Greek Ambassador Danai-Magdalini Koumanakou: Greece-Bulgaria Relations Are Becoming Model for Balkan Countries
Interview with the Ambassador of Greece to Bulgaria, Mrs. Danai-Magdalini Koumanakou for the "Greek Survey" ("International Survey: Bulgaria-Greece”) of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency)
Her Excellency Danai-Magdalini Koumanakou was born in Athens. She has a Master’s in sociology from the Paris VIII University, and a Master’s in political science from the Panteion University.
She has worked for the Greek Foreign Ministry since 1979, and has been assigned to Greek diplomatic missions in Nicosia, Berne, Geneva, Paris, Ankara, the UN General Assembly.
She has been Greece's Ambassador to Bulgaria since 2006.
Bulgarians and Greeks have the longest history of neighborly relations in the Balkans – since the 7th century. They have been at war and in alliance many times. What are the major highlights of today’s relations between the two countries? Do you believe their respective societies have overcome any historical animosity – like the French and the Germans?
Thank you so much for this first question of yours, as I consider it very important for someone to have the opportunity to take an up-to-date stance on a historic matter, given that history definitely is the firm basis on which we can place today’s political relations, either at international or bilateral level. So I believe it is very important that our two countries, after a very long period of time, find themselves on the same side, as far as their NATO and European dimension are concerned.
From a historic point of view, we see that this could be characterized as an unprecedented reality, in the two countries’ modern history, something that we see for the first time and which stems from political choices, as well as from what the two peoples feel and seek for each other, that is peace, stability and prosperity. So I believe that this development is one that completely reflects the two peoples’ approach.
The societies in our countries have proven themselves that they are in a position to recognize the fact that only through the processes of social, political and economic development, have they the chance to move along a common European future, which also has its distinct Balkan flavor, because of the region they live in.
I would like to note that when speaking about a distinct Balkan flavour, I do not refer to the political dimension, but to the cultural one, which in fact carries a significant meaning for the soul of the Greek and the Bulgarian people.
Greece is the only one of the “old” EU members (the so-called EU 15) with which Bulgaria has a common border. Has Bulgaria managed to benefit from bordering a EU15 state (most importantly in economic terms) as much as the Central European states have benefited from a similar position?
I strongly believe that Bulgaria’s accession to the EU has affected our bilateral relations in a very positive way. Greece, as the oldest EU Member State in the region, has played a significant role in the enlargement process of the EU towards the countries of Southeast Europe; in this context, Bulgaria’s accession has always been a strategic goal and priority for Greece, offering to Bulgaria political as well as practical support.
Greece has never ceased to enhance and support, in the context of the European institutions, Bulgaria’s efforts to make the best out of the so-called “acquis communautaire” and to achieve significant progress with respect to the reforms that are under way in all fields.
Nowadays, Bulgaria belongs to the large European family, and at the same time, to the Balkan neighborhood, a fact that further boosts the development of the relations between our two countries.
If we focus on our bilateral economic relations only, it is noteworthy that over the last few years the economic and business cooperation between the two countries has got outstanding dynamics, especially in the sectors of tourism, commerce and transports, dynamics that reflects the indissoluble political bonds that connect the two countries, in the context of the EU and other international and regional organizations, dynamics that is undoubtedly moving on at a faster pace, thanks to the geographical proximity and our common borders, as well as the favourable business climate both countries can offer.
Furthermore, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that today Greek-Bulgarian cooperation goes far beyond the excellent level of interstate relations.
The local authorities on both sides of the borders, as well as the institutions of the respective civil societies, maintain contacts, discuss and take initiatives in order to cooperate in the fields of economy, commerce, culture, environmental protection and on numerous other issues. Greece is, nowadays, looking forward to enjoying bilateral relations that will be taken as a model, as well as relations between our peoples that could equally serve as a model for all Balkan countries.
Greece is the third largest foreign investor in Bulgaria – with banking and some industries such as textile, steel-making being at the forefront. Why is Bulgaria attractive for Greek investors? What has been the impact of this massive investment – for Bulgaria and for Greece?
First of all, I would like to note that the constant and stable progress in the economic and business cooperation of the two countries that we have been witnessing over the last decades, is the outcome of a number of factors: it reflects, among other things, the high level of our bilateral political relations and the favourable business climate in Bulgaria. I am absolutely confident that these factors will continue to be valid, further bolstered after Bulgaria’s accession to the EU.
In 2009, Greece ranked third among the foreign investors in Bulgaria, with a total of investments that reached the value of EUR 2,7976 B and with a participation that reached a 7% (in relation to 8,6% in 2007) in the total FDIs’ in the country.
Bulgaria, for its part, is the fourth most important destination for the Greek exports. At this point, I would like to emphasize that the global economic conditions could not leave the economies of the two countries unaffected. These circumstances add value to the fact that the Greece managed to keep its position among the leading foreign investors in Bulgaria.
In this sense, if some investors feel reluctant today to take risks because of the world economic crisis, I am optimistic that our bilateral relations in this field will maintain their satisfying levels, in all sectors of the business activity- banking, energy, industry, trade, services, tourism etc.
The strong assets of the Greek investment activity in Bulgaria are the long established presence of the Greek enterprises, the deep knowledge of the local markets and the creation of stable business networks between the two countries.
One of the most significant positive effects of the big volume of the Greek investments in Bulgaria is the strengthening of the labor market, as it is estimated that more than 100 000 jobs are due to the activity of Greek businesses, centred mostly on the fields of food and beverages, construction, services (mainly banks, insurance, health), among others.
At the same time, Bulgaria is an emerging market of 7,5 million consumers, where the social and economic developments that are under way contribute to the rise of the standard of living, and the change in the way of living, bringing them closer to the European ones.
In addition to that, it also worth mentioning the increasing development of infrastructure projects, which has been boosted since the EU accession and has created an even more favorable environment for economic activities, as well as new prospects for the business relations between our countries.
As Greece is currently facing financial difficulties, it has been criticized for its policies by many European politicians. Do you think Greece should be receiving more international support and understanding in this difficult period – including from the EU/Eurozone states?
Under the current circumstances and in the adverse conditions that the global economic crisis has brought, Greece, as a Member State of the Eurozone, is seeking financial stability and the restoration of strong, stable and sustainable growth.
Our country is totally conscious of the responsibility it shares together with the other Member States for the financial stability of the Eurozone and has undertaken ambitious and decisive action in this direction, by taking firm initiatives, in order to ensure the recovery of its national economy and to reclaim the trust on the part of international markets.
We find ourselves in a crucial period, where the recent decision of the Eurozone leaders about the establishment of a new European mechanism for financial support and stability comes as the result of the painful efforts undertaken by the Greek government in order to reclaim the full trust and political support of the European leaders and the European Central Bank.
I should note at this point that this agreement was the outcome of a rational strategic planning, perseverance, well calculated moves and hard negotiations; at the same time it is an agreement that concerns the entire Europe, as it is signals a new era for the EU and the Eurozone, which have both responded to this great challenge despite all the adverse conditions, and managed to ensure in practice the solidarity and the mutual trust among the Member States.
This mechanism of the European leaders, but also the European Central Bank’s decision, prove in the best possible way not only that Europe supports its common currency, but also that it always supports Eurozone Member States that face serious financial problems for various reasons and, as is the case with Greece now, and guarantees the financial stability of the Eurozone as a whole.
It should be clear that Greece’s aim is that the activation of this mechanism not become necessary, since funding through the international markets remains the country’ s main goal. Nevertheless, it is important now that this mechanism is there, and that in this way the Eurozone reconfirmed their willingness to take decisive and coordinated action, in case this becomes necessary.
How can Bulgaria and Greece boost further their trade and tourism exchange? The recent blockade by the protesting farmers has created the impression that the common border remains relatively closed, relying on one major crossing point. Is this observation fair?
Over the last years our relations, mainly as far as trade and tourism are concerned, have been marked by intense mobility and innovative initiatives from both sides.
The number of Greek tourists visiting the winter resorts in Bansko, Borovets or Pamporovo in Bulgaria, as well as that of the Bulgarian tourists that visit tourist resorts, mainly in Northern Greece, remain high even now under these adverse economic conditions.
Hotel owners in Greece are doing everything possible to ensure the same levels of Bulgarian tourists’ trips to Greece, offering lower prices in view of the upcoming summer season without lowering the quality of services.
It is worth underlining that the new border crossing “Zlatograd-Thermes-Xanthi”, inaugurated last January by the Prime Ministers of Greece and Bulgaria, will further boost travel, in both directions, among the residents of the border areas, given that this is a light traffic crossing point, designed exclusively for the crossing of people and private cars.
The opening and functioning of this new border crossing responds to the desire of local societies, on both sides of the border, to communicate with each other as easily and quickly as possible.
Certainly, the benefits this new crossing brings for the local tourism and more generally for economic development in the region have already become evident, as it is estimated that over 800 people from both sides of the border are travelling every weekend.
Above all, however, the opening of a new border crossing, the fourth actually existing now between the two countries, crowns the progress achieved during the previous years by both countries in their cross-border cooperation, and their overall excellent cooperation at all levels.
There have been a lot of Bulgarian migrant workers in Greece, including illegal ones facing harsh conditions. At the same time, there is the case of Kostadinka Kuneva, the victim of an acid attack in Athens, which led to much more massive public support and solidarity for her in Greece than there was in Bulgaria. How important are Bulgarian migrants to the Greek economy? How Greek authorities make sure they have fair working conditions?
Our countries belong to the large European family, where as their citizens are “European citizens” having the opportunity to move freely in a united Europe, characterized by free and flexible movement of persons and goods.
Last year, Greece proceeded to lifting the restrictions for access to the Greek labor market by Bulgarian workers; at the same time, a bilateral agreement on seasonal employment is in force. With the lifting of restrictions, Greece corroborated its commitment to ensure the protection of the rights of immigrants working there, whose contribution to the growth of the Greek economy is extremely high.
In addition, I should remind that during the visit of the Minister of Employment and Social Policy of Bulgaria, Totuy Mladenov, to Athens and the meeting with his Greek counterpart Antreas Loverdos, on March 22nd, it became quite clear that, based on police authorities’ data, the number of the Bulgarians working in Greece is around 30 000.
However, as the Greek Minister Mr Loverdos mentioned, the Ministries of the two countries are certain that this number is even greater, reaching 130 000-150 000.
Furthermore, the Bulgarians working in the numerous Greek enterprises active in Bulgaria are about 17 000.
As Mr Loverdos mentioned after the meeting, a bill is being prepared by the Greek government where the endorsement of the European directive concerning the cross-border cooperation of the insurance funds is envisaged.
Finally, an idea was discussed, concerning a constructive dialogue the ministers of employment of Bulgaria, Romania and Greece can lead, in order to end up with a common stance, before every European Council takes place.
At the social level, the coexistence of the Greeks and the Bulgarians in the working environment, as well as in terms of everyday interaction and communication, is smooth.
Even more importantly, it could be said that Bulgarians working in Greece contribute greatly to progress and growth and constitute a bridge of friendship and cooperation between the two peoples.
The attack against Kostandinka Kouneva in Athens, as you have well said, caused an enormous wave of solidarity and staunch support on the part of the Greek society, which showed in this way its sensitivity, without any discrimination, towards this kind of violent actions; a sensitivity which is ultimately related to the equal rights in labor that everyone should enjoy without exception; above all, this sensitivity is related to the human being as an integral personality.
The new Bulgarian government has made the construction of the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline conditional on environmental assessments. Do you have any indications that Bulgaria might drop that project? How is Greece going to react if this happens? Why is the Burgas-Alexandroupolis project important for both Greece and Bulgaria?
Energy is one of the fields where our cooperation has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last years. Today, Greece and Bulgaria jointly participate in a number of energy projects – bilateral, regional, European – which are part of the EU goal for diversification of energy sources and routes, while, on the other hand, they improve both countries’ position on the international energy map.
The most recent project of energy cooperation is the interconnection of the Greek and Bulgarian gas networks through the Komotini-Dimitrovgrad pipeline, a project which is being carried out at a satisfactory pace.
Energy projects are, by their very nature, particularly complicated, combining complex geopolitical, technical, economic and environmental parameters. I am strongly convinced that our countries will continue their fruitful cooperation in this field, in order to make sure that the implementation of the energy projects is in compliance to the European rules, respectful of the environmental protection and leads to the development and well-being of both countries.
As far as the project of “Burgas-Alexandroupolis” oil pipeline is concerned, the bill to define the project of “Burgas-Alexandroupolis” pipeline as a project of strategic importance has already been submitted to the Greek parliament and, as far as I know, the same applies also to the Bulgarian side.
It is only reasonable and necessary that there are ecological sensitivities in countries such as ours, with such beautiful nature. The technique which is being applied nowadays for the construction of the pipelines can give clear answers to all worries or questions.
Hence, on our side this project is moving on, maybe not at a satisfactory pace, but it is moving on, while, at the same time, we are expecting the environmental impact assessment, which the Bulgarian side has committed itself to carry out.
In the meantime, the committees are meeting and certainly a part of the context of the discussions that are under way also are the worries about the ecological aspects of the project, worries that are reasonable and which, I believe, will be satisfied in the best possible way. For this I express my confidence.
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