Western Balkans, Middle East: An interview with Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister/ 11.12.2010

Western Balkans, Middle East: An interview with Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister/ 11.12.2010

CLS: The Western Balkans and their Euro-Atlantic integration have been identified as a foreign policy priority for Bulgaria; what progress has been made since your Western Balkans roadshow earlier this year; explain Bulgaria’s self-interest in the Euro-Atlantic integration of Western Balkans, and how much can Bulgaria as a country, realistically, do to assist the Euro-integration of the Western Balkans?

NM: Our priority is to identify what are the roadblocks in the accession of our Western Balkans neighbours to the EU and identify where can we actually help in removing some of these roadblocks, so that they can move forward.

Why are we doing all of this? Because we believe very strongly that you can do as many reforms as you want in Bulgaria, you can fight organised crime and corruption, you can look at investment opportunities and all that, but the effect of all of these actions is multiplied a number of times if our neighbours also move forward on that EU, Euro-Atlantic, but in particular EU integration agenda.

The way we see it, this means two things. It means that we need to make a strong case, along with others, in the EU to keep the perspective of membership of membership for the Western Balkans alive, because that’s definitely not the most sexy of topics right now in Brussels, keep that prospect alive, but also, on the other hand, go into the region and explain to our friends what it is that they need to do to move forward.

And what they need to do is, and this is not rocket science, they need domestic reforms, they have to undertake to meet the various criteria, they have to have good regional co-operation within the whole region and have good neighbourly relations with everyone. These are the three spheres, if you want, of what it is that they need to do.

Now, obviously each country will be assessed on the basis of its own merits, but what we’ve been able to achieve, I think, over the past year, or since the roadshow, is two things. One is to make a very strong and successful case to include Bosnia in the Nato Membership Action Plan, and that perspective was granted at the Nato Tallinn meeting in April 2010, and as a conditionality attached to that, now that we’ve gone through the elections, as soon as there is a government in Sarajevo, we can try and work with others to address that conditionality because we have also put on the table as an offer, as soon as that conditionality is met, and as soon as Bosnia is safely on track for the Nato Membership Action Plan, that all the regional countries that are in Nato, that we come together in Sofia with Bosnia and help them come up with what it is that they actually need to do.

Why did we focus on this? Because, if you look at Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are many problems, obviously, but there are also many successes. One of the successes that Bosnia has had is in the three communities coming together and working very constructively on defence-related issues. That is something, a building block on which you can build further.

The second thing that we have done is we’ve managed to restore to a large extent our relationship with Serbia, which had been damaged after our recognition of Kosovo. Now, our full support to Kosovo is there, we provide them with technical assistance and everything they need to set up their institutions, we are actually right now looking at setting an adviser there to their European ministry which they’re setting up. They have decided to have early elections and we have to wait for their new government to come in.

But also balancing that relationship with Serbia and having a strong dialogue with Serbia. That meant that we were the first country in the region to ratify the Stabilisation and Association Agreement for Serbia, we made a strong case in the Council (of EU foreign ministers) to send their application to the European Commission for assessment. I’ve invited the Serbian and Greek foreign ministers to Sofia to talk about trilateral co-operation on the EU agenda for Serbia.

The third thing that we’ve managed to do, going back to Bosnia, is to develop a very frank and open relationship with all political forces, all communities in Bosnia, including the Serbs.

What can we really do? Two things. Stand up for them in the debate in Europe, secondly, explain to our neighbours what it is exactly that they need to do on this process, and here, in a very weird kind of way, I think our back-and-forth experience on our integration process is actually an added value. I think that a lot of the mistakes that we’ve made along the way, we have to come now understand these mistakes. It’s not always just the bright side of things that you need to look at, you need to also be able to explain what are the difficulties and what are the risks of the process.

CLS: There is a sense that in some of the countries of the Western Balkans, there is a degree of Euro-skepticism, and to the extent, of course, that the polls can be trusted, it appears to be increasing. As you mentioned earlier, there are not the most the positive signs from the sides of some EU states about EU expansion. Is there a risk that a process that is not going particularly well could be substantially derailed or delayed in the next two to three years?

NM: Yes there is a risk. That risk has a number of different facets to it. One is that the problems that the EU is facing – the euro, possible changes to the Lisbon Treaty, all of these internal issues, take away from the capacity of governments and public opinion to look at the importance of integrating the Western Balkans. But there is also a risk that there is an increasing number of forces in the Western Balkans, and politicians, who are beginning to play a game that is rather worrying, and that is that some if not all of these countries have another alternative, a different route. They can either stay out of Europe or find a development in a different direction.

We believe very strongly that this is damaging for the long-run of the region. If the EU moves forward and you have a number of small states in isolation or not fully integrated into Europe, that will not help their development. Now, part of that Euro-skepticism comes from the ambiguities of messages that the European body politic is sending to the region and that is why you need member states in the EU that stand up and constantly remind people that this is a really important political, historical, economic, process. Obviously, that would not just be us, but also Slovenia, Greece, Hungary, among others.

So, there is that increase of Euro-skepticism, but I do not think that it has got to the point that it can’t be overcome. It can possibly be overcome now when we begin to see countries moving forward, if we see Serbia moving forward, if we see, with visa liberalisation which is now taking place, if we see a visa roadmap for Kosovo emerge in the near future; Croatia joining the EU; all of these things send a positive signal to the region but the risk is still there.

CLS: Among the governments of the Western Balkans that are currently in power, there seems to be some indication that the nationalist rhetoric has been toned down, that there are moves towards reconciliation – for example, Serbia and Croatia. Your reaction?

NM: Very positive. I think that it is extremely positive that we have seen reconciliation between Serbia and Croatia, but that we’ve also seen the, very difficult, but successful at this point, beginnings of a reconciliation between Serbia and Bosnia.

They’ve re-opened embassies, president (Boris) Tadić came to Srebrenica, the declaration that the Serbian parliament adopted on Srebrenica, the statements that the Serbian leadership makes in support of the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, all of these are very, very positive signs.

And the fact that we have a window of opportunity to start the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština. Hopefully that dialogue will lead to resolving very specific issues that people living in Kosovo and Serbia have to deal with, notwithstanding the big political questions that perhaps it’s too early to resolve right now, because the whole process is too fresh and difficult emotionally for both sides.

CLS: The dialogue between Belgrade and Priština – what arguments does one put to the Serbians to say, get into this process and leave aside status, and overall, what’s your assessment of developments in the past couple of days towards this process of dialogue?

NM: Our view is that this must be driven by (EU foreign policy chief) Cathy Ashton and the new European diplomatic service, and that everything we do as member states should be to support her efforts in this, and we shouldn’t try to be improvising here. So, give all the knowledge, the expertise, the experience that we all have to Cathy and let her drive this process. And here’s how we see it.

We understand that there are some red lines. And for Priština there are some red lines. What we’ve done is looked at a massive amount of topics that can possibly be discussed by both sides, and assessed each one, that crosses a red line for Belgrade or that crosses a red line for Priština. And if it does, either put that off, and we make a list of topics that are neutral to the question of recognition, the independence of Kosovo and neutral to the question of the territorial integrity of Kosovo, which is a red line for Priština. Whatever’s left in that list, in the middle, is where we believe that the dialogue should start.

And start on the very technical questions, and slowly move up along that path. Because you have very clear red lines on both sides, but also a very clear difficulty to be able to address any of them at this point, again, because it’s too early, it’s too emotional, it’s too fresh, too many issues are connected.

So let’s start with those bits that are neutral, but that actually have an impact on the lives of people on the ground, whether that means resolving questions of cellphone access, roads, graves, electricity grid, things that actually will help improve the situation on the ground so as to build that level of trust that you can actually at a later point invest in a more substantial discussion. So this is the approach we’re taking and the advice and support that we’ve given to Cathy.

CLS: You’re presumably aware of the media reports, in Danas and Blic, that Serbia has come up with a concept for the negotiations –

NM: Not negotiations, dialogue

CLS: -- that they would be done not by ministers or state secretaries but by ‘people with connections to state structures’. Is this a good enough start?

NM: I think that’s a good contribution by Serbia and we need to make sure that we have Kosovo on board as well to be able to take in their comments as well. And this I know what Cathy’s working on right now, very extensively.

CLS: Moving on to another one of the neighbours, Macedonia. Two things, the first is, the ‘friendship agreement’ with Bulgaria, is any progress being made; secondly, the ‘name dispute’, is there any fresh idea of how they get themselves out of this thickly, deeply painted corner?

NM: On the friendship treaty, we’ve exchanged drafts. We’ve given them a draft, they’ve come back with proposals. I’m rather reluctant to go ahead and sign this agreement before we can agree on a number of issues that are in the public domain, here and there. Because I feel it would be rather artificial to sign something on paper that would then, two days after that, attacked as not really changing anything. I’d prefer that we find a way of reducing the level of anxiety and nervousness, if you will, on both sides of the border, as to media statements and things that are generally not in the tone of good neighbourly relations between countries before we can actually cap that with an agreement on co-operation.

I think that for a number of years, our relationship with Macedonia has not been managed well, on both sides.

Now, on the name issue, obviously we recognise Macedonia under its constitutional name, so we view this question as an entirely bilateral issue between Greece and Macedonia. However, given the implications that it is having for the broader perspectives before Macedonia, in Europe, in Nato, and in its overall progress, I feel very strongly that it is high time that they find a compromise.

It’s in the long-term interest of the stability of the region, of the future of Macedonia, of its ability to be fully integrated into the international community that this must be done. I think Greece has made some very constructive proposals and they should look at them in a very constructive way as well.

CLS: Is there any merit in the argument that the UN process is just never going to deliver and that, perhaps without adding to Ashton’s workload, this is something that should be handled at European level?

NM: The UN process is a very serious process. It is not a matter of the process itself delivering, it’s a matter of the will of the parties whether they want to reach agreement or not.

You can cap it with the UN, you can cap with the EU, you can cap it in any way or form, but what it really comes down to is the willingness of both sides to actually sit down and find an acceptable compromise that allows the country to move forward. So it’s not really a question of the framework for the process.

CLS: Your overall expectations for how the process for the Western Balkans will unfold in 2011, especially in the light of the recent regular reports by the European Commission? Will conditions in December 2011 look significantly different from the way that they look now?

NM: Croatia – completing negotiations. Bosnia moving into the Nato Membership Action Plan process. Serbia getting an opinion from the European Commission on the start of EU membership negotiations by the end of the 2011, getting that opinion in place because it’s also a technical process as well, it’s not just a political process. Montenegro being given the status of a candidate country.

Hopefully, recognising a roadmap for visa-free travel for Kosovo, roadmap meaning fixing, in a way, what it is that the authorities in Kosovo need to for, technically and politically, their citizens to have more free travel.

Overall, no ground-breaking decisions, but moving ahead at least in a substantial in most countries if not all.

CLS: Let’s move on to the Middle East. How will we see Bulgaria’s strategy for reviving relations with the Middle East unfold, what are the events and processes that we should be looking out for?

NM: First, the bigger picture. Outside of Europe and Nato, outside of Russia and all these other issues, there are three parts of the world that affect directly our security, our economic opportunities. One is the Western Balkans, the second one is the Black Sea and the third is the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East. Because should things in the Middle East develop in a negative way, they will inevitably affect our part of the world.

Under communism, Bulgaria had quite extensive relations with a lot of these countries. Since the end of communism, it has developed a very strong partnership with the state of Israel. And that partnership is long-term, for political, economic, historic reasons, for all kinds of reasons. But I feel very strongly that being a friend of Israel does not mean that you must not develop your relationship with the Arab countries, and build on the inheritance of the past, the massive amount of people who came from many of these countries, with education in Bulgaria, who worked here or (Bulgarians) who worked there and know the region, but also look at what are the realities and the opportunities that we now have.

 So, here’s how I hope it will unfold.

 Firstly, develop a more substantive partnership with countries that one can call new partners, Gulf countries with whom we’ve have more limited interaction. We’ve traditionally had a very good relationship with Kuwait, for many years, but now we need to reach out and develop a stronger relationship with Qatar, with Saudi, the Emirates, Oman. Also go back to our old friends, countries like Syria. The Syrian community is the largest portion of the Arab community in Bulgaria. We have a substantial Bulgarian community in Syria. We will develop that relationship more strongly. I’ve been twice to Syria this year, the Prime Minister went once and president Assad came to Sofia. Strengthen our relationship with Egypt. The foreign minister is coming here, we’re going to Egypt in the first quarter of next year. Lebanon we plan to visit in the next few weeks, with the Prime Minister.

And then, over the course of the next year, to look more carefully at North Africa, to try to re-establish relations with Libya – badly damaged by the situation with the nurses, which for Bulgaria was a very emotional thing, and it was a very emotional thing for Libya because of the children in Benghazi, so let’s find the strength to move ahead – and also to look at the other countries in North Africa.

Now, what that means practically is that we look at the legal basis of our relations with all of these countries, put in place with all of them the necessary incentives for businesses to start interacting – investors coming here, or our companies going and doing work in that region, but also strengthening the political dialogue between Bulgaria and these countries. Because, often I find the debates in Europe about the Middle East to be rather chaotic.

There’s a lot of talk about the role of Europe in the Middle East peace process, for example. Yet I feel very strongly that as far as the current Middle East peace process is in place, which is an American-driven process, Europe must stand by America and see if that process can move forward.

But we have specific areas in which we can be very effective. One of those is Gaza, easing access into Gaza, helping re-establish the agreement of Israel to allow exports from Gaza to the outside world and also imports to come in, while fully meeting the very legitimate concerns that Israel has on the security front, but also allowing for an economy to develop in Gaza that can actually provide for the people who live there. I don’t think anyone would deny that they live in rather squalid conditions right now.

So there’s a role for Europe, there’s a role for Bulgaria, there’s an interest for Bulgaria both economically and politically in making sure that we strengthen our economic relationship because that’s also in the interest of the stability of the region, and like it or not, it’s shorter flight to Tel Aviv than it is to Brussels, you can pretend that it’s not there, but you had better not because were it to blow up it would come right to your door.

CLS: You’ve spoken this year about the market opportunities with the Middle East. What’s the potential?

NM: The figures for Syria were a 40 per cent increase in exports to Syria for the past six months; about 100 per cent increase in our exports to the Middle East in the course of the past year. That is a sign that there is a potential. Where could that potential be? Agriculture – very high on everyone’s agenda right now; engineering services; construction companies that have not just the experience here but know the region from the past and understand the culture.

Energy co-operation; we need gas, they need electricity. Education, in many different fields, medical; even, if you will, a number of countries have shown an interest in the Naval Academy in Varna. Quite a wide variety of opportunities. But because of the nature of the way things are in the Middle East, often to unlock these opportunities you need a very direct government-to-government interaction so you can actually push through agreements or whatever needs to be put in place so that business communities can start interacting.

CLS: Something that is interconnected to everything I’m asking you about today is the quite obvious growing influence of Turkey in the Middle East and in South Eastern Europe. What is your assessment of this process, the positives and negatives?

NM: The Turkish economy has grown so rapidly in the past few years that it must look for markets and opportunities, and so in a natural way it looks to the broad Middle East. Often, we discuss Turkey we get tied down into very clichéd arguments about what it is that we can and that we can’t do with Turkey.

Turkey has been very active in the Western Balkans in recent years, particularly on reconciliation issues. Now, some see this as a threat. I say this is an opportunity for Europe and Turkey to work together on this reconciliation agenda, so as to increase the effectiveness of what we all do together.

In the Middle East, it’s been unfortunate that the relationship between Turkey and Israel deteriorated, particularly in the past year because of the flotilla incident. I don’t think that is good for the stability of the entire region, but I will not get into an argument over who wants to ‘represent’ or ‘lead’ the region. For many political and historical reasons, I don’t think that if we get into that argument it would be helpful to resolve the many questions in the Middle East.

Turkey’s opened up its markets, it’s opened up its visa requirements to neighbouring Arab countries, and what we see behind that is a very strong economic incentive to move in that direction, and in this, what has been very helpful is the fact that Bulgaria has a very constructive relationship with Turkey, although we have – obviously, as between any two countries – a number of issues to resolve. But the opportunities of our co-operation are quite positive.

I wouldn’t be surprise to see the day when our companies and Turkish companies are jointly working on projects in the Middle East.

None of all of this would, however, undermine our strong friendship and partnership with Israel.

CLS: Have you sensed any reaction from Israel about Bulgaria’s rebuilding of relations with the Arab world?

NM: None at all. It’s an added value, being able to have a strong relationship with both sides.

CLS: The Israel – Palestinian direct talks. Sofia was among the first to say very encouraging things at the time of the resumption, and we all know what happened –

NM: We don’t really know what’s happening.

CLS: Undoubtedly you know more than I do. Do you have expectations of seeing some progress?

NM: I’m not very enthusiastic that these talks will lead to a successful conclusion. I still think the bet is still out there, we shouldn’t discount them. But what both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians need to see, is encouragement to make compromises, obviously, on key issues, but also incentives to move forward on the process.

And it’s very damaging to constantly go back and forth on this discussion of, ‘well, the Israeli government needs to bring in one party and have another party leave the government, so that we can make progress’. This is not going to get us anywhere. We need to be able to talk to all parts of the Israeli government and take their views on board, as the point comes that we must be able to take on board the views of all representatives of the Palestinian people.

Both of these things are very difficult right now. But to go back to something I said earlier, it would be very unhelpful if now all of us in Europe start coming up with our own little peace processes and our own solutions to the problem, because this is a process which is driven by the Americans and we must give them the credit to see it through.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t find areas where we can be more helpful and more supportive. Gaza is one. Another is how we structure our assistance to the Palestinian people, how we talk to Israel, all of these things need to be taken into account, and this generally increases the chances for an agreement. Because definitely right now we’re in a bit of a stalemate.

Stalemates in the Middle East are never good things.

CLS: There is the view that nothing would happen to resolve Cyprus until Israel – Palestine is resolved. It’s all interconnected.

NM: Well, I love that argument, because it’s a ‘we can’t do anything about it’ kind of argument. ‘It’s all interconnected. Israel, Palestine, it’s all interconnected. Syria is interconnected, Lebanon is interconnected, then obviously Iran is interconnected, then we’ll get into Yemen which we’ll make interconnected into all of this, in a couple of months from now we’ll have the Sudan referendum and then we’ll have to interconnect everything with Sudan’… I don’t think it’s helpful to have that perspective.

It’s an academic argument about which comes first and which comes second. Politically, you’ve got to deal with all of them, so let’s figure out which are the ones that you can deal with immediately and deal with them, and then move along the list. So I’d tend to stay away from connecting Cyprus, at least, to the situation in the Middle East.

CLS: Schengen – technical considerations aside, the issue is politicised in the EU. What does Bulgaria need to do to come up with a political strategy that gets this country into Schengen within the envisaged timeframe?

NM: First, it needs to finalise its technical preparations, obviously, and not connected to this directly, but politically in the environment out there, is to move forward substantially on judicial reform.

Technically, judicial reform has nothing to do with Schengen, but from a political perspective, we’d be hiding our heads in the sand not to understand that all of these processes have political implications.

By February, if we have a good mid-term report on the CVM (Co-operation and Verification Mechanism) then by March, have everything in place technically for Schengen, then we would be able to proceed on track with Schengen accession.

CLS: We’ve heard a lot of public statements of support in recent weeks for Bulgaria joining Schengen. But we know who has problems with it, France, and the Netherlands, because of their government coalition agreement. Is there anything going on bilaterally with those countries to get them to change their stances?

NM: Of course there is. But it all goes back to, see previous question – things you need to do back home. You can talk to partners all day long but what matters is what you’ve really been able to do on the ground in terms of border controls, and corruption and crime. On that, we’ve seen some positive signs, especially on borders, and they have recognised by partners, including The Netherlands.

At this point there’s a lot of talk about this. We need to make sure that by March, we have everything in place and then we can really sit down and say, look, this is what’s in place, this is the assessment, all we want is a fair and unbiased assessment based on the situation on the ground. These are the rules, let’s stick by the rules.

Lots of Europe’s problems right now are because people have not been sticking to the rules.

CLS: The Lisbon Treaty came into force a year ago. The European External Action Service came into being on December 1 this year. To what extent yet can we speak of an ‘EU foreign policy’?

NM: Embryonic. Needs to grow, to be fully born. Perhaps difficult. Perhaps first we need to put the whole External Action Service in place, because right now we have Cathy Ashton and a few other people. This whole service has not yet been fully staffed.

Then we need to build trust between the member states and the External Action Service so that we all agree that it does represent Europe as a whole, if not on every question then at least on the questions on which we do agree.

And then get some successes in place. One success would be mediating the Belgrade – Priština dialogue, another possible success would be Gaza. Let’s start with these two, for the course of next year. That would be enough.

Interview of Bulgarian Foreign Minister for "Leaders and Decisions", SkyTurk
Bulgaria should be the voice of reason

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