Friendship and interests


Last week’s Greece-Bulgarian High Level Cooperation Council in Alexandroupoli wrapped up at noon with the signing of 12 agreements, overseen by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Bulgaria's Boyko Borissov. But there was no joint statement. The reason was none other than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In private talks with Borissov, but in public statements to the media, Mitsotakis had used strong language to criticize Erdogan for warning that he would flood Greece, and the rest of Europe, with migrants and refugees and also for his policy in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. Borissov did not seem at all pleased by Mitsotakis’ comments. As a result, diplomats on both sides had to spend some time “tidying up” the official statement so that the Turkish strongman would not get angry at his close friend Borissov.

On Monday, as the crisis on Greece’s land border with Turkey escalated, the Bulgarian leader attended a formal dinner with Erdogan in Ankara. In remarks, Borissov thanked the Turkish president for abiding by the terms of his agreement with the European Union on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. 

And with good reason. The media in Bulgaria had reported zero pressure on the Balkan country’s border with Turkey. Meanwhile, the situation at Greece’s Kastanies crossing was fast becoming chaotic.

Friendly ties between political leaders are always valuable but international relations are, above all, driven by interest. So to claim that Erdogan did not send a few thousand Afghan and Pakistani migrants to the Turkey-Bulgaria border thanks to his good relations and personal chemistry with Borissov would only be partly true.

The real reason was that Erdogan wanted to blackmail Europe while dealing a destabilizing blow to Greece. He wanted to harm Greece and pressure Europe by weaponizing the migration/refugee crisis. If a compassionate Erdogan had wanted to allow the foreign nationals stranded on Turkish territory to flee to Europe, thousands of them would be choosing to reach Europe through Bulgaria, in spite of the fence along the frontier, rather than risk their lives trying to cross the Aegean Sea or the Evros River.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was more direct. He noted that 13,000 people had arrived at the Greek border within a few days and that there had been no arrivals in Bulgaria at the same time, adding that the exodus was being “deliberately organized” by Turkey. 

Kurz said these people are being used by Erdogan “as a bargaining chip, a weapon and a pressure tool” against the EU. If Europe does not put pressure on Erdogan, he said, this will be “the beginning of the end.” ”If we succumb to Erdogan… then Europe without internal borders will be history,” the Austrian leader warned.

For his part, Borissov thanked Turkey for observing the agreement with the EU along his country’s border. “This allows Bulgarian citizens to sleep peacefully,” he said. He revealed that Erdogan had turned down a trilateral meeting with Mitsotakis to discuss the mass arrivals on the Greek-Turkish border and also said that he had been informed that “some migrants were killed” (a claim made by Turkey). He also took a swipe at the EU (of which Bulgaria is a member), saying that it has failed to abide by the terms of the deal with Turkey. “[The EU] voted this money for Turkey… I cannot understand why it was not given,” he said, effectively adopting a claim made by Erdogan and which Brussels denies. He had no words of solidarity for Greece, whose borders are under threat. It was enough for him that his “friend” Erdogan was making sure that Bulgarians could “sleep peacefully.”

Meanwhile, the government of North Macedonia expressed its solidarity with Greece and voiced its concern about a fresh refugee crisis along the Balkan corridor.