SOFIA -- A former Bulgarian lawmaker who is charged with spying for Russia has returned to Sofia from Moscow where he received an award from President Vladimir Putin for his “friendship and cooperation.”
Nikolai Malinov, head of a pro-Russia lobby group in Bulgaria known as the Russophiles National Movement, arrived in Sofia on November 5 -- a day after Putin gave him Russia’s Order Of Friendship award.
The award includes a monetary payment of 2.5 million rubles ($40,000).
Malinov told RFE/RL shortly after his return to Sofia that he did not intend to remain in Russia because his activity as a public figure was entirely related to Bulgaria.
He told RFE/RL that he had spoken with Putin about the espionage charges against him, but he declined to give further details or comment on Putin's response.
He also denied allegations from Bulgarian prosecutors that he had acted in Russia's interest, stating that his sole purpose was "to improve the cultural and social ties" between the two countries.
Bulgarian prosecutors who’ve charged Malinov as a Russian spy did not offer immediate comment to RFE/RL about the implications of Malinov's five-day trip to Moscow while he awaits trial.
But in Sofia, prosecutors are seeking an inquiry into a recent court decision that allowed Malinov to visit the Russian capital despite being banned from leaving Bulgaria under the terms of his September 10 release from custody on bail.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on November 5 that the award Putin bestowed on Malinov recognized his contribution “to the development of friendship and cooperation between our countries.”
Peskov said the Kremlin hopes “that people like him will have the opportunity to continue to work.”
He also said the award “should not be a matter of any prosecution” against Malinov, who is a former member of parliament from the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the successor to the Bulgarian Communist Party.
The Kremlin spokesman said the prosecution of Malinov would be "illogical and would have many detrimental consequences."
However, Putin’s decision to give the award to a key Bulgarian figure in Sofia’s spy dispute with Russia has raised tensions over the affair -- an espionage scandal in which Bulgaria has already declared a top official at Russia’s Embassy as persona non grata.
Malinov was formally charged on September 10 with money laundering for Russian organizations within Bulgaria.
He also was charged with providing Bulgarian state secrets to two Russian organizations that have close ties to the Kremlin and Russia’s secret services.
Bulgarian Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov says information delivered to those Russian groups by Malinov directly affected Bulgaria’s national security.
Tsatsarov says Malinov helped the Russian organizations’ efforts to influence Sofia’s foreign policy with the goal of reorienting Bulgaria away from its NATO and European Union allies and back into the Kremlin’s orbit.
One of those groups, the Double-Headed Eagle Society, is headed by Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev.
Malofeyev is a close ally of Putin who faces U.S. and EU sanctions for his role in Russia’s seizure and illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and for helping to destabilize eastern Ukraine by financing pro-Russia separatists there.
Bulgarian prosecutors say they are investigating Malinov’s ties to Malofeyev, as well as his links with Tsvetan Vassilev, the exiled former head of the now-defunct Bulgarian Corporate Commercial Bank.
The other Russian organization specified in the charges against Malinov is the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.
It is a Kremlin-founded think tank best known in the West for allegedly developing a strategy on attempting to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.
The institute was part of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service until 2009 when it began working for the Russian presidential administration.
From 2009 to 2017, it was headed by Leonid Reshetnikov, a former Soviet and Russian Foreign Intelligence Service agent who retired from Russia’s secret services in 2009 as a lieutenant general.
In connection with the case against Malinov, Reshetnikov has been banned from entering Bulgaria for 10 years.
Late on November 4, before Malinov left Moscow, he said that he had visited with Reshetnikov during his stay in the Russian capital.
“I met General Reshetnikov -- we ate, drank, and went to a Russian bath,” Malinov said. “My most important meeting was with Putin, and fortunately, I had the opportunity to talk for five to six minutes about Bulgaria, the Russophiles, and his opinion of what we do.”
During a speech that he delivered at the award ceremony with Putin earlier on November 4, Malinov claimed he was being targeted by prosecutors in Bulgaria because he openly promotes stronger ties with Russia.
“Many of you know that I was arrested a month and a half ago, arrested together with 16 of my associates, for the fact that we were engaged in the activities that I was talking about,” Malinov said.
“It seems to me that we are being prosecuted for those new initiatives that we are putting forward,” Malinov told the Moscow gathering. “First and foremost, this is an initiative to create an international Russophile movement.”