Dimosthenis Stoidis: Almost 2000 Greek Companies Relocated to Bulgaria Last Year
As the Bulgarian chairmanship of the South-East European Cooperation process (SEECP) is coming to and end on June 01, Novinite is interviewing ambassadors of countries that are parties to the process about bilateral relations.
The first interview we are publishing is with Greece's Ambassador to Bulgaria, H.E. Mr Dimoshenis Stoidis, who cast light on a number of issues ranging from migration and the border blockade to energy and the impact of the crisis on relations between Bulgaria and Greece.
Mr Stoidis' diplomatic career began in 1983, and since then he has held a number of offices in Greek missions to countries such as Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Belgium, France (having been Deputy Head of Mission in the last three). Prior to his arrival in Bulgaria, he served as the Ambassador of Greece to Serbia between 2009 and 2013.
Your Excellency, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said in April that cooperation on the migrant crisis is excellent with Turkey and not good with Greece. Has anyone on the Bulgarian side reached out to inform you what is required?
The migrant crisis, as you know, is an issue that concerns partners in the EU and in this case it is also between Greece and Bulgaria as members of the EU. We cooperate closely in this respect. Even in the wake of the recent agreement between the EU and Turkey, I am sure you have noticed that the flows after the agreement have been reduced drastically. Of course this concerns not only Greece, because, together with Bulgaria, we were the ones which were receiving most of the burden of the migration pressure as countries at the external borders of the EU. I think cooperation is really strong and I would say equally that this is reflected to the relationship between Bulgaria and Turkey, Greece and Turkey. So I think that sometimes declarations, especially when the subject makes news, sometimes statements are generally declarations of politicians of either country. They try to highlight the actual happening of the events. So I think the cooperation is equally successful and effective, with both countries, neighboring countries.
I'm sure you understand, that in the very recent past there were probably occasions that politicians did make remarks, observations - but as I speak now, things have changed mainly due to the common agreement of Europe with Turkey.
As we speak today, we realize that there is no problem whatsoever. As I said, I have concrete proof that the cooperation between Bulgaria and Greece is really effective. As you know, in the aftermath of the EU-Turkey agreement, your Minister of Defence was recently in Greece, along with [Interior Minister] Ms Bachvarova and [her deputy] Mr Gunev were there. This is the proof that cooperation is very effective and very important to neighbors, neighbors that share borders.
In a recent interview, you said that your country was convinced that the construction of artificial borders or barriers would not solve the problem. Was that a call on Bulgaria to abandon the idea of building a fence along the common border?
Again I will try to be precise. As you know, Greece has constructed only 12.5 km barrier or a mechanical installation, to put it mildly, on the land borders between Greece and Turkey. It did so, long ago, before the current refugee crisis. Greece was already suffering from the inflows of immigration, most of the time illegal one. Of course after the increase of the recent flows, Bulgaria is also creating mechanical installations on the land borders with Turkey.
As far as we are concerned, we wanted to cope with inflows of immigrants from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands. As you do know, the flow of immigrants through the islands was directed to the Greek mainland and then on the way to the Balkan route. This situation created reaction by some other partners of ours primarily those in the scheme of Visegrad. So, initially it was them who really thought that they were affected by the transit of refugees and immigrants through Greece. So I think that the reaction here, in Bulgaria was the concern that this flow of immigrants would not stop and that large numbers of refugees and immigrants who were stranded at the border with FYROM [Greece uses the name FYROM to refer to what Bulgaria has recognized as Macedonia; Novinite also uses the term Macedonia] might try to deviate their route and seek some other way to reach central Europe through Bulgaria. At the time, it was the suggestion of the Bulgarian authorities that the army and police should make military exercises at the border. That was, quite understandably, in our sense, that the Bulgarian authorities and the government needed to reassure your society and the people by the border that they would not be subjected to any sudden inflows of immigrants from the Greek mainland. And I think the statement you referred to, did not materialize at all because there were many voices in Bulgaria that there was a difference between land borders with Turkey as a third country and building a fence with EU members. In that sense, my remark at the time meant that we thought it was unfair and a very hastily decision by our other partners in central Europe.
Allow me to say, to conclude that as we speak now, all of this is almost behind us. I am not saying almost, probably completely behind us, because it’s a new situation - no fence, no inflows.
Unless the crisis resurges again and people start to reenter from somewhere.
Yes, it might be a possibility, if the flows start from the East to the Greek islands. This may occur if our eastern neighbors and common neighbors will consider that the visa liberalization may not take place within June. In this respect, as Bulgaria and Greece and other member states, we insist that all of the criteria that are vital in order for Turkey to be granted the liberalization of visas, 72 criteria in total, have to be fulfilled by a third country.
Such a development might mark or signal some kind of increased flow of immigration, compared to the flow of the recent weeks. In fact, there have been days that there's no entry of any refugee or immigrant in the Greek islands after the agreement. Which means the agreement worked between the EU and Turkey. So, I think even member states – Bulgaria, Greece and Italy at least those who are at the external borders – they have taken the appropriate measures that even if there is an inflow yet again, nobody thinks it might be of any dimensions that were in the very recent past. Now at least speaking for Greece there are hotspots, installations that can cope with any flows of immigrants without having to affect other countries in the neighborhood.
Greek farmers, who earlier this year staged blockades on the border with Bulgaria, are not protesting anymore, but tensions on both sides of the borders have resurged periodically over the years. So, is there a sustainable way to prevent these situations from happening again?
We have first of all to agree that people, be it farmers, be it workers, be it diplomats - in the past probably we were also allowed to go on strike. The right to strike is a democratic way to protest. Farmers, for many weeks, protested within, always within the Greek territory – visa-?-vis some national domestic policies. Of course, apart from other parts of Greece they were also at the border with Bulgaria and this was really the problem caused to society – trade, commerce, drivers and truck associations.
I have to be clear, though - the strike or the mobilization of the farmers was never against the interest of any other countries. The fact that the land and properties of some of them are close to the common borders and that they chose to make some active protests has inevitably caused some problems. But they withdrew after the Prime Minister of Greece approached their concerns in a more constructive manner that the government at the time thought appropriate.
Not deviating that question about seeing that similar situation does not appear yet again, I am sure you understand it is very difficult for any official, and actually for nobody to give a promise that certain group of people never protests, so they don't cause a lot of problems.
What I can tell you is that very much I'm certain that the problem that was created and caused concerns to the Bulgarian interests, commercial interests, will be evaluated, will be considered by competent officials and if the case arises, this might have minimum consequences. Sometimes it is inevitable, but I repeat - it never intended, no group of protests ever thought this was intended or directed deliberately to any other country, in particular Bulgaria with whom we share extensive borders. I was also told - and your next question might be in the same direction - that the fact that the farmers go frequently on strike causes problems in tourism. It is true that there were some voices that, in view of the Easter holidays and the long weekends, there might be some problems at the borders.
Fortunately, that was not the case, which means that tourism is really a factor of great concern to both our countries, is to our mutual interest. As Bulgarian tourists visit Greece in the summer, Greeks come to Bulgarian ski resorts in the winter. We should really protect tourism outside any concern that might sometimes create – I wouldn't call it tension, but sometimes it creates some problems.
In Bulgaria there was much talk about the damages done to the economy by the blockade. Has there ever been such an estimate in Greece about losses suffered by the country as a result of the blockade?
We didn't have large consequences to the tourism industry, but I tell you why - that was January and February. These are months for tourists coming into Bulgaria, ski resorts like Pamporovo, Bansko and all these Bulgarian places popular in Greece. So it was mainly trade that the protest affected. Even within Greece itself there were voices form business associations, chambers of commerce - mainly it was in Greece, because they were deployed in most parts of the Greek territory.
For Bulgaria, it was the Promachonas-Kulata, and I think mainly also Makaza and Ilinden. But anyway, this is behind us and it was a temporary event, and as I said we must put it behind us. I do know there were concrete voices from associations in Bulgaria, I don't know if it's over but they have a tendency to consider or to study in more depth if their interests were really affected and probably they would raise some claims elsewhere. This I don't know. As I said, as being bilateral ambassador here the concern is that we develop our excellent relations further. It is a must that we tackle temporary problems in a very consistent, prudent, and constructive manner.
But the blockade came down and then there was a strike, with Bulgarian tourists stuck on Santorini earlier in May. Should Bulgarians feel discouraged about booking a trip to Greece?
Not at all. You see, great numbers continue to go to Greece. And with latest data we realize that at least the destinations that are favourable by Bulgarian tourists, the forecasts are very favourable. So, the Santorini case - again, this was a strike by the maritime association. Of course I read the news, but there were only 500-600, but not more: Bulgarian tourists. The strike affected apparently Greek tourists, Greek holidaymakers as well. To tell you the truth, I was not in the position to hear any concerns. I am here so I follow the reactions here. But generally speaking, from the reports we receive, that was not a real problem worth discussing in detail. I understand the tourist operators have experience to deal with similar cases and any concerns their clients might be facing. So, I don’t think the issue you referred to caused great concern. It was for couple of days in the news and then it was forgotten. But it was forgotten because people really enjoy themselves and tourists enjoy themselves in tourist destinations especially in Santorini.
Spending cuts are ongoing in Greece. Have they been affecting recent bilateral projects on the Greek side?
Thank you for the question, but I would just like shortly to inform you that the economic condition really is improving steadily and as you know, there was an agreement recently that was passed in the Parliament, and that the forthcoming Eurogroup by the end of May will fortunately stamp the agreement with our creditors and this will entail to the initiation of the debate on the question of alleviating the public debt. My understanding is that the agreement with our creditors will allow us to enjoy another tranche worth EUR 10 B of real money that will be injected into the economy.
As far as Bulgaria is concerned, we have effective border cooperation, there is regional one with regards to the European Union, INTERREG, which involves regions on either side of the border. But the major project as you know is energy – the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria [IGB], a huge priority for us, neighbors. This is really a strategic project which will lead the relationship to extremely close cooperation. Also, there is an agreement on cooperation on involvement of companies on either side with regards to the eventuality or the perspective of building an LNG terminal, probably in Alexandroupolis.
And then it's infrastructure of course. We are very happy that at least the Struma highway is almost completed within the Bulgarian territory. I don't know if you have a chance to travel on the way to Greece from Sofia, because it is in an excellent state in terms of highways. Myself I enjoy traveling towards my country, where also new highways have been delivered to the public. The infrastructure really is an issue that will bring countries together; trade will be much easier along with cooperation, contacts between societies and understanding. These all promise yet a brighter future in relations between Greece and Bulgaria.
You mentioned energy. Having been here since 2013, you must have followed all the developments regarding IGB, and the project was under discussion for too much time and took too long to start.
Mainly I would say it takes time because it requires companies, not governments, because governments are behind this politically. For years, I think before 2013 when I came, the idea was there. As we speak, there is 100% backing politically from both countries – with regards to the IGB.
I think the main problem or cause for a delay you just commented - it had to do with the economic viability of the project. Companies have to see if their investment will be productive and to the benefit of their commercial interests and those of societies that will have cheaper natural gas, although the price has not been defined. I can see there has been great progress and there approaches the phase of beginning of the construction.
Also, on the 17th of May in Thessaloniki the inauguration ceremony of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline took place, and this event was attended by Bulgarian government officials.
We have the same target – to create energy security and diversification for our countries. Probably Bulgaria is not in the consortium, but IGB will be connected eventually to TAP, although IGB will be constructed a bit earlier and will be supplied by the actual network which exists in Bulgaria and Greece.
There have been recurrent publications in foreign media about Greek companies moving to Bulgaria, Greek businesses relocating, etc. Do you have any estimates of numbers of companies that did this, since there have been misinterpretations?
I couldn't disagree there are misinterpretations. There have been statements, declarations, news bulletins, Greek articles and opinion leaders, but Greek competent people sometimes really refer to this tendency of Greek companies and businesses to be relocated to Bulgaria. As you do know it is the flat tax, the stable VAT, at least two of the major elements that create a very favourable environment in Bulgaria for foreign businesses, and also for Greek businesses. They have been here in the past, I think at least with 2015 data, about 12400, Bulgarian-registered but of Greek participation in their activities. It's too large a number. But there doesn’t seem to be large numbers very recently. Considerable businesses, they have not come, and there is one good reason. Probably they established themselves. Almost 2000 more that came to Bulgaria in a year's time, so total 14400. But it does not cause great concern to the Greek economy, because this was not accompanied by great transfer of major capital. There are elements of the equation that sometimes need to be confirmed or verified objectively in the long run. I hear about businesses sometimes coming to Sandanski, Petrich, especially in the south, from Greece, but these are not supposed to be very big companies.
What I understand with regards to our economy. We cannot change the 10% flat tax here or the VAT, but I would really tend to believe and see that we have considerable tourist revenue in Greece. The contribution on the insurance sector has increased. Our exports, despite the crisis, have marked a growth - considerable or not, but it is a growth. These are elements, positive elements in combination with the fact that I mentioned before of the EUR 10 B that are to be injected soon. They are expected to create new jobs, while unemployment that had reached 29% before, now it is 24.4% with a downward trend. So the government tries to create favourable conditions to make sure the vast majority of the companies operating in Greece will stay.
There was a statement from the Greek embassy last July reading your country has done a lot for Bulgaria, opening a total of 70 000 jobs and with EUR 2.5 B in investment over the past years. Figures really speak for themselves. But was it because you considered disappointing or offensive the way Bulgarians reacted to the Greek crisis that you send the statement?
You said yourself it's difficult to dispute or challenge these figures. But actually I realize after a couple of years in Sofia, there was not such perception of our presence here. I can really confide with you that, before coming here I spent four-and-a-half years in Serbia. It was a similar need for the Embassy, on a specific timeframe, to refer to some very positive elements of bilateral relations. I smile, because it adds to general aspect in our approach to both countries. Which means – even if you might think there was some kind of expediency mentioning these figures in the period, although I cannot recall it, eventually I realize that if young people may not know a lot about Greece, in this case as being a very close neighbor, they can have this kind of aspect and figures to consider.
The statement was in the context of the crisis in Greece. Within this period, there was an Alpha Research poll saying 60% of Bulgarians believed Greeks don't work enough and that added to the crisis. Surely there are such stereotypes on both sides of the border.
I am sure it had nothing to do with any declarations. But of course the fact you mentioned it to me means it made some people to think in a different manner of the crisis in Greece and the economic conditions of that period. These elements, which are a reminder of the past, and probably now I recall, some of the figures were not known to the public. But anyway, generally speaking one could have seen it as a contribution of a neighboring country diachronically, over the years - if not centuries, with whom our relationship is really developing fast. In 2014 it was already the 60th year of the final amelioration of our bilateral relations after WWII. So it is free of any thoughts, we are both allies since 2004 for Bulgaria [when it joined NATO], since 2007 [when Bulgaria joined the EU], and there is a promising future for our relations for which I think our governments are working consistently.
Allow me to finish on a positive note – there are also Bulgarian-Greek exchanges of cultural groups, units and associations not to the knowledge of this particular embassy. Sometimes they don't need the embassy or the state. It is a human contact; and there are artists who communicate – and from their point of view, probably without knowing it, they work for the amelioration of the framework of bilateral relations.
The other day I was in Topolovgrad. There was a group from Orestiada, in Greece, where I attended a festival at the invitation of the mayor. It was a festival comedy satira of [Bulgarian actor] Velko Kanev - for the late Velko Kanev. Before that, after discussing with the people of Topolovgrad, actually he was the soul and the psyche and the initiator of the festival. And after he passed away, Topolovgrad continues to organize the festival.
The detail is just to tell you I didn't know beforehand of the Orestiada group which participated in the festival, and then I realized it was a very good participation although it was in Greek, but many people understood it - for example some Bulgarian people in the audience working in Greece. It was a mixture, cultural, but in general it is a contact between the people which is very effective. And I think first the communication is between the people, then the governments. Governments change, people stay there, tourism stays there, so this is actually what really it is very promising and gives me great satisfaction.
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