Set back from a stretch of isolated beach on the southern Black Sea coast of Bulgaria and nestled among trees lies the sprawling Kamchia Sanitary and Health Complex, or SOK for short in Bulgarian.
Situated on prime beachfront at the mouth of the Kamchia River, the complex boasts hotels, sports halls, a school, conference centers, and even an astronomy observatory.
It seems to boast all the amenities and more that many towns in Bulgaria can only dream of. But it's not Bulgarian, technically. The municipal government of Moscow owns both the buildings and the land underneath them.
The land in the village of Bliznatsi, about 25 kilometers south of the resort city of Varna, was acquired by the Moscow government in 2008 despite a Bulgarian law at the time banning foreign individuals or companies from making such purchases. Not only did the Moscow authorities acquire prime beachfront, they reportedly paid way below the market price. On top of that, Sofia chipped in millions of its own money to build a new water main to the complex.
While the coronavirus pandemic led to the shuttering of the complex, the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has led to concerns about allowing Russia -- which has placed Bulgaria on its list of "unfriendly countries" -- to own a strip of beach on the shores of the Black Sea, now perhaps more strategic than ever to the Russian military.
"Things may be happening inside the complex that the Bulgarian authorities are not aware of," said Vassil Tankov, a lawyer now working with pro-Western activists who are urging the government to take the land back.
Back in 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even mentioned Kamchia as a potential soft-power tool for the Kremlin. That may seem farfetched now given Russia's growing international isolation, but, according to Solomon Passy, Bulgaria's foreign minister between 2001-2005, the Kremlin could still use the complex for a gamut of nefarious tasks.
"This is [just] camouflage, a harbinger for the coming of the weapons," Passy told RFE/RL.
Warnings like Passy's have fallen flat with Bulgarian officials.
In response to questions, the Council of Ministers, Bulgaria's top executive body including the prime minister and other senior officials, told RFE/RL that at the current time it has no information about potential threats to Bulgaria's national security emanating from the Kamchia complex.
Even if there was the political will, any chance of seizing the property back, lawyers caution, would likely hinge on proving it was acquired fraudulently, and that may prove difficult.
The acquisition and subsequent controversy have highlighted Bulgaria's ambivalent ties with Russia, long a traditional ally dating back to before the communist era. Although it still relies on Russian oil, Bulgaria has succeeded in ending its dependence on that country's natural gas, along with other EU members that have cut many economic ties with Russia.
On the other hand, public polling has shown that pro-Russian sentiments are not uncommon. And while Bulgaria did back sanctioning Russia, it dragged its feet on publicly providing Kyiv with military assistance, although behind the scenes Sofia was much more active.
That military assistance, mostly munitions, came under Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, a Harvard-trained lawyer who led perhaps Bulgaria's most Western-oriented government ever. Under Petkov, Bulgaria expelled 70 Russian diplomatic staffers and their families in June 2022, an unprecedented move for Sofia and one that was coordinated with the EU.
Petkov's government, however, was doomed and lasted only six months. The former prime minister later accused Moscow of using "hybrid war" tactics to bring down his government in July 2022.
Buying Land For Cheap
The process of acquiring the Kamchia complex began at the end of the 1990s with the sale of property belonging to the state company Balkanturist, which managed tourism during the communist regime until 1989. In 2003, Moscow's municipal government started to snatch up small plots of land in the area. The boldest buy came in 2008 when the Bulgarian government deeded over nearly 8 hectares (20 acres) in the village of Bliznatsi for just 9.7 lev (around $7.25 at 2008 conversion rates) per square meter. The final agreed price has not been made public but, at that rate per square meter, would have come to around $580,000 in 2008.
With the Moscow municipal authorities paying way below the market price, it was a transaction that, in a 2020 investigative report, the independent news website Dnevnik ranked as one of the most scandalous in Bulgaria's postcommunist history.
The complex's offerings -- according to reports and the site's own website -- are abundant, including the 450-room Longoz hotel; several swimming pools and conference halls; the Rainbow and Black Sea health camps for kids; the holiday village of Pirin, consisting of a hotel and 11 two-story villages; the Zdravets medical center; the Yuri Gagarin Training and Education Center; the Kamchia sports complex, which meets Olympic standards; and an amphitheater with a seating capacity of 2,000.
The contract for the construction of the Kamchia SOK complex was inked in September 2008 by then-Social Policy Minister Emilia Maslarova, although the terms and conditions of the deal still remain murky. In addition, the government of then-Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev earmarked 7.7 million lev ($4.2 million) to build the 10.5-kilometer water main to the complex.
At the time, Bulgarian legislation forbade foreigners and foreign companies from acquiring land in Bulgaria. In this case, the law was circumvented by registering the company in Bulgaria, but the ultimate owner of the Kamchia complex and the land is the Moscow municipal government.
Push For Closer Ties
To much pomp, the complex was officially opened in 2010, with then-Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and then-Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Since then, Kremlin-friendly Bulgarian politicians like Borisov and other high-profile figures have visited, including Yanka Takeva, the president of the Union of Bulgarian Teachers, who enthused that Kamchia offers "endlessly positive working conditions."
Although not blacklisted herself, Takeva is a member of the pro-Russia lobbying group in Bulgaria known as the Russophiles National Movement, whose leader was sanctioned by Washington in February as part of a coordinated U.S.-British move targeting Bulgarians accused of corruption.
Another notable figure associated with the Russian Black Sea complex has been Prince Cyril, son of Simeon II -- Bulgaria's last tsar and a postcommunist prime minister -- who has done "mentoring" work at a children's center there.
Bulgarian athletes have also trained at the site. Bulgarian far-right groups have held seminars on "patriotism" in the complex and, in 2018, some 500 lawyers gathered there to discuss amendments to Bulgaria's criminal code.
From Boom To Bust
For a while, Kamchia's popularity translated into lots of tax revenue, filling local coffers.
"Mostly the tourists were children, veterans of World War II, and single mothers. And it wasn't standard tourism in which tourists only come in the summer. It was filled with these three categories all year round," Emanuil Manolov, mayor of the Avren municipality where Kamchia is located, told RFE/RL.
However, as the number of visitors and events began to dip, in 2019, Kamchia was facing an unpaid tax bill of 1 million lev ($550,000). With its fortunes waning, Borisov praised the complex and spoke of expanding cooperation with Russia in the field of sports, education, and the convention business during a 2019 meeting with then-Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
A few months later, Lavrov announced that Russia's National Security Council would discuss transferring ownership of Kamchia from the Moscow city government to the Russian federal state. He talked of grand plans to transform the site into a major platform to advance Russian interests in Europe.
"The notion of soft power depends on whose mouth it's coming from," former Foreign Minister Passy said. "If you're talking about soft power and it's coming from Lavrov or Putin, then that is a warning that something pernicious is coming."
The onset of the COVID-19 crisis dealt another blow to Russia's Bulgarian plans as all activities at the Black Sea complex essentially shut down from early 2020.
Down but not out, the CEO of Kamchia, Nikolai Nedkov, announced in 2021 grandiose plans to transform the sprawling site into a "unique ecosystem in the form of a smart city." He boasted that a "business incubator, business accelerator, start-up studio, start-up school, and academy for bloggers, vloggers, and influencers" would be opened there.
Two years later those plans remain just that, as Kamchia SOK appears not to be operating: its spas, conference halls, and sports fields are all shut, guarded by private security. The complex's management did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for comment.
In 2022, the Moscow city government announced that due to the difficult geopolitical and economic situation -- a reference to the war the Kremlin is waging in Ukraine and the resulting sanctions -- it had decided to suspend operations at Kamchia with access to the complex restricted.
In 2023, political activists in Bulgaria, along with some former officials, began to campaign actively to demand Sofia seize the complex from the Russians.
Lawyers have argued that the complex doesn't have the right to operate because it is engaged in activities that violate Bulgarian law. Furthermore, they have pointed to the fact that the Russians purchased the land at a time when such acquisitions were prohibited by law. They have also said the Bulgarian company set up to circumvent that law was illegitimate.
"We have no control over what happens there. In other words, the Bulgarian state has no way of supervising what is going on there. And we believe that Kamchia is being used for purposes that threaten our national security," warned Bozhinov.
Russia's record of using its embassies abroad for spying should be a warning to the Bulgarian government, said Passy.
An investigation earlier this year found at least 182 satellite dishes installed on the rooftops of Russian embassies across Europe that are reportedly linked to a massive network of espionage and intelligence gathering.
"With Russia, almost every institution beyond its borders is used for espionage," Passy said.
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