Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov: Bulgaria Now Has the Foreign Policy of a 'Grown-up' EU Member

Novinite Insider » INTERVIEW | Author: Ivan Dikov |June 8, 2011, Wednesday // 18:59
Bulgaria: Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov: Bulgaria Now Has the Foreign Policy of a 'Grown-up' EU Member Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov pictured addressing the UN General Assembly in September 2010. Photo by Foreign Ministry

Exclusive interview with Nikolay Mladenov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria, for (Sofia News Agency).

Nikolay Mladenov was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria by the 41st National Assembly on January 27th 2010.

Between July 2009 and January 2010 he was Minister of Defense of the Republic of Bulgaria.

Between 2007 and 2009, he was a Member of the European Parliament. He served on the Foreign Affairs Committee – Security and Defense Subcommittee, and on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee. He was also Vice-Chairman of the Delegation for relations with Iraq and served on the delegations for Israel and Afghanistan.

Since 2005 he has consulted the World Bank, NDI, IRI and other international organizations in South Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Morocco.

Between 2001 and 2005 Mr. Mladenov was a Member of the Bulgarian Parliament where he served as Vice-Chairman of the European Integration Committee and sat on the Foreign and Defense Policy Committee. During that period he was representative to the Constitutional Convention on the Future of Europe.

Previously he worked for the World Bank and the Open Society Institute for Bulgaria and South East Europe. He was election observer in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, and Pakistan. In 2008 he headed the EU election observation mission to Ghana.

Mladenov has a MA degree in War Studies from King's College, London, BA and MA - International Relations, from the University for National and World Economy, Sofia. He speaks English, French and Russian.


It has become a clich? that Bulgaria depends on the USA for its security, on the EU with respect to trade, and on Russia for its energy; it is also emerging to have important ties with new power centers such as Turkey and China. Is euro-atlanticism the leading approach in Bulgaria's foreign policy, or is it increasingly adopting the so called "multivector" approach?

As you said it yourself, it is a clich?, and as a clich? it oversimplifies things. Bulgaria is a member of the EU and naturally more than half of our trade will be with the European Union in any case.

We are a member of NATO, and as a country that has needed to reform its security infrastructure over the last 20 years, most of that assistance came from the United States and other countries within NATO so we have joint commitments within the Alliance that guarantee our security. However, that doesn't mean that our foreign policy shouldn't be interested in other parts of the world.

There are three geographic areas of focus of Bulgaria's foreign policy. One is the Western Balkans. These are our immediate neighbors in the Western Balkans because whatever happens there affects our security, economy, and the perception of the region, so Bulgaria has a strong national interest to see that they have a European perspective, and become part of the EU, and those who wish – part of NATO as well.

Second is the Black Sea region because it affects Bulgaria's energy resources and security. You can transport both opportunities and problems across the Black Sea. Whether it's human trafficking or illicit goods – there are a number of issues to be coped with there. In addition, you have the protracted conflicts that create an environment of instability.

Russia will always be a strong partner for Bulgaria because of energy issues. The fact that we aim to diversify our energy resources is not aimed against Russia. It is natural for any country because no country desires to be reliant on one supplier.

Third, last but not least, are the Mediterranean and the Middle East and North Africa. This is a part of the world where Bulgaria has traditionally had a very strong presence, and which I want to revive because I think it offers great opportunities.

Call it what you will, but this is the foreign policy of a grown-up country in the European Union.

In addition to being a NATO member, Bulgaria has been seeking to develop a special relationship with the USA, including through bilateral security and defense cooperation outside NATO. Has Bulgaria reached the level of being a strategic US ally so that it can rely on the US to guarantee its national security unconditionally – for example, with the same guarantee offered to South Korea or Japan?

I would phrase it a little bit differently because Bulgaria's national security is guaranteed by the commitments that all members of NATO have made to each other – this is the concept of collective defense.

Outside of those commitments that we have to each other's security, Bulgaria has indeed a very strong relationship with the USA for a number of reasons.

One is because the USA is key to reforming Bulgaria's security and defense infrastructure. Major US investors have come to Bulgaria. It is a strong factor for the stability of the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean – all the regions that are crucial for us.

It provides for a lot of people-to-people based interaction, which is quite positive – these are the thousands of Bulgarians who study in the USA, develop business and innovation links.

We do have a very strong relationship with the US but I wouldn't put it in the same context as with South Korea or Japan because of the commitment that we jointly have in NATO. It is a more institutionalized form of cooperation.

There have been lots of expectations that the EU will go in the direction of a "superstate" but right now it is facing dire crises with the euro zone and the Schengen Area; the EU is being pressured by global economic competition, and the problems with the integration of immigrants and especially Muslims. What are your expectations regarding the development of the crises in the EU in the medium run – is there a real threat of countries exiting the Union, its break-up or its division into a "two-speed Europe"?

Let me be very clear about this: the European Union is not dead. It is very, very far from that. We have a number of issues that Europe needs to deal with now that are quite different from issues that we had in the past because when the Lisbon Treaty came into force, it provided for a much greater level of integration than I think people had really expected.

In some cases, it falls short of what I personally would've preferred but this is the reality of today. It takes time for Europe to adapt to the situation with the Lisbon Treaty in place.

Second, people in Europe have become a little bit complacent about Brussels and they have started taking it for granted, and they don't often discuss or debate, or understand the benefits that they have from membership in the European Union. If you roll back the EU, you will take away free movement, the Common Agricultural Policy, the common EU trade policy - all things that have been vital to the economic success of Europe until now. This is the second factor – people should focus more on what the good things that come from Europe have been.

Third, there is a growing fear in Europe from the outside – from immigrants coming into Europe and taking the benefits that we have. I don't think that's justified but it is there.

Part of the reason for it is that Europe's economy, standard of living, and social systems have become so advanced that the difference between what you have in Europe and outside of Europe is quite substantial.

So I think we should invest in being much more active as a European Union in our neighborhood to make sure that the countries around Europe have at least some of the benefits that people in Europe have in terms of economic opportunity, job security, pension security, healthcare, etc.

Last, but not least, is the financial crisis which I don't think anyone really expected or was prepared for.

So Europe is not dead. It will not turn into a superstate but it needs more strong leadership at the European level to assert the very idea that Europe is beneficial. I think we are too lukewarm when we hear populist criticism, and that we should be much more active in standing up to them.

NATO has also been struggling with the new realities, too. How much would you say that the New Strategic Concept and the project for the missile shield in Europe have revitalized the Alliance? How likely is it that elements of the US/NATO missile shield in Europe will be based in Bulgaria?

The Strategic Concept is NATO's response to the new realities that we face. NATO will always be a military alliance with a political cap. But it is also a community of countries based on common values. It is not just about defense but also about sharing a system of values. It is important for NATO now to show that it is relevant to the new threats that we face today.

What are the new threats that we face today which are different from 20-30 years ago? We face the threat of terrorism. We face the threat of cyber security. We face the threat of ballistic missiles.

Ballistic missiles are now more of a threat than 20-30 years because technologies are much more easily accessible. The global nuclear non-proliferation regime is under pressure. And there are radical movements in parts of the world that are seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

So in order to show that NATO is relevant to these threats, we have to come up with ways of protecting us all against these threats. The development of a NATO ballistic missile defense system for the European territory of the Alliance is that way of saying to the citizens of the member countries, "The Alliance is still relevant, and it is there to protect you against the new threats" - without undermining its core objectives and mission – which is the defense of its territory.

If we look at that from a Bulgarian perspective, that means one thing – as this NATO system is evolving, it must cover Bulgaria's entire territory. All of Bulgaria must be under this shield as it develops in the next few years.

Whether that means that certain elements of this shield will be based in Bulgaria or not, is a matter that is too early to discuss because of the architecture. But I keep stressing that the missile shield must cover Bulgaria's entire territory because previous plans did not. The way that previous plans for missile defense in Europe started – they did not include all of the territory of our country.

It's too early to answer your second question if parts of the missile shield will be based in Bulgaria. If they need to be based here, we will discuss this with our allies, and we will fully meet our commitments. But if they need to be based in other countries, they need to be designed in such a way that all of our citizens are protected.

Both the former government of Sergey Stanishev and the administration of President Georgi Parvanov can be described as pro-Russian. Should Bulgaria be worried that the big joint energy projects will allow Russia to restore its geopolitical influence in Bulgaria? Do you a future for Russia in the Euro-Atlantic structures?

There is one thing which is fundamentally different today compared with 10 years ago, and this is the fact that Bulgaria is a full member of both the North Atlantic Alliance and the European Union. So any discussion as to who will restore or gain influence in this or any other country must take into account that the situation is very different.

I can argue that the fact that we are members of the EU and NATO extends the political power or projection that this country has on global affairs than if we weren't; it doesn't just provide us with a level of protection. It gives us more leverage than we otherwise would have had.

The question about the Russian-Bulgarian joint energy projects must address two things. One, it shouldn't increase Bulgaria's reliance on one supplier. This is very important. Not that Russia is not a reliable supplier, we would like to consider Russia to be a reliable supplier. But it is not good for any country to be reliant on one source. Diversifying the sources of energy supply to Bulgaria is very important.

Second, diversifying not just the sources but also the routes. We saw what happened when Russia and Ukraine got into a disagreement three years ago – it affected us. We need to have different suppliers and different routes. Practically, that means that Bulgaria needs to have its electricity and gas grid much better connected to its neighbors than it is now. We need to invest in new links, more storage capacity, reversible capabilities.

If we do that, then there will be plenty of opportunity for Russian and Bulgarian companies to cooperate on energy projects without creating this fear that through energy projects other influence is sought, or whatever the case is.

I think that Russia in a way is already part of the Euro-Atlantic structures because the EU and Russia have a strategic partnership and NATO and Russia also have a strategic partnership.

We still have a long way to go as we disagree on some issues, and some of these disagreements are quite important – but we agree on so many other things.

For example, if NATO builds its own missile defense system, and Russia builds its own missile defense system, we need to do that in a way that they interact, information is exchanged, and trust is built because the truth is that they would not be aimed against each other but against a threat that comes from the outside.

This cooperation doesn't mean that we shouldn't constantly be going back to issues that are vital to the security of this part of the world, and these are the frozen conflicts in the Black Sea region – the situation in Abkhazia and the occupied territories of Georgia; the situation of Moldova and Transnistria needs to be addressed, and it needs to be addressed in this spirit of cooperation that has the potential to strengthen both the security of Europe and NATO, and of Russia.

Should Bulgaria be concerned Turkey's so called neo-Ottomanism foreign policy? Should Bulgaria fear that Turkey aspires to intervene in its internal affairs?

Turkey has indeed been on the rise in the last few years because its economy is much stronger now than it was a few years ago. But Turkey is also a country that seeks to become a part of Europe, and as such it needs to meet all the relevant requirements that make the core of the EU.

Turkey is Bulgaria's immediate neighbor, and we have a very good and strong relationship with Turkey because there are countless benefits in having good relationship between the two countries – in terms of trade, services to our own people – we have large communities that go back and forth between the two countries, etc. And we have a very strong traditional cooperation.

What I think we should be concerned with is the attempt to abuse the good relationship that Bulgaria and Turkey have for short-term political benefits of populist political parties.

This would be dangerous because, as I said, the benefit of a strong relationship is good for both. It allows us to help Turkey move forward on its European agenda but it also allows Turkey to help us advance our economy. This would be my personal concern.

I would leave history and the Ottoman Empire to the historians because whether in the best days or worst days of the Ottoman Empire nobody could've even fathomed the concept that you could have a united Europe.

If this united Europe now includes Bulgaria, then soon it will include other countries in the Balkans, I hope. This is a community that is based on rules, regulations, and values; on things that we now take for granted, and no one in the Ottoman Empire could have imagined that this will one day be the case.

So let's leave that to historians, and look at how Turkey and Europe can work together on foreign policy issues – for example, now in the Middle East, or on how Turkey can continue its European path in the future by meeting the various standards in Europe.

Why has Bulgaria failed to date to take advantage of the development of beneficial ties with newly industrialized nations such as China and the other countries in East Asia, or such as Brazil, and with the developing nations as a whole?

Because I think over the last 20 years Bulgaria forgot about the rest of the world. We focused on Europe because of accession to the EU, we focused on NATO and the United States, and we focused obviously on Russia because it is an important energy partner for us. But we forgot that there is the rest of the world.

You can criticize this, and say that it was the wrong thing to do over the last 20 years, or we can explain it as being a natural effect of the transition. Whatever the case is, now it is time to turn the page and look at other parts of the world.

I would say that the Mediterranean and the Arab world particularly are a strategic opportunity for Bulgaria both economically and politically. A strong economic relationship with countries with countries like China, India, and Brazil also will provide for great opportunities. The cooperation with China now is picking up because we can see not just opportunities but also synergies that emerge.

I think we need to look at how we develop our relationship with Africa because Bulgaria used to have quite a strong presence in parts of Africa. With Brazil I think there are new opportunities. Bulgaria Air is now negotiating or has already agreed to buy Brazilian aircraft for its fleet; we are looking at a number of specific opportunities to develop joint facilities here – maintenance of Brazilian-made aircraft.

But this also means that Bulgarian industries need to be much more active than they are now. When the construction boom was still happening in Bulgaria, people made money in this country. I think that it is now time for them to look around, and to start making money by trading with other parts of the world.

You've been especially active with respect to the Middle East and the Arab world, including by organizing the Sofia Platform, a forum dedicated to the lessons from the transition in Easter Europe. What is that the Arab world can borrow from Eastern Europe's democratization transitions? Are the fears that the democratization of Arab societies might pave the way to power for (radical) Islamists justified?

I think there is a lot that the Arab world can borrow from Eastern Europe's experience if the people of the Arab world wish to do so – whether it's on developing political parties, civil society, media regulation, transitional justice. There is a lot in our experience that is relevant to that. The Sofia Platform conference showed how rich that experience is and how interested people actually are in using it. So we will be following up on that.

I don't think that we should fear democracy in the Middle East. I've noticed that people sometimes are afraid to say that democracy in the Middle East is a good thing. It is a good thing. How can it be a bad thing? There is a danger that the democratic, reform-minded secular agenda in the Middle East will be hijacked by radical groups for their own benefit.

That danger exists, and we must be very aware of it. But that danger will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we don't do anything about it. What we must do is being must more active in promoting our values and providing assistance in helping them develop the institutions that you need to function in a more secular environment.

There are things that the EU can do – trade preferences, providing support for institutional reform. There are things that the Council of Europe can do – legal reform, human rights standards – in some countries this is already happening. There are things that NATO can do – security sector reform. There are things that we can do bilaterally or as a community of like-minded countries.

But we must be much more aggressive – in the good sense – in our approach. We should not shy away from say, "If you want our help, our help will be there." Because I remember the early 1990s when there were talking heads who were saying that Orthodox Christians cannot function in a democratic environment, or Slavic countries don't have traditions, or Eastern Europeans were somehow different from Eastern Europeans from Western Europeans. We've overcome all that.

Looking at the Bulgarian diplomatic service, what are the results that you can account for several months after you declared your intention to recall the Bulgarian ambassadors who were revealed to have worked for the former State Security (DS), the secret police and intelligence of the Bulgarian communist regime, which was met with animosity by President Georgi Parvanov? How do you respond to criticism that such a move should have differentiated between former intelligence officers and former secret police informers?

The legislation has been put forward, and we hope it will be adopted by Parliament. I think this comes too late, it should have happened 20 years ago, and we wouldn't be worried about this problem now. Introducing a legislative text that would not allow ministers to allow former State Security agents as ambassadors is not going to hurt the Bulgarian diplomatic services; on the contrary, I think it will provide open opportunities for new people.

Unfortunately, we have disagreed with the President on this. I hope that he will understand that the revelation that 40% of the ambassadors over the 20 years were connected with the State Security service, and not doing anything about it is a disaster for this country.

It is not an issue of looking into the files, and playing God and saying this is a good spy, and that's a bad spy. I don't think it is possible to do that. We need to send a clear signal politically and institutionally that this country will no longer tolerate those dependencies of the past. This wasn't done in the past 20 years. We have to do it now. By the end of the year, the legislation will be in place.

Do you plan to address the issues of Bulgaria's foreign policy not placing enough emphasis on economic relations –all the way the promotion of foreign trade to the development of the international transit and transport corridors through Bulgarian territory?

You have a very fair point on trade. It is a question of your world view. If you look at draft legislation which we are now putting forward in Parliament, it has one fundamentally important change, which nobody seems to have noticed.

That is that the core mission of the Bulgarian diplomatic service is not just to protect and advance the national interest of Bulgaria but also to protect and advance the interests of Bulgarian citizens and Bulgarian companies. It is the first time that anyone is attempting to put this in the core mission of the diplomatic service.

For completely unfathomable reasons, as far as I am personally concerned, Bulgaria's diplomatic service has shied away from dealing with these issues. They've been left over to the people in the Ministry of Economy. What we need to do is to understand that it is part of any modern diplomatic service to promote our companies abroad. So this is a fundamental change, which will take some time because it involves changing the way you perceive your work.

As far as transit corridors are concerned, a lot of these projects have been delayed because of lack of financing. And the lack of financing has been delayed because of all kinds of other things, including stopping EU funding for Bulgaria because of corruption a few years ago. Now what is part of the core mission of our government is to invest in infrastructure and especially in infrastructure that relates to these corridors.

We are pushing very hard to speed up the building of the second bridge on the Danube and the link that that will create between Central Europe and Thessaloniki in Greece; finalizing the highway from Serbia to the Turkish border; making sure we link the Black Sea to the capital; indeed, we've managed to get EU funds for the Varna-Sofia highway (Hemus Highway), which was, surprisingly, not a priority project, and now will be one of the priority projects for financings. So I hope there are a lot of these things happening in the future, and they are not just political but also economic.

Under your leadership, the Bulgarian diplomacy has been highly active with respect to the EU integration of the Western Balkans. Do the Balkan societies and their elites have sufficient moral integrity for full-fledged participation in the common European project? Do you think that a union with confederation features of the Benelux type between Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania within the EU would be a good idea – including as a way to help propel the EU integration of the entire region?

I am firmly convinced that there is no bigger national interest that combines our historic, political, economic, and security interest than the full integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union. Because as long as there is an uncertainty as to the direction in which our neighbors will develop, that will cast a shadow on this country as well. So Bulgaria has a very strong interest in pushing for that.

Whether the political elitеs have the moral integrity, as you call it, I will not be the one to judge that. What I can judge, however, is that if you have full implementation of the rules and requirements of the acquis communitaire of the EU, not just the letter but the spirit of the EU is implemented in each country, this is to the benefits of its citizens, and there should be no question about that. I think this is the framework within which we must understand as a strategic long term interest.

We cannot pretend that there is any benefit to us being members of the EU, and our neighbors staying out of it. The full benefits come if we are all part of the same community.

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Tags: Black Sea region, Western Balkans, Middle East, Russia, US, USA, EU, foreign policy, Foreign Minister, Nikolay Mladenov, turkey, Arab world
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