The regional cooperation in Southeastern Europe – nothing, but out of sincerity

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The Serbian president Alexander Vucic, the Romanian PM Viorica Dancila, the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borisov (photo: YouTube, Romanian government)

The quadrilateral meeting of Romania, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria in the Romanian resort Snagov and the Romanian-Bulgarian intergovernmental meeting in Bucharest in the end of March 2019 show that the euroatlantic solidarity in the region is slightly forced. Is it possible to have a cooperation, which comes from within?

Vladimir Mitev

This article was published on 31 March 2019 on the Bulgarian section of the site ”The Barricade”. 

The Bulgarian government with the prime minister Boyko Borissov at its front returned from Bucharest with modest diplomatic achievements. The joint session with the Romanian government led to the signing of one agreement – on cooperation in the domain of extraordinary situations, and two memorandums of understanding – on small and medium enterprises and on easing of ship navigation on the river Danube.

The quadrilateral summit of the leaders of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Greece had beautiful words to say on infrastructural interconnectivity – e.g. on the creation of ”a ring” of gas pipeline connections between the countries, but left behind no agreement, plan for action, or provided investment for any concrete initiative. On the top of all the special guest at the quadrilateral format – the Turkish vice president Fuat Oktay, didn’t serve Boyko Borissov an excuse for the words of the foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who boasted that Ankara has successfully influenced the Bulgarian legislative process with regard to religious denominations.

A more careful look will notice that the official statements of Boyko Borisov and the announcement at the site of the Bulgarian government about the fifth joint session of the cooperation council of the Romanian and Bulgarian government put accent on transport and energy connectivity between Romania and Bulgaria – in other words, on economic relations. The information about the joint declaration of both cabinets, which was published at the site of the Romanian government, puts the accent elsewhere – on regional cooperation and its strategic dimensions of security.

The bilateral declaration “highlights the importance of cooperation within the Three Seas Initiative and reaffirms the commitment of the two Governments to backing pragmatic cooperation in the Black Sea region with a view to adopting a common regional maritime agenda. On euroatlantic level the joint document reconfirms the firm support for the integration of the Western Balkans states in EU and NATO”. On regional level, it reaffirms the joint commitment to creating synergies between the different forms of cooperation existing in Southeastern Europe and the Black Sea area”. The declaration also “reiterates the efforts designed to continue the promotion of the Enlargement Policy and the European Perspective of the Western Balkans as a priority of the current Romanian Presidency of the EU Council and the previous Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council. Besides, it “reaffirms the intention to continue cooperation with the Eastern partners in the context of the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership Summit”.

Even the simple reading of these points from the declaration is sufficient to explain why the Bulgarian side doesn’t put an emphasis in its interpretation of the event on the common vectors in foreign policy. In election period, with a government, which is constantly being shaken by scandals, Boyko Borissov doesn’t want to appear as a blind subcontractor of the interests of the new Big Brother in the region, that push our countries towards confrontation with Russia. There is obviously pressure in this direction – including due to the demands of the pro-Atlantic forces in Bulgaria for placement of nuclear weapons on the Balkans or the insistence of the Atlantic Council in Sofia for new military bases of NATO in Bulgaria. At the same time the government of GERB confronts an increasing indignation in Bulgarian society and, apparently, prefers to do its Euroatlantic obligations delicately, without alienating the supporters of Russia.

It is probably good that there is an external force, which is interested in regional cooperation in South-East Europe. However, a critical view towards the quadrilateral talks shows that they still don’t give concrete results. The Serbian president Alexander Vucic announced that he was interested in the construction of the highway Panchevo-Timisoara, which was interpreted positively in Romanian media. However there were no announcements of concrete data for deadline for completion and provided money for this project. At an earlier quadrilateral meeting in 2017 Bulgaria and Greece showed desire for development of a railway corridor between their ports in Aegean and Black Sea. In Snagov, where the present meeting took place, nothing new was said about this initiative. It can be deducted that it doesn’t move forward in its realization. Now the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras launched the idea for connecting of the gas pipelines of the four countries. But there were no announcements of a concrete agreement, which could transform the words into action.

The analogy with the Group of Visegrad (V4) could be useful. The countries of Central Europe – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have structures for cooperation, which work permanently. The countries of V4 are united by their common past in the XX century. The group B4 (Romania, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria) has been having summits for the last few years, without permanent structures, which could discuss the possibilities for integration. The peoples in these countries, the media and the states themselves have an exclusively national-centric agenda. The twentieth century had put each of these countries in another camp during the Cold War. These peculiarities certainly contribute to the lack of results in the quadrilateral communication. Businessmen, artists and NGOs from these countries find a common language with neighbouring partners relatively easy. But the state machines create the impression that they communicate slightly forced.

There have been discussions on the construction of gas interconnectors between the four countries for years, but work is advancing very slow. At this moment there is a Bulgarian-Romanian gaz pipeline close to Rousse, but it can’t function in direction to Bulgaria, because there is no compression station on the Romanian side of the river. In Victoria Palace in Bucharest the Romanian prime minister Viorica Dancila said that until the end of the year the interconnector between Bulgaria and Romania will become reversive. In his turn the Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov expressed his hope that the construction of the interconnector with Greece will start in June, and “in the closest months” will start also the construction of the one with Serbia.

However, other claims of Boyko Borisov cast a shadow of doubt upon his overall discourse in Bucharest. His speech was not clearly articulated, leaving the public to wonder what is being said. He said that the bridge at Rousse-Giurigu needs to be repaired, both sides being involved. But those who travel between Rouse and Bucharest remember that Romania realised big maintenance and renovation project of its part of the bridge four years ago.

Borissov talked about three variants for new bridge above the Danube – one with European funds (at Ruse-Giurgiu) and two under the form of public-private partnership (Svishtov-Zimnicea and Nicopole-Turnu Magurele), without mentioning the other two existing options – Silistra-Călăraşi and Oryahovo-Bechet. He underlined that as a result of the memorandum for easing the ship navigation on the river Danube Romania will be able to dredge its own part of the common zone, without specifying that in fact Bulgaria is often critcised that it doesn’t dredge sufficiently its part of the river.

Also, the idea for a hydro power plant at Nikopol-Turnu Măgurele was mentioned. Perhaps what is meant by it is the resurrection of a Bulgarian-Romanian project, which has been periodically discussed ans suspended on the level of discussion for decades – even back in the times of Todor Zhivkov and Nicolae Ceauşescu. The project was mentioned laconically and it wasn’t clear whose initiative is its resurrection, what the parties think about it, what is realistic to be achieved and on what terms.

The public statements of the leaders after the bilateral and the quadrilateral meeting were in a format, which didn’t permit journalistic questions – perhaps, because in such similar cases the internal Bulgarian agenda used to replace the international agenda. While Borissov left the impression that he passes over the agenda of talks superficially (in order not to “bore” the journalists), without explaining and probably without knowing in their essence the cases, the reporters didn’t have the chance to correct, to complete or to clarify the presented information.

In November 2018 the Bulgarian government approved “a project for memorandum” on the realization of the studies for the construction of new bridge at Rousse-Giurgiu, because the traffic through the existing bridge has been growing significantly in the last years. The document was expected to serve as a basis for discussions with the Romanian government in finding the place of a new bridge on the river Danube. At Svishtov and Nikopol the Bulgarian riverbank is high, which creates engineering problems and makes the construction of the bridge and the related infrastructure more difficult. But there are local Romanian interests, that would like to see their region connected with Bulgaria at these two places. In April 2018 the member of the European parliament Petar Kurumbashev organised a discussion, which supported the idea that the third bridge above the Danube be at Silistra-Călăraşi. An argument in support of such a variant could be the potential passing at Silistra of the highway ring, which is to encircle the Black Sea, and is not yet constructed in its Bulgarian-Romanian part. The regions of Oryahovo and Silistra, and practically almost all the towns, which are candidates for a bridge, have poor economic indicators. The infrastructural interconnectivity with Romania should encourage their development.

There are interests and arguments related to all these projects, which the public should be aware of, so that at the end the choice of place for bridge is not made through sortition – you get what you receive through mysterious ways. But the press statements from the meeting in Bucharest doesn’t clarify what in fact is going on in the transport connectivity. There is even certain feeling that the talks could be going backward and both sides still wonder where will be the best place for the new bridge. The announcement that there should be a third bridge between Romania and Bulgaria is not news in itself. Given that 13 years passed between the taking of decision and the completion of the Danube Bridge 2 at Vidin-Calafat, one could presume that we will have to wait long for a third connection over the Danube.

So far it is not clear whether Montenegro and the Republic of North Macedonia will join the cooperation format of the European South-East as Boyko Borisov proposes and as the partnership in NATO dictates. But we can safely foresee that the next quadrilateral meeting – in Greece, will follow the fate of the last ones – beautiful phrases and very few or barely no results.

At the end of the day we have been seeing in the recent years how the goodwill of leaders and the euroatlantic support are not sufficient for the regional infrastructural cooperation in South-East Europe to unfold at level of states. Bulgaria and Romania apparently pass through a period, when they are focused on their national agendas, confrontations and problems and this limits their possibilities for active foreign policy. To build infrastructural connectivity in order to gain energy independence and to move troops is not the same as a regional cooperation which comes from within.

Read in Romanian language!

Read in Bulgarian language!

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Author: Vladimir Mitev

Жител на град Русе. Румъноговорящ. Locuitor orașului Ruse. Vorbitor de limba română.

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