A Bulgarian perspective on the country’s role in the Western Balkans and considerations about the EU’s implication in it
Dr. Anton Panchev
Anton Panchev is a professor of Albanian language, culture and society at the University of Sofia. He is also one of the editors of the site Obshtestvo.net, which is a de facto Bulgarian media connection between the Albanian-language and the Bulgarian-language worlds.
This article was published in the Albanian Shenja Magazine in its 132th issue in April 2022, at pages 27-29.
The war in Ukraine, as a result of Russian aggression, has created a new situation in the field of regional and global security. The Balkans will be deeply affected by these geopolitical developments not only because of the geographical proximity to Russia and the conflict in Ukraine, but also because of the chronic weaknesses of our countries – unstable political institutions, structural economic weaknesses, social problems, possible inter-ethnic tensions in some countries, destabilising policies of Belgrade, etc.
The consequences of the war in Ukraine for Bulgaria
The humanitarian and demographic consequences are significant, as over 300 000 Bulgarians live in the southern regions of Ukraine. Tens of thousands of them, together with many Ukrainians, Russians, Gagauz seek refuge in Bulgaria (by 20 March over 80,000 came to Bulgaria seeking asylum – note of the translator: on 8th April 2022, when this article was translated into English over 156 000 Ukrainians have been for some time in Bulgaria after the outbrek of the war, with 70 000 decided to stay here, 25 000 of them being children). Bulgarian business is ready to create 200,000 jobs for these people and there are many positions, especially for IT specialists. Also, tens of thousands of Russians have property in Bulgaria and, for these and some other reasons, we can expect that many of them who are fleeing the regime in Moscow will settle in Bulgaria. This situation leads to the strengthening of the Bulgarian state demographically in the future, but also creates various challenges.
The political implications: the government coalition of four parties in Sofia faces many challenges (like all governments in Europe) and government stability is very necessary in such a crisis. Very difficult decisions have to be taken and it is normal to have misunderstandings between coalition partners, especially when it is known that they have different ideological profiles. Bulgaria does not need snap elections in a tense situation, because new elections are also unlikely to bring political stability and the country could sink into a deep political crisis with consequences for other areas of the state. Therefore, external pressure should not be put on this government in relation to other issues that are essential to the Bulgarian interest at a time of such tension.
The economic implications – Bulgaria is a key producer of strategic commodities such as wheat (7.16 million tonnes in 2021), sunflower (940 000 tonnes in 2021) and other food products, as well as electricity in the Balkan region (Bulgaria has the capacity to export around 1300 megawatt hours of electricity). At a time when the world’s main producers (Russia and Ukraine) are unable to supply the world with wheat, and with transport channels largely blocked, Bulgaria’s economic role is growing steadily. Although a relatively small country, Bulgaria also has its weight on the world market for some strategic products and in several key segments – copper, chemical products, electronics, arms and munitions.
The strategic and military implications – Bulgaria is becoming a country of paramount importance in NATO and EU policy to block the Russian dictator and to defend the Euro-Atlantic bloc in the Black Sea and in Southeast Europe. Military aid to Ukraine also depends to a large extent on Bulgaria because the weapons, their parts and ammunition, which are in the possession of the Bulgarian army and are produced in Bulgarian factories, are under Soviet licences, i.e. the same as in Ukraine, and the military in that country can use them without special training. In this dynamic situation, Bulgaria could become one of the main suppliers to the Ukrainian army.
In times of war, when Bulgaria occupies such an important position for the Balkans and for the Euro-Atlantic bloc, any incorrect behavior towards Bulgaria, towards Bulgarians outside the Fatherland, must be treated as part of Russia’s hybrid war against the Bulgarian state, but also against the EU and NATO.
European Union policy towards the Balkans
The humanitarian aspect is of great importance because, on the one hand, all EU countries will be affected to one degree or another by the millions of refugees from Ukraine, while, on the other hand, the institutions in Brussels must assist the countries that are close to Ukraine and which are hosting most of the refugees. The Bulgarian Prime Minister proposed on 11 March 2022 that the EU should set up a 10 billion euro refugee fund, and this proposal was accepted, but continuous efforts will be needed to tackle this crisis. The countries of the European Union must apply common rules for the registration of refugees, for the granting of residence permits, for the movement of Ukrainians between countries, for jobs, for the inclusion of children in local kindergartens, schools and universities, and for the guarantee of health, social and cultural services.
The economic aspect of the crisis has very large dimensions. The European Union must commit itself to supporting the countries of the Western Balkans through its financial instruments, but also with new programmes and funds where necessary. Rapid steps must be taken to regulate the electricity market, because prices are very high and threaten not only the well-being of the citizens in the region, but also economic stability. Under such conditions, energy policies must also be changed and the continuation of the work of coal-fired power stations must be continued, even if new production facilities are built, taking into account the European renouncement of Russian gas and oil (for example, the Bulgarian Government plans to renounce its usage of Russian gas from 1 January 2023).
The geopolitical aspect is also of particular importance. In this dangerous geopolitical situation, the EU needs to be strong and united and cannot allow divisions between its Member States, nor compromises with the various criteria for the admission of new candidates for membership, nor with the principles of its foreign policy. Suffice it to quote the Copenhagen criteria – the political criteria: stability of institutions that guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the protection of minorities. The European Union and its Member States must engage in a clear way in the Western Balkans region and move the European integration process forward, respecting its principles and rules. Starting membership negotiations, closing chapters, even accepting new members in a formal way will create serious problems for the integrity of the European Union and for its unity in various crises in general. In this regard, Serbia has been negotiating EU membership for 10 years, but this process has not played a role in reducing Russian influence in Belgrade’s politics – on the contrary, it is Serbia that is the open door for Russian influence in the Balkans and beyond.
The European Union applies comprehensive approval procedures that ensure that new members will only be admitted when they can demonstrate their willingness to assume their responsibilities, namely:
- to meet all EU standards and rules;
- to obtain the approval of the EU institutions and all Member States;
- to have the approval of their citizens – expressed by approval in their respective national parliaments or by referendum.
In order to realise its long-term goals of stabilising the region and integrating it, the European Union must guarantee the territorial integrity, borders and sovereignty of every country in the Western Balkans region. There must be no hesitation in this direction.
The protection of citizens’ rights must be implemented according to the constitutions and laws of the countries in the region, but with the necessary amendments in line with European values. Respect for these rights is a precondition for EU membership and there can be no question at all of ‘compromise’, ‘negotiation’, ‘multi-perspectivity’, etc. In this regard, the identity of all people must be respected, which includes not falsifying history, eliminating hate speech, respecting historical heritage and restoring destroyed monuments that are part of the common European heritage. Human rights issues are the essence of the European Union and they cannot be replaced by the development of economic contacts or the construction of infrastructure;
The countries of the Western Balkans that wish to become part of the European Union must condemn the crimes of the communist regime in the region in a categorical manner. The archives of the secret services and those of the state organisations of the totalitarian regimes must be opened, while the victims of totalitarianism must be rehabilitated;
The implementation of the treaties and agreements between the countries of the Western Balkans, as well as between them and the EU Member States, is a very important condition for the negotiations to start and for the whole process to move forward;
Disputes between the parties should be resolved on clear principles and not decided on the basis of ‘the interest of the moment’. No issue should be ignored, but a quick solution should be sought;
The European Union must also concentrate on combating Russian hybrid attacks in the Balkans. In addition to Russian propaganda, the use of extremist groups and others, this also includes the Russian (Soviet) geopolitical projects of the past, which are still being used today to create divisions between and within the countries of the region.
In the coming months, and probably years (if there are not some positive developments in the Russian leadership and then in Moscow’s policy), the main term around which the foreign and domestic policies of European states will be built will be “security”. Bulgaria will not only have to take care of its national security, but will also take on an important part of the Euro-Atlantic defence.
1) Military security – apart from its geographical position, Bulgaria will be a key factor in supplying Ukraine with arms because of the profile of the Bulgarian army and military industry. Bulgaria can send at least 30 MiG and Su aircraft as well as S-300 anti-missile systems to Ukraine, along with other weapons and ammunition. This was the focus of the US Secretary of Defence’s visit to Sofia on 18-19 March 2022, but the issue will be discussed in the coming weeks depending on developments in Ukraine. However, these developments can happen if other NATO member states supply the Bulgarian army with the relevant weapons, which are to function as replacement in its warehouses of what it could send to Ukraine;
2) Energy security – Bulgaria receives natural gas mainly from Russia (about 85%). In the summer, the gas connection with Greece will be ready and Bulgaria will be supplied with gas from Azerbaijan and with liquefied natural gas, but the Western allies must guarantee the security and prices of supply, as well as allow the operation of Bulgarian thermal power plants, i.e. abandon the “green policy” for a certain period;
3) Humanitarian security – refugees from Ukraine will continue to come to Bulgaria in the future because the economic and social problems in that country will continue regardless of the eventual end of the war. The European Union must provide sufficient funds for the permanent accommodation of these people;
4) Regional security – the Bulgarian institutions know best the problems, achievements and threats to the integration of the Western Balkans into the Union and official Sofia should receive full support from the EU institutions to implement its mission, while Brussels should commit itself to all Bulgarian initiatives to guarantee the European path of the countries in the region.
Photo: The bridge of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is a symbol of the Balkan Ottoman cultural heritage (source: Pixabay, CC0)
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