A Disinformation Round “Sofia-Belgrade-Skopje” with a Typical Russian Flair

Published on:

Photo: Printscreen from “Ne se strahuvaj s Vasil Vasilev”

The flow of Russian disinformation has become familiar – it starts in Russia, travels to Serbia, and from there, it spreads throughout the entire Western Balkans. In the following case, however, disinformation’s source is in Bulgaria. The avalanche of disinformation started with an episode of the Bulgarian show “Don’t Be Afraid with Vasil Vasilev” and then spread to Serbian tabloids, before finally landing on Macedonian Facebook profiles

From: Matej Trojachanec

In last week’s episode of the Bulgarian language show “Don’t Be Afraid with Vasil Vasilev”(“Не се страхувай с Васил Василев”), host and journalist Vasilev stated that the fall of the “Ukrainian regime” is imminent. Only a few segments of the 25-minute program were selected and published in the tabloids Informer.rs and WebTribune.rs. The articles in the two media are identical and they were then shared by Macedonian Facebook profiles (screenshot here) along with the following tendentious and manipulative message:

The Ukrainian ricochet will hit Biden and the Democrats in the United States the most. Zelenskyy’s defeat will lead to their defeat in the presidential election, whoever the Democratic Party candidate may be…
For a Democrat to win the presidential election, the commitment known as “Ukraine” must be forgotten and replaced with a war in which America is victorious. It might seem odd, but some Democrats in the United States are willing to set half the world on fire just to avoid losing their place in the White House. Diverting attention away from Ukraine was only possible with the help of yet another war [Israel and Palestine, our note].

The main messages are clear: Western policies have failed, the collapse of Ukraine is imminent, and US democrats are “sacrificing” Ukrainian soldiers to remain in power. These are classic Russian and Kremlin narratives used to distort reality by mixing truths and lies. The parts Informer and WebTribune singled out from Vasilev’s show were not chosen by chance – they are in line with their editorial policy – decidedly pro-Russian, with sensationalist thumbnails and clickbait headlines. The articles paint Vasilev as a credible source. The media outlets responsible for such articles have loyal audiences in Macedonia and are regularly shared on social media.

Russia’s influence in Serbia is well-known, especially in the area of creating and spreading disinformation. Russian influence has been present in the country for years – there are regional headquarters of Russia Today and Sputnik in Belgrade. Another factor that makes the country “ideal” for spreading disinformation to its neighbors is the fact that Serbian is widely understood in the region. Back in 2022, the European Parliament warned that Serbia was the “distribution center” for disinformation in the Western Balkans. The non-governmental organization for the promotion of the Euro-Atlantic relations, Atlantic Initiative also supported the idea that there is fertile land for Russian disinformation in Serbia. Media outlets such as Deutsche Welle and France 24 have also covered the topic.
What is significant in the case analyzed in this article is that the source of pro-Russian narratives is in another country, Bulgaria, with Vasil Vasilev holding the “Russian megaphone”.

A dance between fact and fiction

What Serbian tabloids fail to mention is that Vasilev attempts to fearmonger on several occasions on his show. He claims that the Bulgarian minister of defense Todor Tagarev was summoned to Washington and that Bulgaria would be forced to receive a new round of American troops, which would in turn open the door for atomic bombs to be stored on Bulgarian territory. Vasilev also claims that all of the above would be done without the consent of Bulgaria’s citizens. According to Vasilev, the goal of the United States is to make Bulgaria an enemy in the eyes of Russia. Then, in the event of a nuclear conflict, Bulgaria would become the primary target of Russian missiles.

We are losing our last shred of sovereignty, says Vasilev.

However, Vasilev cites no sources to back up his claims. Instead, he just says that “we found out.” Therefore, it is impossible to know what kind of source he would even consult for such claims, whether the information was confirmed by a different source, or if the information is true at all.

Additionally, Vasilev’s claim that Bulgaria would store US nuclear weapons has not been officially announced by either Bulgaria or the US. Furthermore, our Eastern neighbor is not among the five countries that stores American nuclear weapons. Again, Vasilev does not cite any source, instead simply claiming that “we found out”.

On the topic of the war in Ukraine, US President Joe Biden recently stated the following at a press conference:

If we walk away – if we walk away and Russia is able to sustain their onslaught and bring down Ukraine, what do you think is going to happen in the Balkan countries? What do you think is going to happen from Poland to Hungary and Orban? I mean, seriously, think about it. It changes the dynamic…

NBC also reported that the situation in Ukraine could get complicated without aid from the US. According to Biden’s advisers, Russia would win the war in a matter of weeks, or months, at best.

Knowing the timeline of events helps to further illuminate the situation. Vasilev made his speculation public on 16 January, Biden held a press conference on 19 January 19 and NBC published their article news on 20 January. This means that it is impossible for Vasilev to have acquired this information, and then spun it to his own advantage.

Vasilev also employs classic anti-Western narratives in claiming that Bulgaria’s sovereignty would be destroyed by accepting “Western mandates.” He outlines two such mandates.

Firstly, “Russian oil phobia” has caused Bulgaria to import energy from North Macedonia, despite previously being the largest exporter of energy in the region. Additionally, Vasilev claims that Bulgaria will have to import fuel from Kazakhstan and other countries at a higher price, a cost that would have to be paid by Bulgaria’s citizens.

The second “Western mandate” Vasilev discusses is the acceptance of values such as openness and tolerance. He claims that doing so will lead to accepting more immigrants who will turn Bulgaria into “their” country, since they “will be giving birth to children.” This is in line with the so-called “Great Replacement ” – a racist and far-right conspiracy theory that claims that the declining birth rate of “white” people will cause them to be demographically and culturally replaced by “non-white” races, generally referring to people originating from countries with a predominantly Muslim population.

All of the above is a classic example of fearmongering, a tactic that employs spreading unsubstantiated speculations about a specific hypothetical danger. Vasilev’s claims sound especially hypocritical when one remembers the name of his show – “Don’t Be Afraid with Vasil Vasilev”.

We conclude that the way Vasilev positions his message and style is completely identical to other similar grifters – an avalanche of conspiracy theories, followed by a series of untruths, pitting the West against Russia. He skillfully interweaves these elements on national television and on his YouTube channel. What is certain is that this will not be the last time that Vasilev appears on regional social media with such conspiratorial scenarios with a Russian twist.