Valentin Radomirski: I hope Bulgaria and Romania will manage to avoid being pushed into Europe’s “2nd Tier”

The Barricade speaks to the former Bulgarian Ambassador in Bucharest about the Bulgarian and the Romanian presidency of the EU and about the dangers that the two countries face stemming from developments in the Black Sea and the Middle East region. The Barricade also discussed China with the former Ambassador and possibilities for regional cooperation.

Valentin Radomirski is a Bulgarian diplomat and a foreign policy expert. He graduated from the Moscow State University of International Relations in 1974 (having studied ”International Economic Relations”). He started work in the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Relations in 1974. He was a counsellor on foreign policy and national security in the cabinet of the Bulgarian prime minister Sergei Stanishev between 2005 and 2009. He was the Bulgarian ambassador to Romania between 2009 and 2012. After that he was  ambassador for special assignments  responsible for regional cooperation for a year. He was an unaccredited ambassador in the Bulgarian embassy in The Republic of Moldova between October 2013 and June 2015. He retired in 2015. The Bulgarian media often ask for his opinion on international relations.

”The Barricade” approached Valentin Radomirski with questions about the situation in the regions of constant interest for Bulgaria and Romania – Western Balkans and the Black Sea and about the dangers that both countries face as international relations change. Topics such as the possibilities for regional cooperation were also discussed.

Mr. Radomirski, in April 2017 Bulgarian diplomats associated with the Institute for Economics and International Relations, have come out with the idea that the creation of a Black Sea macroregion of the EU could become a priority of the Bulgarian presidency of the EU (January-June 2018). This initiative would secure more funds from Europe for regional cooperation and would reduce tensions between the Black Sea countries. During its presidency of the European Union, the Bulgarian government has chosen the the Western Balkans as its foreign policy priority.  What would be the results of Bulgarian presidency of the EU for the Western Balkans? Is the government in Sofia not overestimating its role in europeanising the region, given that Bulgaria itself suffers from various social drawbacks, that have remained unchanged after 2007 such as corruption,  the crisis in the Bulgarian media, the demographic crisis and so on?

The Western Balkans is a region, which is geographically “surrounded” on all its sides by the EU. That is why it was believed that its accession in the EU is ”predetermined”. However, this view led to the region turning into ”a back yard”, that is too ”messy”, full of problems that originate in its historic development: ethnic conflicts, minority problems, different confessional and value systems. The Thessaloniki Strategy, which was adopted 15 years ago, aimed to overcome these drawbacks. However, the financial-economic crisis at the end of the last decade  strongly hit European ambitions for further expansion of the union.

The fact that the first two cabinets of Boyko Borissov ignored this region speaks a lot. Only two years ago Bulgaria was the president of the Process for Cooperation in South-East Europe, but this period was not utilised by Sofia and it didn’t activate any Bulgarian foreign policy in the region. The present activities are in full contrast to the previous years.

There are a few factors that explain this development.

The objective factor is that the increased attention towards the region is a consequence of the crisis in the Middle East and of migrant processes. In the last years Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran strengthened their attempts to increase their influence on the Muslim communities in the region. At the same time Turkey embarked on policies, which seriously complicated  its relations both with the EU and with its separate member states, just as it did with the USA and NATO. The fears about Turkey’s new role as a result of Ankara’s cosy relationship with Moscow have led to a situation where there is need for the Western Balkans to become a territory that provides military and political security for the European component of NATO, and a structured protection of the economic and market interests of the EU.

The subjective factor rests in prime minister Borissov’s desire to control the foreign policy activity of the government in his third mandate, which is a different approach from what he showed in his first two cabinets. He felt ,correctly, that the objective factor could secure him international support, if the Bulgarian government’s initiatives do not differ from the basic principles of the interests of the strong powers in NATO and EU. In my view, it is not insignificant that he chose the foreign policy sphere as his area, because he has ambitions to become the president. The president of Bulgaria has powers predominantly in two spheres – the military and foreign policy . Thus at the next presidential elections candidates could be two generals. Their successes or failures on the international stage could predetermine the winner of the popular vote.

On your question whether Bulgaria overestimates its europenising role , it could be said that there were such tendencies when Bulgaria was preparing for the presidency .The Western Balkans were promoted as a priority. Many observers have warned that there could be negative outcomes due to the discrepancy between the Western Balkan countries and the EU’s readiness to absorb them not only in the short term, but also in the longer term. This led to a certain correction of the media statements by the Bulgarian side, but the sluggishness from the starting period remained and cast more and more doubts upon our role as a “bona fidae mediator”. The Obstacles, also in this sense, are the social disadvantages, which you mentioned that have remained unchanged after 2007 – such as corruption, crisis in the Bulgarian media and the demographic crisis, etc.

In May 2018 a summit of the presidents of Romania, Austria, Estonia and Bulgaria will take place in Rousse. Its focus will be the Danubian strategy. What motivates president Rumen Radev to organise such a meeting? What are the Bulgarian interests with regard to the Danubean strategy? To what extent is this initiative an addition or an attempt to correct the strongly articulated foreign policy of the Bulgarian EU presidency towards the Western Balkans?

Even before Croatia’s accession to the EU Bulgaria has been underlining the importance of unity in the Danubian region for the European integration of countries such as Serbia or Croatia and for the active cooperation with Ukraine and Moldova within the framework of the European neighbourhood policy. This explains the need for much more effective usage and coordination of the respective financial programs of the EU (e.g. The Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance, The European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument), which include possibilities for cooperation between member-states and countries that are objects of EU policies of enlargement and neighbourliness. In this sense president Radev`s initiative is a good addition to the priority of  the Western Balkans in the governmental program of our presidency.

At the meeting in Rousse three countries which are going to hold successive EU Council presidency in the next 18 months will participate. This allows for taking measures for the renewal of the Danubian Strategy itself and most of all, for reducing the discrepancy in the economic and infrastructural development of Upper and Middle Danube and the development of its lower part, where Bulgaria is situated.

Ten years ago the European Commission initiated a communication ”Black Sea Synergy – New Regional Cooperation Initiative”, which states clearly that there is a link between the Danubian and the Black Sea regions. Due to EU`s problems in the last years the synergy was forgotten. The cooperation formats that were created for its goals – the work group “Danube – Black Sea” (DABLA) and the partnership with the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization didn’t receive the necessary development.

The planned presidential summit should discuss the activisation of these instruments and the important role of the cross-border cooperation programmes. Apart from the many bilateral programs, there is also the Transnational Cooperation Programme in South-East Europe with a budget of 345 million euro and 17 member-states, most of them from the Danubian region. Due to the comparatively reduced budget of these initiatives they could be used for making contacts and accomplishing projects in spheres such as scientific exchanges and cooperation, interaction with the local authorities and so on.

It is important for Bulgaria to have a structured and coordinated approach towards the problems and possibilities of the Danubian region with the aim to prepare a common agenda at all levels of the state administration, something which at this moment is missing in our policy on this issue.

Romania will have the presidency of the EU Council between January and June 2019. What priorities do you expect to be determined by Bucharest for its presidency? Is it possible that amongst these priorities the activisation of the Black Sea regional cooperation along European lines or in the frame of the existing regional formats for cooperation will be included? What differentiates in principle the approach of Bulgaria and Romania towards the Black Sea region in today`s conditions?

I am convinced that the Black Sea foreign policy vector will be among the main priorities of the Romanian presidency in the first half of the next year. The proof is that with our northern neighbour there is a constant consensus between the ruling party or coalition and the opposition on the importance of active Romanian policy in the Black Sea region, regardless of which formation is in power. This is a principal difference between the Romanian and the Bulgarian approach.

Romania has always searched for leadership with its initiatives in the Black Sea region, so that it could counter the domination of the regional superpowers – Russia and Turkey. The present situation projects new possibilities for Bucharest as a result of the situational alliance between these two states and due to the close cooperation with the USA in the security field. It gives Romania together with Poland, the status of basic pillars in Eastern Europe in military and strategic dimensions. The big Romanian deals for delivery of American arms and military equipment from the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 confirm this thesis.

Romania has proven its pragmatism in external policy. That is why I also expect new economic initiatives, related with the changed situation in the Black Sea region. We should not exclude the possibility that our northern neighbour will put the initiative for the creation of a Black Sea macroregion of the EU as its priority(we missed the chance for doing it). This initiative would provide more eurofunds for regional cooperation and would reduce the tension between Black Sea countries after the events of 2014 in Ukraine.

You are a former ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania (2009-2012). In the last years you often comment in the media the processes in your northern neighbour. To what extent did both countries manage to maximise the potential for cooperation in the spheres of foreign policy, economy and culture? Aren’t Sofia and Bucharest indebted to their populations in the border regions, because of the missing or slowly-built cross border infrastructure? Why is it still difficult for both nations to find the way towards equal communication and mutually beneficial cooperation, and instead prefer to compete or show reciprocal indifference?

Objective prerequisites for wide activisation of the both countries’ bilateral relations were created in the last ten years after both countries’ accession to the EU. Significant results were achieved in the first years. Judge it yourself: in 2004 the bilateral trade was 340 million euro. In 2010 it was in excess of 3,5 billion euro – an increase of more than 10 times. Now the trade volume is close to 4 billion euro. The political contacts got strengthened. Joint meetings of the both governments are held almost regularly. Important agreements have been signed: for new bridges and hydroenergetic nodes on the Danube, for a bidirectional gas pipeline (interconnector) for many cross-border projects.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot of potential that remains unrealised. There are factors that contribute to this lack of realisation. The large changes in the political, economic and financial structure of both countries has made them introverted for a long period. The main obstacle for a nation to have an active foreign policy is the introversion of its leadership and its population.

Even though both countries are often mentioned “in a group”, because of their joint accession to the main Western alliances their historical development predetermines differences, which hinder the comprehensive development of their mutual relations. The First World War gave Romania enormous advantages in territorial and resource dimensions,  and it had the opposite effect for Bulgaria. This predetermines the attention, which Romania gives ever since towards its neighbour to the north and to the west, and Bulgaria – to those to the south and southwest. Both countries belong to different language groups and this belonging is not compensated, as is the case with the Turkish and the Greek language,nor by the historic role (something which Turkey and Greece have for Bulgaria). In the last years the outsider-imposed polemics “who makes it better” before our joint accession to the EU, has its negative influence. The problems with the introduced monitoring of justice and internal order and the accomplishment of the criteria for entering Schengen also have negative influence.

It is unpleasant that the alternation between left-wing and right-wing governments in both countries rarely put in their front cabinets from the same European political family. We see how well Brussels uses this instrument for the resolution of bilateral or even regional problems.

The populations of the border regions suffer from all that. These regions are among the poorest in both countries. The development of bilateral relations would help significantly in their connectivity, which is now a main obstacle before their economic development. This is an issue which make both countries’ governments indebted to their voters.

After the possible division of Syria into zones of influence became a part of the media discourse, you started warning that it is not in Bulgaria’s interest to accept  a change of borders in the Middle East, because this would lead also to a change of the Balkan countries’ borders, including those of Bulgaria and that this will be detrimental to the country, as it will be used for compensating Turkey’s loss of Kurdistan. Bulgaria has  a Turkish minority on the border with Turkey, while in Romania the Hungarian minority is located in its central regions. At the same time Sofia realises strategic appropriation with Macedonia – a country, which has its own national identity, but shares a common past with Bulgaria. Romania, in turn, has strategic interests with the Republic of Moldova, where a lot of Romanian-speaking citizens live. In both Bulgaria and Romania there are people who fear the minorities, but often it is the nationalists that support the changing of borders. That means a union with the brothers, who have remained outside the state territory. Why is it important for Bulgaria to keep the borders unchanged, and for Macedonia to remain an independent state? What is Romania’s attitude towards a change of borders in our region?

In my view the situation in Syria will show whether we will open “the Pandora box” and  change once again the borders of sovereign states in Kosovo and Crimea. There are more than 1000 similar cases in the world and they can be unravelled, unless Syria’s borders are at least “de jure” kept unchanged. I believe that both in Romania and in Bulgaria there is intellectual potential, which realises the possible detrimental consequences from such a development. That is Bucharest so far doesn’t recognise Kosovo, together with other 4 EU states. As far as nationalists are concerned, they support only the extension of territory, and these desires are used smartly by great powers for imposing their interests. Consequently, this is detrimental for countries with more limited capabilities such as Bulgaria and Romania.

This question is existential for the present “world order” and the principles outlined in it. The changes in international order have been connected historically with large conflicts, which are presently absolutely unnecessary for the development of Bulgaria and Romania. That is why both countries’ diplomats need to look for an intersection point when they conduct their mutual diplomatic initiatives, aiming at lowering the rising tension in our region in the last years.

In a recent article of yours, you claim that after Trump’s ascension to power in the United States, after the activation of the Brexit clause and after Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France, in Europe there seems to be a return of powers to the positions they were in before World War One. There is a division between Germany and the Anglo-Saxon world, and Macron, following the French interests, positions himself closer to London and Washington. At the same time Russia, Turkey and Iran form a situational alliance, which increases Russian room for maneuvers beyond Western countries’ attempts to limit it. How do these realignments influence the political contradictions in Romania and Bulgaria? To what extent does the victory of social democrats in Romania at the parliamentary elections in December 2016 and of Rumen Radev at the presidential elections in Bulgaria in November 2016 an answer to the geopolitical processes, started by the Brexit referendum and Trump’s victory?

There is a new situation in the world, in which the mentioned events are only an outcome of the changes, which have come into being after the big financial-economic crisis of 2008. The bipolar world from the times of the “Cold War” was replaced by the USA’s full domination for around two decades. “Globalization” gave large profits to the financial capital, but put into an unprivileged condition of the traditional industrial capital. It turned out that globalization can be realized in economic and financial aspects, but it is unrealizable in a political aspect, because of the enormous differences in the values of the historically formed regions. At this moment there is a slow and painful return to the multipolar world that is taking place. In history a similar system of international relations existed in Europe between the Renaissance and the World War Two. The multipolar world requires “Realpolitik” – consideration of real interests and possibilities of allies and adversaries and finding the reasonable balance in protection of peace.

For countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, whose subjectivity in foreign policy is expressed only at bilateral and regional level, changes on a global scale hide dangers. It has always been like that, because countries, which do not have the capabilities of “great nations” turn into objects of big players’ foreign policy. Unfortunately, at this moment the Black Sea and the Caspian military and strategic region is one of the most important ones in the confrontation of the contemporary “big” players. It has a basic importance for the Chinese strategic initiative “One belt, one road”. Bulgaria and Romania are part of the format “16+1” (16 countries of the Central, Eastern Europe and the Balkans + China).

On the other hand, this region is also an object in the American initiative “New Big Middle East”, which was announced in 2006 by the then-state secretary Condoleezza Rice. Turkey and Iran are potential victims of this initiative. That is why they urgently look for an exit, which could prevent the negative developments for them. That is how the situational alliance between them and Russia came into being.

Of course, all this influences the attitudes of voters in Bulgaria and Romania. Like an avalanche more and more news about present and future military conflicts get broadcasted. This makes it more easier to accept the increasing of military budgets, and of the psychological preparation, which usually accompanies the war preparations. That is why the election of a general as Bulgarian president and he smartly used patriotic attitudes by the social democrats in Romania should not be a surprise. There were other important factors for this vote in both countries, but it is a topic for another analysis.

From a standing point of Bulgaria and Romania what is the importance of Russia and Turkey’s bilateral appropriation? These are traditionally influential countries in our region. To what extent are the special foreign policy initiatives towards them by the EU or by Sofia and Bucharest necessary?

As I’ve already said, the appropriation between Russia and Turkey is a situational alliance, which so far has tactical consequences, but also a potential for strategic development. If both regional powers conduct certain common policy, there will be negatives for their neighbors, when resisting it, even if they have the support of other global superpowers. It is well known what are the dangers of being a border region or “a sanitary corridor”. Our basic partners are the EU countries, among which Greece and Cyprus in a certain sense are in a similar situation, most of all with regard to Turkey. We should consider that our European partners in the western and northern part of the alliance don’t consider this a big problem and they often react firmly, which doesn’t leave a lot of possibilities for our diplomacy.

In 2017 the USA’s conflict with Russia worsened and reached levels unknown since the times of “The Cold war” . The tension between the White house and Congress was clear. It was caused in a certain way by the president’s rhetoric which was positive towards Moscow and the lawmakers’ hostile attitude towards Russia . The Kremlin was worried about its international legitimacy in the risks of economic stagnation made the situation more dire. In this context the Russian-Turkish situational alliance has reached proportions, which could impact directly on the national security of both Bulgaria and Romania.

This development makes it necessary for Sofia and Bucharest to closely observe the progress of Russian-Turkish relations and to work on the correct understanding of our worries by the partners in Brussels. We will get a better answer  on how this issue will unfold in the next two years. The way , through which the EU will restructure in a dynamically changing multi-polar world will be decisive.

In 2018 Bulgaria will host the 7th Meeting of the State and Governmental Leaders of Central and Eastern Europe and China. In November 2017 in Budapest, the Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov said that he relied on China for the construction of the “Hemus” highway (that connects Sofia and Varna), the “Black Sea” highway (between Varna and Burgas) and for the modernisation of the railway Ruse-Varna. The prime minister showed optimism for the relations with China, but according to Data of the American Enterprise Institute Chinese investments in Bulgaria for the period 2005-2017 are no more than 330 million dollars. At the same time in Romania they are 2,46 billion dollars, and in Serbia – 6,05 billion dollars. Even in Macedonia China has invested more – 400 million dollars. Why did Chinese investments bypass Bulgaria until now? Do you expect that the summit of the regional leaders and China in Sofia would lead to more Chinese investments in Bulgaria? According to a Romanian journalist from Radio China International Dan Tomozei, countries in our region are in competition for attracting Chinese capital. But to what extent is it possible that the governments in Sofia, Bucharest and the other regional capitals cooperate on joint projects with Chinese investment? It is known that Chinese officials want to link Romania, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria with a high-speed raiload network…

The Chinese initiative “16+1” is an element from the strategy ”One belt, one road”. This strategy was presented by the Chinese president Xi Jinping before students in Kazakhstan for the first time in 2013. The strategy is an instrument through which China accepts a larger role on the international scene, as it builds and finances global transport and commercial relations with more than 60 states in Eurasia. China slowly, but steadily is occupying new spaces on all the continents. This policy creates the prerequisites for conviction that if the accepting countries have the goodwill all these Chinese investments in our region are achievable. You are right that Bulgaria missed the beginning of this development  and our neighbours used this to attract larger investments.

On the other hand, the Chinese initiative for Eastern and Central Europe “16+1” is still in the beginning of its implementation. The funds will be enough, so that larger projects like those you mentioned could be realised.

One should consider that this project apparently worries in China’s competitors. This can be seen in the alternative infrastructure scheme, discussed by the USA, Australia, Japan and India, which is opposed to these Chinese intentions.

For us and Romania it will be much more interesting how the Chinese initiative “16+1” will synchronise with the USA-supported initiative “Intermarium”, which is a regional alliance of the countries in Eastern and Central Europe along the whole line between the Baltic and the Black Sea. “Intermarium” was launched by the Poles in the times between the two World wars. This idea was renewed again by Poland a year ago – in Croatia. According to some observers “Intermarium” is not only anti-Russian, but also tries to stop the Chinese connectivity with Europe in the Eastern part of the continent. Perhaps, that is why the Chinese representatives in Sofia a few months ago, announced that they are offering a union of the Chinese and the Polish-Croatian initiative in order to avoid a clash of interests. As the Englishmen say: “If you cannot beat them, join them”.

 The petro-yuan will be at the centre of the rivalry between the USA and China in 2018. The rising importance of the Chinese currency, colossal banking, state and corporate indebtedness to China and the USA-initiated conflicts in the countries and the regions, where the Chinese’ “One belt, one road” strategy targets will also be at the centre of the rivalry. All that will significantly influence the tempo and dimensions, in which the Chinese will implement their intentions on the Balkans, and in Bulgaria and Romania in particular.

It is expected that this year there will be a new summit of the leaders of Greece, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. So far they have already met a few times and have declared their joint will for development of cross-border projects. However the four leaders so far, only declare good intentions without finding the money for the realisation of the transport connections. How do you evaluate this format? to what extent does it have the potential to achieve quality development for “the orthodox four”? Will it not face the same fate as the “Craiova Threesome” – (Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria) , which led to a few meetings a few years ago, but didn’t accomplish anything?

The history of Balkans shows that both variants are possible. The world economy is rising. This gives ground for certain optimism that there will be money if not for all, at least for a part of the projects.

There are military strategy factors, which would ease the allocation of money for infrastructural projects, such as a railroad between the Aegian Sea and the Black Sea. After the large military exercises last year in Eastern Europe, American generals pointed out that the greatest drawback is the bad infrastructure in the region.

So, at this moment I am more of an optimist than a pessimist, even though most of the regional formations didn’t have a good history in the last years.

Let’s hope our diplomacy will have success in the forthcoming difficult months for the future of EU, that it will take the right positions, which would prevent Bulgaria and Romania becoming relegated into “a second tier Europe ”.

Vladimir Mitev is a Bulgarian-Romanian journalist based in Rousse, a town on the very border between the two countries. He is the editor-in-chief of the Romanian website BARICADA Romania, which initially started as a Romanian language version of the Bulgarian portal by the same name. He focuses on international politics. He has worked for the Bulgarian weekly “Tema” until its closure in 2015. He founded the bilingual Romanian-Bulgarian blog ”The Bridge of Friendship”. His articles and translations have been published by the BGNES agency, the magazines of A-specto and Economy, the blog of ”Solidary Bulgaria” and others. He has published also in the Romanian magazines of Decât o Revista și Q Magazine, in the Romanian cultural magazines of Vatra and Poesis, and in the Romanian left-wing portal Critic Atac.