Lyubomir Kyuchukov is a leading Bulgarian foreign policy analyst of the old generation. He is the director of the Sofia-based Economic and International Relations Institute.Kyuchukov was the guest of Cross-border Talks on issues regarding the prospects of diplomatic solution in the war in Ukraine, how this war affects regional cooperation in Central and Southeastern Europe and how is the war seen by the Global South. In the second part of the talk, Kyuchukov discussed about his expectations from the Turkish foreign policy in the Black sea region, following the reelection of the president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, shared his view on the possible foreign policy agenda of the new Bulgarian government and analysed the potential and the limits of the Bulgarian-Romanian strategic partnership.
Welcome to another episode of Cross-border Talks, where we are now going to focus our attention on the Central and Southeastern European regions. And we are going to discuss important developments in these regions, together with Lyubomir Kyuchukov, who is the director of the Economics and International Relations Institute in Sofia, and he is a former diplomat. He used to be ambassador in the United Kingdom, as well as having other important occupations as diplomat and expert on international relations. And in the first part of the talk, we are going to focus purely on the Central and Eastern European region in the context of the war in Ukraine. In the second part, we will move closer to Southeastern Europe. So my colleague Veronica will ask the first questions.
Yes. Hello, everybody. I would start with a very hard question and also, in a way, controversial or polarizing the public opinion, also expert opinions. That is the question of the Ukraine conflict and the way how Ukraine conflict can be or cannot be solved. So, Mr. Kyuchukov, I would like to ask you as a first question, if you see as somebody who is not only experienced in international relations, but also in diplomacy, if you see at a given moment some perspectives for a diplomatic solution of a current conflict and also for the diplomatic solution of of the of the larger issues which are related to it, which means the regional security architecture which is related to it.
Well, first of all, thank you for the invitation for this talk. As a diplomat, I’m biased. I believe that any conflict could be solved by political means. If there is a good will, of course. But I’m afraid that we’re going to witness an escalation of confrontation before we reach a stage where negotiations could be possible and that the conflict could be moved from the military into a political field. 15 months after the beginning of the war we haven’t come nearer to its end. And I’m afraid peace is not on the horizon. This means that either we and whenever I say we, I mean the European Union and NATO, that we either haven’t tried hard enough or that we have failed. But either way, it means that we should reconsider our approach towards the war. Ukraine has all the legal and moral rights to try to reclaim its occupied territories. This could be done in two ways: military or political. But neither of them guarantees success. And the price is very different in terms of human victims, in terms of destruction. And what I think is even more important – in terms of accumulated hatred.
Two words are missing in our political analysis. These are peace and people. No one, it seems, wants peace now. The so-called Russian and Ukrainian peace proposals are, in fact, conditions for capitulation of the opponent. The Russians are pretending that Ukraine should recognize the status quo. That means the annexation of the four regions plus Crimea. The Ukrainians claim that Russia should withdraw unconditionally, pay reparations, and Putin should be judged by an international tribunal. And what they both lack is the instrument for peace – the negotiations and the second missing notion. These are the people.
The humanitarian tragedy is gradually disappearing from our public information and from our public concerns. Men, women, children have turned, I’m afraid, into numbers, into victim statistics. And after February 2022 the name of the Russian President Putin means war, means war to the public opinion. Paradoxically, now anyone who appeals for peace is labeled putinist. Including even Henry Kissinger. And I’m afraid that even John Lennon would have been stigmatized today, if he tries to sing, give peace a chance.
I would develop more on this because you already said that the current situation seems to you and I think that we can agree with it on the line or on the trajectory of escalation. But if we speak about escalation and if you speak about the fact that both sides are not willing to engage in negotiation, and evidently both sides believe that they can solve the conflict by military means, which risks at the moment you see from this scenario.
Well, the main risk is escalating the war into a global conflict. In fact, the war is escalating from the very beginning till now. It is becoming more and more technologically sophisticated. And there are two major risks from my point of view.
The first one is leaving the territory of Ukraine to Russia, which is already taking place, to Moldova, to the Black Sea, to other regions. And the second is that due to a provocation or an incident, it might also escalate further. For example, the next missile falling on NATO territory may make NATO member state territory and killing NATO citizens might easily be Russian, not Ukrainian one. And then I’m afraid our reaction will not be so calm and reserved. So we are still part of the conflict, but not part of the war. But the line between the two is becoming even more and more thinner. And we see that the war has consolidated Europe and reinvigorated NATO. Now, no one is speaking about the brain death of NATO anymore, but it has also changed the optics about international relations in Europe. Now everything is war. Politics are dominated by war and security. Securitisation is the dominating and overarching political issue. In the continent. And in practical terms, that means militarization and militarization puts risks, future risks to the continent as well. This also helps change the balance in Europe between NATO and the European Union. As a result, strange as it might seem, but decisions in the European Union are now, I’m afraid, taken by NATO in Brussels, not by the European Union. And what is lacking entirely in our security vision for the future is the political component of security, the agreements that could fix political engagements. And I’m afraid that there is another paradox. What Russia got by now from the war is more NATO to the east with the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO. Most probably both of them next month. What we got is more Russia to the west with the annexation of the four Ukrainian regions in Crimea. And all this creates a totally new security environment that could not be dealt only in entirely with the military instruments.
Okay. What about the question which is related to our region? Because you already mentioned that our region, our region role and the fact that that the region of Central Eastern Europe and now also the Scandinavia, which is seen separately, but it’s also very near to the Russian border, is playing a particular militarized and securitization role in in the current international relations in Europe. Do you see there are some members of NATO? We are members of the European Union. Within this, we are doing particular politics and many of our governments are playing a very vigorous role in the current conflict against Russia. Do you see there are some also signs for strengthening the regional cooperation, creating more regional cooperation within the central eastern European region without NATO and without without European Union as a region itself, because it should have own say, it should have own subjectivity in the current situation, I think at least.
Well, I do agree with what you say, but I’m afraid that in the current context, Eastern Europe is looking at Washington for its security rather than at Brussels, the EU or at Berlin or Paris. Well, it seems quite natural. It is natural because the Eastern European countries feel more vulnerable to eventual continuation of the Russian aggression. But. guarantees are sought exclusively in the military defense field, respectively. What we are witnessing now as a cooperation in Eastern Europe are the new forms and formats of cooperation that are entirely security oriented. Here I have in mind the Three Seas Initiative, the B9 format, and so on. On the other side, from the point of view of an outsider, I mean outsider to the Visegrad Group, the Visegrad Four, I would say that the war has. Put pressure on the Visegrad four format because of the mainly because of the differing positions of Hungary, and now it seems less active in promoting cooperation in Central Europe. It seems less visible as a group, as a format in Brussels. And on the other side it seems that events have separated Poland from Hungary from Brussels point of view, as far as the rule of law is concerned, leaving Hungary under much more pressure from Brussels in this field. In other words, in times of war, everything seems to be war and bilateral relations, cooperations and values included. So even cooperation formats are mainly oriented towards security.
And my final question will be more global, because we are part of the European Union and NATO. We are part of the so-called West, as it’s called, often. But there is a world beyond Europe. And with the Ukrainian war, we can see that the world beyond Europe, the rest of so-called rest, is not so eager to support neither Ukraine, nor Russia in this conflict. And many even huge states are keeping their distance. They are neutral. You also have the phenomenon called Rise of China, which is at least economically quite, quite clear globally. And you have also continuous development of alternative institutions for the West, meaning like BRICs, Asean and others around the world. So what about our regional view on this, on this development? We seem to be very much oriented, as you said, Washington, Brussels, Berlin and so on. Are there some kind of opportunities for us or it’s completely outside of our scope and doesn’t influence us. We don’t need to care about this development.
Well, first, I could see no alternative to Eastern Europe to the choice that we have already made. I mean, being members of the European Union and NATO. But the problem, however, is not where we are part of because we are part of the West, but with the West itself. There is something that I call the Non-west. Or in other words, there is a kind of configuration of the West and the Rest. We are witnessing a visible tendency catalyzed by the war, by the way, the words a formation of a rather large but still quite amorphous grouping of countries. And these are not an anti west, they are not pro-Russian. They are not offering an alternative ideological or even geopolitical to the west. But they view the war not as a competition of values, but as an imperialist clash between the globalist hegemonism of the United States and the West. That means of us. And on one side and on the other side of the Russian imperialist nostalgia. As far as they are directly affected by. They are not directly affected by the Russian imperialist nostalgia. But under everyday pressure from Western Hegemonism, they tend to passively oppose our positions, including the sanctions towards Russia. Uh, on the other hand, I will not say that this is a kind of new non-aligned movement. Uh, the conditions are rather more difficult than some six years ago. Now, the world’s confrontation is much more dynamic. It’s not static as it used to be during the Cold War. There is no ideological alternative, as I already mentioned. The alternative is rather geopolitical, and these countries themselves are rather heterogeneous with their conflict among themselves, subjected also to different levels of pressure. Here we have, of course, another and very important global player that is China. And with its ambitions to lead the non-west. If these ambitions are accomplished, then the configuration will be rather different because. At least for the foreseeable future, for quite a number of decades. The main controversy, global controversy, will be the confrontation between China and the United States for global leadership. We have already seen this confrontation expanding. It covers not just finance, economy, trade, but it’s also in the fields of political decisions, international organizations, and security. So it will be all encompassing. And the main issue is whether this will be in the kind of competition or confrontation.
And here we come to another very important point from my point of view. Are we on the brink of the creation of a new world order? I would rather say no. What we are witnessing now is the formation of a new world disorder. Maybe because the post-war world order is based on international institutions, mainly the UN system and international law. International institutions are bypassed now and international law is replaced even as a notion by rule based relations, which is not the same. International law is codified in international agreements. There are mechanisms for implementation and control of international law. While rules are adopted and imposed unilaterally, often the implementation is achieved by pressure. So no new international institutions or international law, no new world order is created. What is happening is that the existing world order is eroding and there is a basic prerequisite that is lacking for the formation of the New World Order. The readiness for dialogue and agreement. Because in order to have a new world order like the UN system, it should be agreed upon, not imposed. And that seems impossible as of today. What we have, in fact, is a reconfiguration of the world, rearrangement with new alliances and also a struggle for spheres of interest. And so I would say, yes, we are facing the formation of the new world, of a new world. But no, we are not facing a formation of a new world order because the new post world, which most probably will be deeply divided and confronted, or that is at least in mid-term perspective. It will be much more militarized, dominated by a struggle for spheres of interests, with disrespect to international institutions and international law. There will be a total lack of mutual confidence and no meaningful political dialogue. I’m afraid.
We are entering the second part of our talk with Lubomir Kyuchukov, where we will focus on the Southeastern European region. And we just had a week ago the elections in Turkey, where Recep Erdogan was re-elected for another term as president of the country. What are your expectations for the role which Turkey will play in the Black Sea region and in South-Eastern Europe?
Well, how important Turkey has become for international relations was proven by the interest that public opinion all over the world took in the elections, in the presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey. The main question in these elections was could Erdogan, enjoying full control over the state, lose power over Turkey? And the obvious answer confirmed by the elections themselves was no.
In fact, now Erdogan controls the administration, the media, the business, the juridical system, and most important, the army. That is the up to now guarantor for the secular state. After and after the coup d’état attempt several years ago, he replaced not just the commanding staff of the army, but also the middle officer course with his loyalties. So now he enjoys total control over the country. Two main vehicles helped Erdogan on the road to his victory. The first one is nationalism on a neo-ottoman basis, I would say. And the second one is the controlled Islamization. Control by the state Islamization taking place in the last decade in the country. So the choice between stability and democracy in the country was made in favor of stability, I’m afraid.
As far as the foreign policy is concerned. Erdogan seems to have at least two trump cards. The first is the Bosphorus. And I mean, not just the Bosphorus. I mean the Turkish geopolitical importance for the Middle East, for the Caucasus, for the Black Sea region, for the Eastern Mediterranean, for the Balkans, that is for NATO and the West in general terms. And the second one is the Turkish long-term foreign policy strategy, aimed at placing Turkey as a regional leader and as a global player. And I would say that Erdogan was quite successful in his attempt to cash out, in part, in fact, the geostrategic importance of the country. He gained himself the position of the UN Secretary General Gutierrez partner during the grain deal. He became a needed and I would say accepted broker in an eventual dialogue between Russia and the Ukraine. He provided himself a political opportunity to solve bilateral issues, for example, with Finland and Sweden, about the Kurds activists acting there via his importance for NATO. And he also achieved ablind eye approach to his actions in North Syria and, if needed, Iraq from the international community.
As far as the Black Sea is concerned, I would say that maybe Erdogan, he is at his finest. He is supporting Ukraine. In fact, selling to Ukraine Bayraktar drones supporting the Crimean Tatars. And at the same time, he’s preserving good relations with Russia, including personal relations with President Putin, not applying, not joining the sanctions and also opening just before the elections, a Russian-supplied nuclear power plant in Turkey.
It’s interesting that Russia and Turkey have always been historically strategic rivals. But now they have found common interests in isolating all other global players from the solution of regional conflicts and negotiate a solution of these regional conflicts between themselves, between the two of them. That applies to Syria. That applies to the situation in the Caucuses and. Erdogan towards the Black Sea makes use, in fact, of a very powerful legal instrument that is the Montreux Convention about the straits from 1936, limiting the military presence of non-black sea states in the sea. But he’s also pretending to be representing. The West, the interests of the West in NATO, in and of NATO in the region, but in fact acting entirely in Turkish interests.
Okay. We are also just one day away from the formation of the new Bulgarian government – Nikolay Denkov government and a former European Commissioner Maria Gabriel is its foreign minister. What are your expectations regarding the foreign policy which will now be realized by Sofia?
Well, Bulgaria badly needed a politically-backed government after five elections in three years. Now we have the two bitter rivals previously pretending to eradicate each other from the national political scene, embracing each other and forming a new government. I’m afraid that it’s a kind of non-credibility government. First, the two coalition partners state that they mistrust each other. And secondly the government does not enjoy the public confidence. Uh, these two political coalitions, they coalitions, they pretend to have agreed to form the government on the basis of the Euro-Atlantic values. I’m afraid that this might turn out to be a very efficient way of discrediting the Euro-Atlantic ideas in Bulgaria as far as foreign policy is concerned. But I expect that Bulgarian positions and rhetoric will probably get nearer to the ones of Poland and the Baltic states, as far as the War of Russia in the Ukraine is concerned, moving in the same time away from the more moderate French and German approaches. And in practical terms, this will probably mean more open and intensive arms and ammunition supply to Ukraine and a more confrontational approach on a bilateral level with Russia.
Another issue to note about the Bulgarian recent foreign policy is that the presidents of Bulgaria and Romania signed in March 2023, a joint declaration for a strategic partnership. And it’s been a document which we don’t see so much discussed in our media, both in Bulgaria and Romania. And we don’t see initiatives which go under its edges. It is, as far as I see so far, remaining on paper. But I wonder how such a document could be realized and become reality? And what are in fact the complementary elements which Bulgaria and Romania could offer to one another? Or what is in fact keeping them away from getting closer?
Well, the normal logic says that the two countries should cooperate. And even act as one. And any temptation and in fact, there were such in the past on both sides -to profile the successes of one of them against the failures of the other, are futile. Such attempts are even counterproductive. As the strategic partnership is a good document and it’s a good legal basis. But I share your opinion that to a large extent it remains on the level of good wishing. There are causes of optimism. In fact, for example, business and trade are steadily developing on a bilateral level. But what is lacking is the institutional push and cooperation framework on the secondary level, not on the level of political declarations as the one about strategic cooperation, but on a more practical level about the ways and means of developing bilateral cooperation.
In fact, it’s in the interests of Bulgaria and Romania to act, to coordinate and act together in the European Union as well, even from a regional perspective, uh, even probably together with maybe with Greece. In fact, it was eight years ago when we launched together with the former, the two of us, together with the former foreign minister of Bulgaria, Solomon Passy, of the initiative of creating a. A structure similar to Visegrad that could encompass the EU and NATO member states from Southeastern Europe in order to present and argue regional interests in Brussels and on the other side to help Brussels understand the region better. There are certain steps in this direction, but there is nothing concrete achieved until now. In fact, there was a positive impetus, practical impetus after accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union meant the establishment, the creation of the Black Sea Synergy as a European Union approach to the region initiated together with Germany. But I’m afraid it lacked a long term vision. And what is more, it lacked funding. And the Russian tanks in Georgia in 2008 put an end to a possible all encompassing, all inclusive cooperation in the region.
Still, I would say I remain a cautious optimist in mid-term perspective, relying mainly on human contacts, on establishing a kind of network of networks of business, tourism, culture, sports. That is the human dimension and the cooperation between the two countries that could create a more solid basis for institutional cooperation between Bulgaria and Romania.
Okay. This was the newest episode of Cross Border Talks, this time with a Bulgarian expert on international relations Lyubomir Kyuchukov. We thank you very much for your time and for your, I think, very clear analysis of very, very difficult and complex issues related to Ukraine and war and also on its impacts for the region of Central and Eastern Europe and other issues we are discussing. I will remind everybody that Cross-border Talks are present on several platforms. Mostly you can see us on YouTube, but you can also listen to us on SoundCloud. We are present on several social media and we have our website where you can read recent analysis about topics in Central, Eastern Europe and beyond. Thank you very much and wish everybody a great day or evening.