public prosecutor’s office announced that “in none of the cases” could a “concrete technical fault or other cause of the fire be identified”. In all four cases, the destroyed weapons and ammunition were intended for export to Georgia or Ukraine. Gebrew contradicts this representation. However, according to Bellingcat, Emco actually exported weapons to Ukraine in 2014.