Balkan opportunities lost and gained

Last week, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev paid an official visit to Greece. Since we sank into our crisis, very few heads of state have come to Athens (with only the Armenian and Ukrainian presidents visiting last year), but the Bulgarian president?s stay did not receive much publicity. This indicates the good level of relations between the two neighbors, who are also both members of NATO and the European Union. But it is also evidence of how our obsession with the crisis and its consequences does not allow us to see beyond our daily drama to the joint potential that we could share with our neighbors.

Until recently, things were very different. Then, every contact between Greece and Bulgaria was a notable event – without our going all the way back to the hostilities of the Balkan Wars and WWII. For most of the second half of last century, Greece found itself on the western side of the Iron Curtain while Bulgaria was in the Soviet bloc. They were in different worlds, with Greece enjoying the prosperity that the socialist countries would wait a long time to approach.

And yet, when in March 1987 Greece and Turkey suddenly came to the brink of war over a dispute in the Aegean, then Foreign Minister (now President) Karolos Papoulias flew to Bulgaria for talks with the Communist leadership. The dramatic move made a great impression internationally, underlining that at a moment of crisis with a fellow NATO ally, Athens trusted a member of the Soviet bloc more than its ?official? allies. Not many years earlier, our allies the Turks had invaded Cyprus – and mighty NATO had proved incapable of dislodging them or punishing them. By dispatching Papoulias to Sofia, Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou wanted to stress his suspicion of Greece?s allies and to show that Athens considered Bulgaria a better friend than its nominal allies. He also wanted to show off the ?non-aligned? foreign policy that was his PASOK party?s flag.

For years, Greece was in the privileged position of being the only country in the region to be both in NATO and the EU. It could improvise in its political relations with neighbors who had in the past hosted significant Greek populations and commerce but were now in a different geopolitical camp. The USA and other allies put up with this because Greece was a key member of NATO?s southeastern flank. However, despite all the flashy moves, Greece was slow to exploit its commercial advantages in the region.

Today, when we find ourselves in crisis and our neighbors are also partners, the Balkans should be a priority for the development of economic ties and for relations of true friendship.

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