A former Bulgarian lawmaker who has been accused of spying on behalf of Russia traveled to Moscow after being given special court permission and received an award personally from President Vladimir Putin.
Nikolai Malinov was shown in Kremlin pool photographs on November 4, receiving the award from Putin, and later gave an interview to Russian state TV.
The incident has deepened the burgeoning spy scandal in Bulgaria, where officials have already accused a top official at the Russian Embassy of espionage and ordered him to leave the country.
Bulgarian prosecutors last month announced they had formally charged Malinov with spying and laundering money for Russian organizations.
He was released from custody on September 10 after posting bail of 25,000 euros ($27,600), and ordered not to leave the country.
On November 4, however, Bulgaria's Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov announced that Malinov had received special judicial permission to leave the country between November 1 and November 5.
A former parliamentary deputy from the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Malinov recently headed a pro-Russian nongovernmental organization called the Russophiles National Movement.
He is accused of transferring Bulgarian state secrets to two Russian organizations -- the Double-Headed Eagle Society and the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.
Tsatsarov said last month that the information Malinov was accused of delivering to the Russian groups directly affected national security and was part of an attempt to exert influence on the Bulgarian government's foreign policy toward Russia and the West.
At the Kremlin, Malinov received the Order of Friendship award from Putin, along with a monetary award of 2.5 million rubles (about $40,000). The award is presented for "special merits in promoting peace, friendship, cooperation, and mutual respect between peoples,” according to the Kremlin.
Hours after receiving the award, Malinov gave an interview to state-run TV channel Rossiya-24.
Asked how he was able to travel to Russia, given his legal problems, Malinov asked rhetorically: “Receiving a prize from the president of Russia, is that enough of an argument for Bulgarian justice?"
“Yes, of course," he said, answering his own question.
In connection with the case, authorities in Sofia have also imposed a 10-year ban on the entry into Bulgaria by Leonid Reshetnikov, a former Soviet and Russian Foreign Intelligence Service agent who retired in 2009 from Russia's secret services as a lieutenant general.
Reshetnikov, a Russian citizen who speaks fluent Bulgarian and Serbian, was the director of the influential Russian Institute for Strategic Studies from 2009 to 2017.
That organization is best known in the West for allegedly developing a strategy that attempted to manipulate the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election in in favor of Donald Trump, according to allegations U.S. officials made to Reuters in April 2017.
Authorities in Sofia on September 10 alleged that Reshetnikov had coordinated recent Russian espionage operations in Bulgaria aimed at reorienting the Balkan country, a member of both NATO and the EU, back into the Kremlin's orbit.
Reshetnikov on September 10 said in a Facebook post that Malinov was a "Bulgarian patriot" and that the charges were filed against him because "the Americans have launched Operation Russian Spies in Bulgaria."
Bulgarian prosecutors also announced that they were investigating Malinov's ties to Russian media mogul Konstantin Malofeyev, as well as his links with Tsvetan Vassilev, the exiled former chief of the now-defunct Bulgarian Corporate Commercial Bank.