Yordan Bozhilov: Bulgaria has not lost interest in the Three Seas initiative

Interview with the Bulgarian security expert from Sofia Security Forum on the Bulgarian attitude towards the Three Seas initiative, his expectations from the summit of the initiative in Bucharest on 6-7 September 2023, the Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen and the Bulgarian-Romanian strategic partnership

Yordan Bozhilov is the founder and director of the Sofia Security Forum. He is a former Deputy Minister of Defence of the Republic of Bulgaria. He was a career civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, holding various positions between 1992 and 2013, including Head of International Organisations and Arms Control, Director of International Cooperation, Deputy Director for Security and Defence Policy and Chief of the Political Cabinet of the Minister of Defence. He has also served as an advisor on defence and security issues to the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

Yordan Bozhilov is a lecturer at Sofia University. His articles on European defence, Black Sea security and other topics have been published in Bulgaria and abroad.

Mr Bozhilov, on 6 and 7 September 2023 Bucharest will hold the summit of the Three Seas Initiative. What is the Bulgarian position and attitude towards this initiative? I have looked at some of the websites promoting it in our country, for example the Foreign Ministry, and it looked as if it had not updated its webpage on this initiative even since before the Sofia summit two years ago. The Bulgarian Development Bank has been giving out news that is from 2021. It seems to me that this initiative is not being discussed in the media. Has our country lost interest in it?

I would not say that Bulgaria has lost interest. Moreover, there are several projects that are at the stage of study or approval. Indeed, the initiative is not very well known in Bulgaria. That is a fact. Perhaps this is due to the more modest coverage of its activities, what it achieves, etc. Bulgaria was divided in its views from the very beginning of the initiative. This is very important to note. And some Bulgarian political parties, politicians and analysts considered this initiative to be something of a continuation of Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s initiative at the beginning of the last century, which was then aimed at containing the Soviet Union and building a cordon of states to prevent the Soviet system from becoming a communist system in Europe.

Indeed such views existed. Mostly they were from the Bulgarian Socialist Party circles and analysts and politicians close to the socialists, and in a way this created friction and a tension in Bulgaria. Naturally, people who are Euro-Atlantic-minded, who are more oriented towards NATO and the European Union, saw this initiative mainly as positive. They saw mainly the opportunity to develop Eastern Europe in all areas of connectivity, technologically in the area of transport, in the area of communications and so on. But it was really the divisions in Bulgaria that largely hindered the rapid accession of Bulgaria to this initiative.

Once it became clear that the initiative was not going to be militarily developed, that it was not going to be politico-military in nature, many of the politicians who were against it adopted a more positive and a more positive outlook. President Rumen Radev, on the eve of the Bulgarian presidency, very actively engaged in promoting precisely the economic aspects of the initiative, the opportunities for business development and the possibilities for connecting countries. This should be borne in mind. At the moment, Bulgaria fully supports the initiative and is actively involved at both political and business level. There are several projects that have received the support of the initiative and its fund.

I found out that there is an investment of the initiative in a port in Burgas. What are the other projects that are supported?

There are several. The port of Burgas is probably the largest such investment. The other investments are rather related to analyses of what are the opportunities for realization of larger projects. For example, the project that actually covers corridor number 8 and the analysis of what the transport connectivity between Varna and Burgas could be. To be honest, I cannot think of the specific projects now, but they are on the initiative’s website. You can see them.

How do you explain that President Radev, who is so often accused of being a Russophile, supports this initiative, which many people see as Russophobic?

That is why I started with the caveat that Bulgaria’s path or views towards the initiative have been changing since its inception until the Bulgarian presidency. Initially, the concerns were in circles that are Russophile in Bulgaria or that are close to the socialists, who are also considered Russophile. Their concern was that this initiative was really repeating Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s initiative, the so-called InterMarium, that is to say the creation of a cordon to prevent the Soviet system from spreading to other countries. From this point of view, they feared or believed that the idea of the initiative was to isolate Russia from Europe and the United States. And the other concern was that if this initiative could be developed in the military field and the military-political field, it would create a closer military-political cooperation of the countries on the eastern flank of NATO against Russia. And it didn’t.

It was clearly stated that the main idea of the initiative and the several summits reaffirmed it that the main idea of the initiative is to make connectivity between the countries of the eastern flank. If we look at the transport map of Europe, we will see a much more developed transport system in Western Europe and East-West and North-South, whereas in our region connectivity is mainly East-West. There is virtually no North-South connectivity. This hinders business, this hinders the development of countries. From this point of view, once it became clear that the ideas of the initiative are mainly in the economic field, helping the development of this region of Europe, Bulgaria and all the politicians accepted this initiative as a positive thing for our region and for Bulgaria.

There was a very, very, very difficult, difficult transition from opposition, skepticism to full approval. But again I will say this was in the circles of people who have a positive attitude towards Russia, people from the socialist circles, some nationalists. Whereas all the parties, all the politicians who have a clear Euro-Atlantic mindset, were very positive from the very beginning.

It is known that very large investments are needed to accomplish this North-South connectivity that you are talking about. I have personally seen the figure of EUR 100 billion quoted and, in fact, the funds collected in the Three Seas Fund are much less, perhaps even 100 times less than that. Does that not mean that there is not enough interest in it from its founders either?

This is a relatively new initiative. It does not in any way duplicate the mechanisms that the European Union provides for the development of regions, for the connectivity of regions. The aim of this initiative is to focus on our region, the eastern flank of NATO and the European Union, by attracting additional funds, let us say American funds, which cannot be done, for example, within the European Union. A very important thing to know: the initiative allows any country to request projects to be supported or fully financed by its funds.

Here was the very serious problem of Bulgaria. We had originally proposed some projects that were purely Bulgarian, that met some of our national needs. From this point of view, the initiative could not support them at all and they were rejected, because it is the connectivity of one, two, three or more countries that is at the heart of this initiative. It is not based on the development of individual projects that are of national importance. In Burgas, for example, the rationale is that it is important for the region and for connectivity between different countries. The Varna-Burgas motorway is part of corridor number 8, which connects several countries. For Varna-Burgas hihghway, we are not talking about construction, only studies for the time being. This is something that needs to be understood. And connectivity is not only in the field of transport. For example, connectivity is making consortia between different countries in the field of computer science, or connectivity in telecommunications, building networks that can improve connectivity and hence the development of businesses between several countries. This is something that Bulgaria initially failed to grasp and it is only now in, say, after 2020 and especially after 2021, especially after our presidency, that we have also changed our projects within the initiative.

What do you expect to happen at the Bucharest summit in terms of outcome documents, in terms of decisions….?

What is interesting is that this meeting comes against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. In one of my visits to Romania, I spoke to Romanian businessmen. They believe that Ukraine should be helped to connect more with the Eastern European region – with the countries on the eastern flank of NATO, because we have said that Ukraine will become a full member.

And there are already questions about whether this can be, for example, transport connectivity. You know that the railway system of Ukraine is different from the railway system of the rest of Europe. Could it not be possible, through the funds of the initiative, to help Ukraine switch to a different railway system, to narrower rails, or to replace the chassis of its trains more quickly? And it is this thing that I guess will be put forward as a focus, in addition to the general issue of developing the Three Seas Initiative system, of looking for new funds to attract new countries. I assume that the issues relating to the linking of the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine will, I think, also be one of the highlights.

But you have quite good contacts in Romanian circles, experts and business. How can this initiative of the Three Seas specifically support the Bulgarian-Romanian ties and the Bulgarian-Romanian development in general. Are there any such talks about specific projects?

No, I didn’t. I am not aware of any talks between Bulgaria and Romania, specifically within the framework of this initiative. I have been present at talks that have discussed, in particular, issues related to improving the transport infrastructure structure, connectivity, opening new border crossings, and building new bridges. But these are issues that are between the two countries, which are more to do with bilateral relations than with this initiative. However, if we find an option or a project through which Bulgaria and Romania can be connected to other regions, I assume that this will find such good treatment and funding within the framework of this initiative. I will say again, this initiative is not aimed at solving specific national problems. I think they had included in this initiative originally the issue of the Maritsa East coal basin – how to improve the air situation there and so on, which is not the subject of this initiative. That is a national issue. The specific bilateral relations have also not been reviewed. The question is how each project contributes to the connectivity of the whole region. That is the key. I hope that colleagues in the ministries have taken this into account. They have already adjusted their positions.

There are expectations that Bulgaria and Romania will finally join Schengen this year. But, at the same time, there have recently been statements by Austrian officials that the veto will continue to be in force. In this context, how do you view an initiative of ‘mini-Schengen’, which came from some business circles – transport carriers supported this initiative, municipal councils in Ruse, Silistra and Dobrich. They all support the removal of border controls between Bulgaria and Romania.

As an idea, the mini-Schengen is familiar. We have other such initiatives that aim to remove border controls between individual countries.

There are several issues here. The first question. Are we secure enough about our external borders? It is a question of assessing how secure Bulgaria is for Romania and how secure Romania is for Bulgaria? That is one question. The next question is whether such a mini-Schengen would take the energy out of our work to enter the Schengen area at all? That is a key way for us. The goal, the first firm and ultimate goal, remains Schengen membership. A mini-Schengen – I would, frankly, support that, as long as the analyses show that it would not take us away from and, for one reason or another, away from the idea of entering the Schengen area.

The first question that you raised is actually the question of trust and it seems to me that you have a very good idea of what the level of trust is between the elites in Bulgaria and in Romania, insofar as you communicate with both spaces. And what actually is the level of trust? Is the trust of one in the other enough, in your opinion, to have such a project between them?

I am working very actively to increase trust between the countries, to develop relations at all levels: at state level, at business level, NGOs and individuals. I believe that neither Bulgaria nor Romania has an alternative to this exceptional rapprochement between the two countries. This is true for many reasons. We are connected, we are neighbours, we have common tasks, common priorities, and if we can convince both the state and business that we need even closer cooperation, I think both countries will benefit. What do I mean?

After both countries joined NATO and the European Union, we turned our backs on bilateral relations. We thought that everything should develop in the European Union, NATO. There are many things that are purely bilateral. On the other hand, if we join forces, we will be stronger both within NATO and within the European Union. We have common problems. In the European Union, the key is to bring countries closer together on certain issues so that their voice is heard more loudly. We see how the Baltic countries are united, how Poland and the Baltic countries are actually speaking with one voice on many issues. I believe that uniting Bulgaria and Romania on many issues will make each country much stronger. Having said that, I note that there is still much, much, much to be done to improve ties.

We have very good models. We have models in which representatives of the Ministry of Defence, for example, of one country work in the Ministry of Defence of another country, and France and the UK. France and Germany. There are many, many, many examples, and we don’t have that. Yes, we have good relations in many areas, but deepening is what it seems to me is coming, and it requires a really united will on both sides.

The second topic you raise is actually about whether Bulgaria and Romania will isolate themselves from the center of the European Union if they opt for a mini-Schengen. I have at least come across two different arguments. One is exactly the one that you are putting forward – that if they go down an alternative route like mini-Schengen, perhaps the momentum for joining the big one will be lost. But there is also the argument that peripheral countries rarely cooperate and that, if such cooperation were to take place, they might have even more resources and a stronger case for entry into the big Schengen. To what extent does this argument have logic in your opinion?

I think that the bilateral Schengen or the regional Schengen would serve the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania and the businesses the most. I travel frequently. You also travel and see what is happening at the borders. This seems to me to be unacceptable between countries that are members of the European Union. After all, the European Union was built precisely on this principle of freedom of movement, speed, dynamism. We cannot achieve that, but bear in mind that, unfortunately, these problems have returned to Europe after the great migrant crisis and after conflict. Unfortunately, the Schengen area no longer functions in the way that we have as an idea in many countries. When you enter the country, you go through various checks. Naturally, it is not what it used to be. There is no huge congestion at the borders. But ultimately Schengen is part of the idea of Europe. Bulgaria and Romania, as European countries, cannot be fully fledged European countries if they are not also members of this organisation. This is key, because if we are not in Schengen, it largely hampers the idea of freedom of movement of goods, capital, services and people.

At the end of our conversation I will ask you about the strategic partnership between Bulgaria and Romania. It was signed in March by the two presidents. So far, I have not noticed any discussion in the media in both countries about what comes after the signing of this document. I do not see any events taking place under the auspices of this document and this type of interaction. And, at least from my point of view, this document remains a piece of paper to date. Why is this document not being driven, not bringing about any change, but is it just a promise, perhaps? And what needs to be done in order to drive and implement its content?

So, what is absolutely necessary to improve relations between Bulgaria and Romania is to raise them to the level of strategic cooperation, but vision and will are needed. Visionary in the sense of realising that relations between Bulgaria and Romania are key for both countries and that together we can do much more. On the other hand, there must be the will, so to speak. Here, we are working in the direction of, for example, improving transport, improving military cooperation, and connectivity in whatever area this is. That’s key and that has to come from both sides. It is not just up to one. And in Bulgaria, you know, we have a new government. I assume that at some stage this issue will be raised as well. I am in contact with many Bulgarian representatives in various ministries. In Bulgaria, there is an awareness of the need for such a strategic partnership, but what form it will take and how it will develop depends on many factors. In any case, I personally would like to see much, much, much wider and deeper cooperation, including us discussing joint initiatives, including us making joint representations within NATO within the European Union. It is not easy for a variety of reasons, and these may be reasons that one country, for example, is ahead in some directions, the other is ahead in others, but in any case building genuine strategic cooperation is key.

What is the place in Bulgarian-Romanian relations of people who might not be in the administration, might not be diplomats or politicians and might be more ordinary, but could actually give a greater density and scale to these relations?

Look at the strategic relationship. They are therefore strategically developed at all levels and in all areas. Can’t we say that we have strategic relationships in just one area? That’s the key. ma some issues under which let’s say the countries have maybe different views but. But we have to have mechanisms through which we can work on them. And I will say it again. It is good to have Bulgarian representatives to Bulgarian diplomats in the Romanian Foreign Ministry, and Romanian officers in the Bulgarian Ministry of Defence. This will only be beneficial, but this, I will stress again, requires will and vision.

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