Yordan Bozhilov: The strategic partnership document with Romania must be followed by real and far-reaching actions

Bulgarian security expert, a former deputy minister of defence in Kirill Petkov government, sees the joint statement by the presidents of Bulgaria and Romania as a correction of the humiliation that Klaus Iohannis was subjected to in Sofia in 2016. That event has long weighed on Bulgarian-Romanian relations.

Mr Bozhilov, the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, is in Sofia today, and a declaration of strategic partnership between Bulgaria and Romania has been announced.

What is the content of this strategic partnership? Is it timely, is it late or is it perhaps premature?

I am extremely pleased with Klaus Iohannis’ visit to Bulgaria. It demonstrates the level of relations we should have between Bulgaria and Romania. Both countries have similar goals, priorities and values. We are on the same path of Euro-Atlantic integration. And the more we deepen our relations in all areas, the better. This is especially true now, in the context of the crisis in our region, where the two countries can have an extremely good partnership.

Yordan Bozhilov

What in particular can security cooperation be? What can it consist of?

The biggest problem, not only for the region and for Europe, but also for world peace, for the global security system, is the war in Ukraine. This war is literally taking place on our borders.

We need to step up cooperation in many areas. Firstly, increasing the capabilities of the Bulgarian and Romanian armies. This can be done, including through joint procurement of weapons and equipment, through increased cooperation in training, through more joint exercises. At the same time, we must allow NATO countries, by deploying their forces and assets on the territories of Bulgaria and Romania, to pass on their experience. This is already happening. We have troops from our allied countries deployed on both Bulgarian and Romanian territory. However, all this talk must result in a more prominent NATO presence on the Eastern flank. In this way, NATO will guarantee the security of every country, as provided for in the Washington Treaty.

Does this agreement mean that Bulgaria’s strategic importance on NATO’s eastern flank is growing?

Any action aimed at increasing our defense capability, a greater NATO presence on our territory, is in the interest of our country and our allies. From this point of view, Bulgaria can play a very serious role on the Eastern flank.

We must not give the impression of ambiguity or hesitation in our policy. Romania’s policy is much more coherent. There is no argument there about how we should achieve greater security in the region and peace in Ukraine. I would also like to see more determination from Bulgarian politicians.

We remember 2016, when Iohannis visited Bulgaria and the question of how to increase security in the Black Sea region was raised. At that time the issue of a NATO flotilla in the Black Sea region was discussed. At that time, Bulgaria, in the person of the Bulgarian Prime Minister, very rudely refused such cooperation, although many of the steps had been agreed in advance. I believe that this damaged bilateral relations. But with the current visit, I hope that the issues that were raised then have been resolved.

Just a few weeks after Borisov’s refusal, in 2016, there was a coup in Turkey and there were some big changes in the orientation of Turkish foreign policy. The country itself became more ambiguous.

In this sense, is Bulgaria becoming more important, including in the context that Turkey is now a mediator between West and East and has a perhaps ambiguous policy?

Turkey is a loyal member of NATO. So far, I have not seen any guidelines or policies that question Turkey’s NATO membership and Turkey’s contribution to NATO.

Yes, each NATO country has its own interests and principles. We see Turkey trying to put them differently. We can agree or disagree with that. But in any case, the particularities of each country must be taken into account. In this context, and especially in the context of the Black Sea region, we must have no hesitation, especially in terms of basic policies.

In the Black Sea region, Romania stands out much more than Bulgaria. Here too we have a lot of work to do. Some time ago, an informal group was set up within NATO to work on the Black Sea, to exchange information, positions and so on. This group includes Romania, Turkey and Poland, not Bulgaria. One could make an analysis why. Because many Bulgarian defence ministers in previous governments did not pay enough attention to the region or were hesitant in their policies.

Do you expect that with today’s visit of Klaus Iohannis and this announcement of a strategic partnership, the changes you are now calling for will take place?

I certainly expect that. It is the most natural thing for Bulgaria and Romania to work together in all areas. Economy, trade and connectivity are very important. It is also very important to agree on transport corridors. But security issues, Schengen issues, these are our common issues. 

In fact, having said that, I would also like us to think about developing relations in all areas, not just the Presidency. We need to have very good, literally daily, communication at ministerial level. We can learn from the experience of different countries that send their experts to ministries in other countries. We have military experts, for example, from France working in the UK and vice versa. These are the things we should be looking at. This will cement the relationship. The Security Forum in Sofia is working with several NGOs in Romania, including on security issues, including in developing a NATO strategy for the Black Sea region, including to convince public opinion in various European countries that Bulgaria and Romania should be part of Schengen. We need to have very good communication at all levels.

To what extent is the relative lack of knowledge between Bulgarians and Romanians, and perhaps the lack of trust at certain levels in the societies of the two countries or even in their elites, an obstacle to such a strategic partnership?

There are still some stereotypes that we need to overcome, and this is done with a clear political will.

In other countries that have had problems in the past, the level of trust is now such that representatives of one country work side by side in a cabinet with representatives of another country in that country’s Ministry of Defence. And we need to do that. We need political will and real action. I think this would change the relationship cardinally. 

Another thing I can give as an example – in the European Union and in NATO, we talk about joint procurement of weapons and equipment by several countries. That is, they join together so that resources can be used more efficiently. This is something we have not been able to achieve over the years between Bulgaria and Romania. Why? It is a question of very deep analysis. But, in any case, the well-known mistrust that such projects can be implemented prevents deeper cooperation. In any case, we have very good cooperation at different levels. Our colleagues are constantly in Romania, Romanian colleagues in Bulgaria. But more can be done. We need political will.

Do you think that, apart from cooperation at expert and security level, there is a need to promote interaction between Bulgarians and Romanians at the level of nations, cultural organizations, universities and so on?

Look, I believe that this cooperation, as you say, at the level of nations and people, communities, will come. Not to mention that we have cooperation at university level. For example, we have Erasmus exchanges, we have cooperation between NGOs. I am in Romania almost every month. Romanian colleagues come to Bulgaria. We have a constant dialogue.

As long as there is a clear political vision of where things should go, they will happen. And I think it should go towards an extremely great deepening of relations. This will also have a reflection on civil society. But here the state can be more of a facilitator or an encourager, but not a leader.

How do you explain that strategic partnership is reached at a moment when Bulgaria has a certain political crisis, lacks a sustainable majority in parliament or a normal government?

There is nothing wrong with this. Again, I’ll come back to the point that these things have been delayed, unfortunately, through no fault of our own. I am reminded of the situation in 2016, when our politicians created the conditions for the President of Romania to be humiliated. This is a very serious thing indeed. And the other thing is especially true in the area of security and defence.

What is important is to have clear priorities, clear objectives, clear and common assessments of the situation, and common visions of what needs to be done. Unfortunately, we still have a very hesitant policy. But I would stress again – this visit is very important. And if we make more efforts to take real steps – not just to sign an agreement, a document which is very good, but to take real steps, this will already be a very serious step towards developing and deepening relations.

Yordan Bozhilov is President of the Sofia Security Forum. He is a long-time employee of the Ministry of Defence from 1992-2013, holding various expert and management positions. From 2005-2009 he was the head of the international activities of the Ministry and from 2010-2013 he was the head of the political cabinet of the Minister of Defence. For a few months in 2022, Yordan Bozhilov was Deputy Minister of Defence in the cabinet of Kiril Petkov.

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