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Chart shows glaring economic risk that could wipe out record highs

Chart shows glaring economic risk that could wipe out record highs

Economic forecaster Lakshman Achuthan is warning Wall Street that the market’s new highs don’t signal a revitalized growth cycle.

Trading Nation.” “When we look to the hard data, we see the slowdown. There is a deceleration in growth that has been going on. It’s continuing actually to occur, and that’s the disconnect here.”

He takes his case a step further by highlighting a chart that shows industrial output and consumption slowdowns. It illustrates that their growth rates turned down in the second half of last year and never materially recovered.

“They both topped out,” said Achuthan. “Retail sales haven’t been this low for the past two years with the exception of the last few months where in December it went to its lowest reading since 2009.”

That decade low coincided with the historic plunge in the stock market.

Since then, the major stock indexes are up 22% to 25%. The Dow and S&P 500 closed at all-time highs on Tuesday, and the Nasdaq hit an intraday record high on Wednesday. However, the industrial production and retail sales failed to follow suit.

“Is it all of the sudden going to reaccelerate back up to where the market hopes it will be or not?” he asked. “It’s pretty low at this moment because this hard data and this stuff weigh from the risk-on kind of feeling hasn’t shown up.”

According to Achuthan, the Street is largely making a faith-based forecast that economic growth will rebound in the year’s second half. It’s an assumption that could generate a lot of pain, he suggests. He contends the market isn’t in the clear from another sharp pullback.

“Corrections happen during growth-rate cycle slowdowns,” Achuthan said. “They don’t require a recession.”

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Men in Black: International Proves Tessa Thompson’s Agent M Is Perfect For The Job

Men in Black: International Proves Tessa Thompson’s Agent M Is Perfect For The Job

In the immortal words of Will Smith, nod ya head. The black suits comin’.

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth reunite to bring their dazzling dynamic to theaters in Men in Black: International this summer, and from the look of things, it’s going to be a banger.

The newest installment in the Men in Black series gives fans a new perspective as it departs the original movie trilogy’s United States setting and brings our new heroes around the world for a jet-setting adventure.

“You erased my parents’ memories, but you didn’t get mine. Took me 20 years to find you. How many people can say that? I found you, which makes me perfect for this job,” insists Thompson’s Agent M. She’s right. The other agents have all had to be recruited by the agency, so the fact that she was able to simply find the organization that insists it exists as a “rumor” is impressive, indeed.

When M dons the signature black suits and black shades, she’s partnered up with Chris Hemsworth’s Agent H, and the pair make an explosive duo. Together they’ll face the alien threat known as the Hive, which has the ability to steal others’ faces.

Sony Pictures Entertainment

In the U.K. Men in Black branch, Liam Neeson gives us London’s High T, and Emma Thompson reprises her role as Agent O. Meanwhile, Kumail Nanjiani and Rebecca Ferguson have been tapped to play new aliens for the crew.

This lengthy new trailer serves up plenty of piping hot footage to get you ready to head to London this summer, and it looks like an awesome follow-up for the popular sci-fi series with an important buddy cop dynamic.

Men in Black: International is beaming into theaters on June 14 – just in time to give you another round of Thompson and Hemsworth after Avengers: Endgame.

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FBI and US attorney question JetSmarter customers

FBI and US attorney question JetSmarter customers

Officials from the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office in Florida have been interviewing customers of JetSmarter about the private jet company’s business practices and communications, according to JetSmarter customers.

JetSmarter’s financial losses, lawsuits and concerns about security and drugs on JetSmarter flights. The Fort Lauderdale-based company, founded in 2012 and backed by Jay-Z and the Saudi Royal family, grew to more than 8,000 members and touted a valuation of $1.5 billion in 2016 with the promise of unlimited private jet flights.

Customers bought memberships for more than $30,000 a year that included free flights, but last year members were suddenly told they would have to start paying for flights. Customers filed more than a dozen lawsuits accusing the company of being a fraud and “unlawful bait and switch.”

JetSmarter has said that its membership agreements state that terms are subject to change at any time.

JetSmarter announced this month that it was being acquired by Vista Global, the Dubai-based owner of Vista Jet and XOJET. People familiar with the deal said Vista bought JetSmarter mainly for its app technology and will use the company’s technology to expand and improve its other private jet brands.

In a statement to CNBC, Vista Global said that its “integrity is an established pillar of the group’s reputation and it has maintained a trusted relationship with its customers for over 15 years, which will remain solid and unchallenged.”

The company added that it “carried out an extensive due diligence process and we continue to see JetSmarter as a highly attractive acquisition for the group.”

CNBC reported this month that JetSmarter had reached an agreement in a class arbitration claim in Florida filed by members. The agreement, which has to be approved by the courts, creates a $3 million fund for JetSmarter members as well as free memberships and flight credits. The deal has been criticized by several attorneys representing JetSmarter members, since it allows the lawyers for plaintiffs to claim the entire $3 million in funds set aside for members. It also prevents members who do not actively opt out of the settlement to forfeit any future claims against the company.

An attorney representing members in the class-action arbitration said the Vista deal won’t affect JetSmarter’s ability to honor the agreement.

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Trump insults Biden saying intelligence ‘long in doubt’ after Democrat enters 2020 election race

Trump insults Biden saying intelligence ‘long in doubt’ after Democrat enters 2020 election race

Donald Trump has responded to Joe Biden’s announcement he will run for the Democratic presidential nomination by mocking the veteran politician’s intelligence and claiming he will compete against “very sick” rivals with “demented ideas”.

“Welcome to the race Sleepy Joe. I only hope you have the intelligence, long in doubt, to wage a successful primary campaign,” Mr Trump tweeted on Thursday morning. 

“It will be nasty – you will be dealing with people who truly have some very sick & demented ideas. But if you make it, I will see you at the Starting Gate!”

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The president’s jibe followed a series of tweets in which he raged against findings in the explosive Mueller report, and came just hours after the former vice-president officially announced his candidacy.

Mr Biden, who has become the instant Democratic frontrunner alongside Bernie Sanders, launched his campaign with an explicit focus on countering Mr Trump’s presidency.

The 76-year-old lifelong politician warned in a three-minute announcement video handing Mr Trump a further four years in the White House would “forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation”.

He also attacked the president for his response to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, accusing Mr Trump of having “assigned moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it”.

“In that moment, I knew that the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime,” he added.

More follows…


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Southwest Airlines reports better-than-expected earnings, revenue despite 737 Max jet grounding

Southwest Airlines reports better-than-expected earnings, revenue despite 737 Max jet grounding

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are parked on the tarmac after being grounded, at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California on March 28, 2019.

Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are parked on the tarmac after being grounded, at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California on March 28, 2019.

Southwest Airlines first-quarter earnings took a hit from the prolonged grounding of the Boeing 737 Max jets that forced it to cancel more than 10,000 flights during the quarter, as well as the U.S. government shutdown and maintenance issues, the company said Thursday.

Raymond James downgraded Southwest stock and lowered its earnings projections in April, citing the Max groundings.

It’s unclear when the Max will return. Boeing, which expects a hit of more than $1 billion from the grounding, said it’s completed 96 flights totaling over 159 hours of air time with the new Max software fix.

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PFA Team of the Year: Paul Pogba, Raheem Sterling and Sadio Mane included in side

PFA Team of the Year: Paul Pogba, Raheem Sterling and Sadio Mane included in side

Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba has been named in the PFA Team of the Year 2018-19 – the only player not from either Manchester City or Liverpool.

City have six of the 11, voted for by fellow players – goalkeeper Ederson, centre-half Aymeric Laporte, midfielders Bernardo Silva and Fernandinho and forwards Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling.

The remaining four are all Liverpool players – full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent-Alexander Arnold, centre-half Virgil van Dijk and forward Sadio Mane.

Lineker and Hasselbaink on Pogba’s inclusion in Team of the Year

But there is no room for Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah or Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who have both scored 19 league goals this season.

Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, with 17 and 16 Premier League goals respectively, also miss out.

The PFA Team of the Year was voted for by members of the Professional Footballers’ Association, the players’ union.

It is the second successive year where Manchester City have provided the most players from one team as they had five of the 11 in the 2017-18 side.

However, only Sergio Aguero retains his place from the team of 12 months ago.

Ederson (Man City)

Did you know? Ederson has kept 18 Premier League clean sheets this season – no Manchester City keeper has kept more in a single campaign in the competition.

Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)

Did you know? The Liverpool full-back is averaging a Premier League assist every 275 minutes this season, the best ratio among defenders in the competition (minimum 20 games).

Aymeric Laporte (Man City)

Did you know? Laporte has made more successful passes than any other defender in the Premier League this season (2,514).

Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)

Did you know? Since his Premier League debut for Liverpool in January 2018, Virgil van Dijk has kept more clean sheets than any other player in the competition (25).

Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)

Did you know? Robertson has provided more Premier League assists than any other Liverpool player this season (nine).

Fernandinho (Man City)

Did you know? Manchester City’s win percentage in the Premier League when Fernandinho plays this season is 86%, compared to 67% when he does not.

Bernardo Silva (Man City)

Did you know? Silva has scored seven goals in 33 Premier League games this season, one more than he scored in 35 appearances last term.

Paul Pogba (Man Utd)

Did you know? Pogba has been directly involved in more league goals this season (22) than he has in any of his previous campaigns in the top five European leagues.

Sadio Mane (Liverpool)

Did you know? This has been Sadio Mane’s best Premier League season for goals scored (18) and goal involvements (19).

Sergio Aguero (Man City)

Did you know? This season, Sergio Aguero became just the third player to score 150 Premier League goals for a single club, after Wayne Rooney at Manchester United and Thierry Henry at Arsenal.

Raheem Sterling (Man City)

Did you know? Sterling has been involved in more Premier League goals than any other English player in the Premier League this season (27).

Who makes your Premier League team of the year?

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Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank merger talks collapse

Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank merger talks collapse

Merger talks between Germany’s top two lenders, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, have ended in failure.

Deutsche Bank shares rose more than 2% on the news, while Commerzbank‘s stock fell by nearly 3%.

Reports and speculation regarding a merger had been rife for months, heightening under the tenure of German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who has spoken out in favor of strong banks for the European nation. But there’s been criticism too since it may lead to job losses.

An industry source with knowledge of the matter, who preferred to remain anonymous, told CNBC last month that there was not widespread support for the merger within Deutsche Bank.

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Virgil van Dijk or Raheem Sterling? Gary Lineker picks his Premier League player of the year – BBC Sport

Virgil van Dijk or Raheem Sterling? Gary Lineker picks his Premier League player of the year – BBC Sport

Gary Lineker explains why he believes Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling should win the Professional Footballers’ Association Players’ Player of the Year award ahead of Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk.

You can watch the full feature on the Premier League Show on Thursday, 25 April at 19:00 BST on BBC Two.

READ MORE: Sterling, Van Dijk, Aguero, Hazard, Mane & Silva on shortlist for PFA Player of the Year

WATCH MORE: Ajax score four before Spurs semi-final

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London Marathon 2019: Johnboy Smith on why ‘there is life after disability and tragedy’

London Marathon 2019: Johnboy Smith on why ‘there is life after disability and tragedy’
Johnboy Smith finished second in the 2017 New York Marathon

“I was sitting in the middle in the back seat in the car and the bullet hit me with such force that I shot forward and my head hit where the handbrake was.

“I fell back and knew I had been shot. I had no feeling in my leg. I could feel blood running down my back – I was in trouble.

“That was it. Instant total paralysis.”

Johnboy Smith was just 16 years old when his life changed in a split second.

But out of adversity has come a new challenge in the shape of wheelchair racing and now he wants to inspire others as he chases Paralympic success.

Born into a Traveller background and living in Kent, in 2006 Smith was a keen amateur boxer and training to be a plumber and plasterer. One day, while out with friends, he stumbled on, as he describes it, “the wrong farm at the wrong time” and was shot by a farmer who, wrongly, believed they were poachers.

The bullet was fired from a rifle at the estate car in which Smith and his friends were travelling. It went through the car tailgate, through a dog in the boot and through the car seat, into his spine.

“We were about 20 miles and 40 minutes away from the hospital,” he recalls. “On the way, I was coughing up blood and couldn’t breathe. I wanted to say goodbye to my mum and that was what got me to the hospital.

“I remember everything until I got to the hospital and I blacked out then.”

As well as the paralysis, Smith had a collapsed lung, ruptured spleen and a perforated bowel and was in intensive care for a week.

In 2010, the man who fired the shot was convicted at Maidstone Crown Court after pleading guilty to inflicting grievous bodily harm, while another man was also convicted of the same offence.

In hospital, Smith was told he would be a wheelchair user for the rest of his life – something he found hard to comprehend and accept.

After the shock wore off, and with the support of his friends and family and the wider Traveller community, he started rehab at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and faced a different future.

“Very early on at Stoke Mandeville, I was lying in bed and just thinking what was I going to do now,” he says.

“If I didn’t pull myself together, I didn’t know what the situation would do to my parents, not just me.

“My mother was pushing me around the hospital. As a 16-year-old, I didn’t want her to have to do that and I wanted some dignity, so that inspired me to be better and stronger mentally and physically.

“I knew I had to build some upper body strength and started lifting weights and it all started from there.”

Smith began by doing some wheelchair body building and powerlifting. Watching the London Paralympics in 2012 made him crave the bigger stage.

He moved to athletics and started to compete in the seated throw events in his category. But at an event in Berlin in 2014, he saw wheelchair racing up close and knew then that he wanted a piece of the action.

After some persuasion from his father and an internet search for “Where does David Weir train?”, he ended up at the Weir Archer Academy, set up by the six-time Paralympic champion and his long-time coach Jenny Archer.

Archer, known for her no-nonsense attitude, took one look at Smith, who at that point had the physique of a thrower rather than a wheelchair racer, and bluntly told him to come back when he had lost four stone.

Six months later, a slimmed-down Smith returned to Archer, who initially didn’t recognise the transformed young man in front of her, and his wheelchair racing career started.

The 29-year-old made a big impact on his international debut, winning silver when representing England in the T54 marathon at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Australia.

This year, in Sunday’s London Marathon, just weeks after wife Kerri gave birth to twin daughters, he wants to better his 11th place from 2018 in a race which doubles as the World Para-athletics Championships.

David Weir and Madison de Rozario will both be defending their London titles

Weir will be going in as favourite to land a record ninth London title in his 20th consecutive time around the streets of the capital but while old foe Marcel Hug from Switzerland will challenge again, the rising star on the block is American Daniel Romanchuk.

The 20-year-old won in Chicago and New York last winter before triumphing in Boston two weeks ago.

Australian Madison de Rozario defends her women’s title but four-time champion Tatyana McFadden from the USA and Boston champion Manuela Schar from Switzerland will push her all the way.

Smith wants to show what he can do with just over a year to go to his main target – the marathon at the Tokyo Paralympics where he wants to win gold.

“The T54 category is so competitive. I can turn anything into a competition and this suits me well,” he says.

“I could never have imagined me doing anything like this. I am just a local lad from Kent. Whatever I do I put my heart and soul into it. It has just come naturally to me.

“My motivation is that you can have the worst news in the world, but there is life after disability and tragedy.

“If someone, whether they are from the Traveller community or not, comes to me and says I am the reason they are getting out of bed, then I have done my job. I want to inspire people. It’s not about being an elite athlete – just be better than yesterday.”

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Are Bulgaria’s strings still being pulled by the Kremlin?

Are Bulgaria’s strings still being pulled by the Kremlin?

Vladimir Putin was said to be livid. It was bad enough that more than a dozen EU countries had collectively decided to expel Russian diplomats over the poisoning of former intelligence operative, Sergei Skripal, in the UK.

But the diplomatic offensive was announced by EU chief Donald Tusk in the Black Sea resort city of Varna in Bulgaria – a country the Kremlin consider to be within its political and economic sphere of influence.

So Russia’s network of Bulgarian influencers who dominate the country’s political, economic and media landscape went into action. Within days of Tusk’s announcement, in March 2018, Bulgaria’s Kremlin-friendly president Rumen Radev called a press conference to clarify his country’s stance on the Skripal poisonings. Days earlier, Russian military intelligence officials had entered the UK and allegedly used the chemical weapon novichok against a turncoat former spy and his daughter, ultimately killing a UK national exposed to the deadly toxin.

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Radev declared that there must be “clear and irrefutable” evidence of Russian involvement in the poisoning before Sofia would join its Nato and EU allies to expel any Moscow envoys.

A senior Bulgarian official, responding to a long list of questions about Russian influence in the country, insisted to The Independent that “nobody put pressure on us in relation to thе Skripal case”.

Within weeks, both Radev and prime minister Boyko Borissov trekked to Moscow, seeking to win Putin’s approval and offering to resume frozen energy deals.

Putin, appearing slightly bored by the proceedings, publicly reminded them of how much control Russia held over Bulgaria.

“One company, Lukoil, has invested $3bn in Bulgaria,” he said, standing alongside Borissov, while claiming that the Russian energy company alone accounts for 9 per cent of the country’s GDP and a quarter of the state budget.

“That speaks volumes,” he said. “Don’t you think?”

Bulgaria proudly entered Nato in 2004 and joined the EU in 2007, seemingly bringing to an end decades of domination by Russia and its Communist Party surrogates.

But in recent years, as the US and EU have drawn inward, Bulgaria has – more so than even other Balkan and former eastern European Soviet satellite states – come under the yoke of Moscow. Bulgaria provides a case study of how Russia is using economic power to harden its influence in eastern Europe. While attention has been focused elsewhere, Kremlin-linked oligarchs and Russian firms have taken control of key elements of the country’s energy, media, banking, and communications sectors.

Encouraged by cheap loans from Kremlin-linked banks, hundreds of thousands of Russians have bought homes in Bulgaria, many just acting as private citizens hoping to settle there – but also serving as potential guarantor of Russian interests in any crisis. A Russian grocery store chain has opened hundreds of branches in the country. According to the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a third of Bulgaria’s GDP is controlled by Russian firms or their oligarchic Bulgarian allies.

The Kremlin counts supporters among the government of Borissov and in the opposition parties.

The senior Bulgarian official acknowledges that the country is dependent like others in Europe on Russian gas, but is struggling to diversify and lower its dependence on the Kremlin.

He also insists that critics exaggerated the extent of Russian control over the economy. No Russians, he says, explicitly control Bulgarian banks or media outlets. Only one telecommunications firm is controlled by Russian stakeholders, and the supermarket chain is one of several owned by foreigners. UK nationals also own vacation properties in Bulgaria.

“We have US companies with shares in strategic businesses, as well as Austrian, French, even British,” he says. “People are people. As long as they abide by the rule of law and contribute positively to our communities, we welcome all.”

Still, critics maintain that despite Bulgaria’s official alignment with Europe and Nato, Russia has managed to capture key levers of power, even if Russian individuals don’t explicitly hold the reins.

“When you look at the lineup of our political scene and the lineup of our economic scene, all roads lead to Moscow,” says Tatyana Doncheva, a former prosecutor and politician in Sofia, the capital. “There’s not a single case of Russians coming here to invest in, say, manufacturing. Russia distributes money to specific businesses and businesspeople.”

The story of Bulgaria’s former minister of economy and energy minister, Traycho Traykov, illustrates the power that the Kremlin wields behind the scenes. He came aboard the first government of Borissov to help give his gruff centre-right party a technocratic sheen.

Almost immediately he came under pressure to sign energy deals with Russia that seemed to favour the Kremlin over Bulgarian interests. He was lobbied and cajoled by influential figures in politics and business who seemed to have ear of the highest figures in the country. He clashed repeatedly with the head of the Bulgarian branch of Lukoil, the Russian energy company.

“With all the Russian-linked energy deals, their prices are not market-based,” says Ognian Shentov, chair of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a pro-west think tank. “You are siphoning billions from our economy.”

One day in 2011, Traykov ordered his deputy to hold off on signing a controversial energy deal that many thought would give Russian partners an unfair edge.

The deputy minister signed the deal anyway, and Traykov fired the deputy, only to have him reinstated by the prime minister. Eventually, a year later, it was Traykov who was forced out, accused of delaying the signing of energy deals.

Once out of the cabinet, Traykov became a successful opposition politician, winning a seat on the Sofia city council. He began a presidential run in 2016, calling attention to the nexus between Russian-influenced businesses and politicians.

That’s when Bulgaria’s big media began to target him. The vast television and newspaper empire owned by lawmaker and oligarch Delyan Slavchev Peevski, who has been linked to the Kremlin, began publishing stories alleging he was corrupt.

When he refused to back down, Bulgaria’s prosecutor began pursuing him on corruption allegations. The charges were dismissed by three separate courts, but then a newly created “anti-corruption” commission froze his assets. Traykov continues to deny the allegations.

The senior Bulgarian official insists that the judiciary is independent, and that anyone can take a media outlet to court if they believe it has humiliated, slandered, or falsely accused them.

“Traykov is a cautionary tale,” says Shentov, whose think tank helped assemble the Kremlin Playbook, a landmark 2016 report which details resurgent Russian expansion in eastern Europe.

“There are clear signs of both political and economic capture, suggesting that the country is at high risk of Russian-influenced state capture,” says the report.

Soviet general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, visits Sofia in 1985 (Getty)

Russia’s efforts in Bulgaria have been especially forceful in the energy sector. Russia’s state-owned Gazprom is Bulgaria’s only natural gas provider. Rosatom, Moscow’s state-owned atomic energy firm, dominates its nuclear sector. Lukoil controls Bulgaria’s only oil refinery and over half the fuel market. In coordination with Turkey, Russia is building a controversial gas pipeline through Bulgaria that is opposed by Americans.

After the 2014 collapse of the massive Corporate Commercial Bank, triggered after the Kremlin VTB bank called in loans worth €900m, Moscow and its affiliates took over even more businesses.

The senior Bulgarian official disputes the causes of the bank’s collapse.

Over the years, VTB has also steadily increased its control over Vivacom, the country’s main telecommunications firm.

The result, say critics, is the fleecing of consumers and the treasury. According to the Centre for the Study of Democracy, Bulgaria, one of Europe’s poorest countries, is paying Gazprom between 10 and 26 per cent more for its natural gas than the rest of Europe. This will cost it €1bn over the next five years, which amounts to the entire annual education budget of the country. The senior Bulgarian official counters that his country pays some of the lowest electricity prices in Europe.

“They’re most visible in the energy sector, forcing both our government and private enterprises into asymmetric deals,” says Shentov. “But across other sectors, as well the Russians control the people who are in charge.”

Until last year, Borissov had avoided visiting Moscow during his entire political career. A former Sofia firefighter, he became the mayor of the capital before becoming a populist leader. He is said to have been extremely wary of the Kremlin.

“Both Americans and Russians want to screw us,” Borissov has told confidantes, according to a former senior official. “But Russians want us to love them, as well.” A senior Bulgarian official did not dispute the comment.

Moscow’s instruments of power in Bulgaria stretch across the country’s political landscape. The Kremlin’s closest politically ally, Ataka, is a far-right ultranationalist, xenophobic party, and works with the Russian embassy in Sofia, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable.

But Russia has allies in other corners. The country’s ethnic Turkish party, Movement for Rights and Freedoms, is largely seen as a conduit for Russian influence and dealmaking. Its founder, Ahmed Dogan, is a colorful onetime asset of the Soviet-era Bulgarian secret services. He has reinvented himself as a standard-bearer for Bulgaria’s Turkish-speaking minority and a major political broker.

“He’s essentially the kingmaker,” says Doncheva.

Even the mainstream Bulgarian Socialist Party and the centre-right parties, appear to acquiesce to or collaborate with Kremlin figures. Borissov’s Citizens for European Development  of Bulgaria, known by the acronym Gerb, is careful to avoid alienating pro-Russian coalition partners even as he himself is described as suspicious of Russia.

“All the political parties say they are pro-EU and pro-Nato, which is not the case in practice,” says Valeri Grigorov, leader of a small opposition party.

The country’s broadcast outlets and major newspapers rarely focus attention on Russia’s deal-making and influence-peddling. The EU’s own policies may be encouraging media outlets to toe the Kremlin’s line, or at least avoid controversial storylines that touch upon Russia’s influence and exploitation.

Every EU development project devotes 5 per cent of its budget to advertising and promotion, which is doled out by Sofia to mass news platforms cosy with the government. Criticise the government or the Kremlin too much and lose out on lucrative ad money.

Bulgaria’s mass media regularly spews out false stories alleging imminent bans on Bulgarian food items to stoke anti-EU sentiment.

Russians inside Bulgaria are another conduit for potential influence. The hundreds of thousands of Russians owning homes in the country include ordinary citizens likely seeking to escape the cold weather, corruption and malaise afflicting contemporary Russia. In Bulgaria, they can anchor themselves to a largely Orthodox Christian and Cyrillic alphabet-using Slavic nation in the EU and on the Black Sea.  

But unlike the smattering of European expatriates who work or study in Bulgaria, they often live clustered together in compounds outside of town centres, rarely interacting with Bulgarians, while shopping at their own chain of grocery stores and sending their kids to their own schools, fuelling suspicions they will serve as a kind of fifth column.

“If their government calls them, whatever their political affiliation they will respond,” says Shentov. “At the end of the day, it’s the Kremlin’s call.”

Russian fingerprints also appear among small groups of paramilitary organisations recruited from state security assets. They amount to right-wing pro-Kremlin motorcycle gangs concentrated on the country’s Black Sea coast.

“Of course, it is something dangerous,” says Raden Kanev, a lawyer and political analyst and former right-wing politician who tracks such groups.

The senior Bulgarian official says there was only one motorcycle gang that flew the Russian flag in the country, and denied the existence of any paramilitary groups.

Bulgaria is also the target of sustained media manipulation offensives that Sofia officials believe are linked to Russia. “We comply strictly with the EU plan to combat disinformation and we also work with our colleagues in the strategic communications division of Nato, to target fake news and hybrid media attacks,” the senior Bulgarian official says.

After his first meeting with Putin during a visit to Gdansk in 2009, the burly 6ft Borissov came away visibly shaken.

“When he came back he was really scared,” says one former senior Bulgarian official, who spoke on condition he not be named. “The only certain way to destroy your political career in Bulgaria is to oppose the Russians.”

The senior Bulgarian official declined to comment, instead referring to bland public statements issued after the meeting.

But despite its channels of influence, Russia doesn’t always get its way. It lost big in its attempt to coax neighbouring North Macedonia out of Nato, and earlier this year it lost another major battle in Bulgaria.

Even though the Cold War ended 30 years ago, Bulgaria never fully updated its armed forces from the Soviet era. So when it was time for it to spend up to €750m to upgrade its air force and replace its ageing MiG-29s, the stakes were high.

On one side, there were those advocating that Bulgaria purchase American F-16s, drawing it closer into Nato and the partnership with the US. On the other were those closer to the Kremlin, including Radev, who advocated that Bulgaria purchase Gripen jets from Sweden, a non-Nato country that would not draw the same level of scrutiny of the country’s personnel and their ties that a major purchase of US weapons might entail.

“With the US you have a different security architecture,” says Shentov.

An order for American F-16 jets caused division (Reuters/Toby Melville)

The fight was on. It was part of an ongoing battle between the west and Russia over influence and control of key institutions in Bulgaria and other small Balkan and eastern European states, including Nato and EU members. Factions within the country’s powerful military and security institutions penned op-eds, lobbied lawmakers, and made entreaties behind closed doors. Officials from the US and Russia held meetings with counterparts and interlocutors, nervously watching to see how the drama would unfold in parliament.

“The pro-Russian president and Ataka were for the Gripens,” says Shentov.

“We are a democratic society and such debates are normal,” says the senior Bulgarian official. “We have a clear procedure regarding the acquisition of new fighter jets.”

For once the US ascertained the stakes and got involved, dispatching senior US officials to Sofia. “The United States is committed to working with the Bulgarian government to tailor the final scope of a potential F-16 sale to fit its budgetary and operational requirements,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in December.

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The next month, parliament voted 130-84 to give the government the go-ahead to begin negotiations with the US for the purchase of eight F-16s, a rare defeat for the Kremlin, but one that showed the influence Washington and the west could wield if they only paid attention.

“The Americans used to have more influence,” says Doncheva, the former prosecutor. “They’re so naive as to believe that because Bulgaria is a member of the EU and Nato, and they have a small military base here, all their problems are solved. Nothing is solved.”

Milena Hristova contributed to this report

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