Athens-Sofia responsibility for regional security ‘growing by the day,’ Bulgarian president tells Kathimerini

Athens-Sofia responsibility for regional security ‘growing by the day,’ Bulgarian president tells Kathimerini

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev is in Athens on Thursday, where he will be signing agreements aimed at exploring the revival of an oil pipeline project linking Alexandroupoli in northern Greece to Burgas in Bulgaria, as well as Greece’s participation in underground natural gas storage facilities in the neighboring country.

In an exclusive interview with Kathimerini, Radev says that if North Macedonia does not make changes to its Constitution to “include the Bulgarians on an equal footing with the other peoples living in that country,” there can be no meaningful discussion about its accession to the European Union.

Mr President, you will take part in the signing of two important agreements related to the energy sector. At the same time, there are opportunities for a new pipeline that may connect the Aegean with the Black Sea. Do you believe that Greece and Bulgaria can become significant actors in enhancing the energy security of Europe?

In a time of overlapping crises, Bulgaria and Greece share a common responsibility not only for energy security but for the European future of the entire region. The two new agreements for energy cooperation that will be signed today show the consistency of our efforts to enhance the energy security of Europe.

The MoU for cooperation on exploring the possibility to construct the Alexandroupoli-Burgas oil pipeline will create the necessary basis for the implementation of a project that will allow the transfer of crude oil from the Aegean to the Black Sea region. The straits are already overwhelmed by heavy traffic and this new route should provide much-needed relief.

The MoU on cooperation in the security of gas supply and gas storage will enable Greek natural gas suppliers to book injection and withdrawal capacities at the Chiren Underground Storage Facility in Bulgaria. A project for its expansion to 1 billion cubic meters is under implementation. On their side, the Bulgarian natural gas suppliers will be enabled to book slots and storage capacity, as well as regasification capacity from terminals in Greece. 

We must turn these opportunities into a visible change for our citizens as we already did with the launch of the commercial operations of the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria /IGB/ on October 1, 2022, which was a major contribution to the energy diversification of Bulgaria and the whole region.

We continue to build upon this momentum and enhance the development of cross-border energy infrastructure and common large-scale investment projects. The construction of the LNG terminal near Alexandroupoli is underway and we expect it to be operational by the end of 2023 as a gateway to the global liquefied natural gas market, in full synergy with the IGB [Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria].

The current challenges clearly showed that improving energy connectivity and securing access to alternative sources is a must. Only together we can unlock the potential of our economies and further deepen our integration. A good example of this regional approach to address the common challenges is the project “Solidarity ring” – an agreement between Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Austria to interconnect their gas networks in order to secure the transmission of extra quantities of natural gas from Azerbaijan to the EU.

The war in Ukraine has overturned existing balances in the East of Europe. How can countries like Bulgaria and Greece add to the peripheral stability and security of the broader region within a realistic context? The railroad from Alexandroupoli to Bulgaria and from there elsewhere in the NATO Eastern Flank is a good example.

Bulgaria and Greece, being NATO members, share a common responsibility for the security and stability of the broader region, including the Black Sea region. Bilateral and regional connectivity is of crucial importance to this security and stability, especially in times of crisis. The Russian aggression against Ukraine has cut many supply chains in Southeast Europe and has proved how important it is to upgrade the infrastructure connectivity, and to guarantee alternative routes of supply.

Last year we have witnessed some very convincing examples in that respect. The decision of the Greek government to provide access for Bulgaria to the Greece gas network in the emergency situation last April, as Gazprom abruptly stopped gas supply for us, was one of them. Sharing access to LNG terminals in Greece, as well as to the Bulgarian gas storage capacities at Chiren and electricity exports from Bulgaria to Greece are other important steps in this direction. Similarly, the railway connectivity between Greece and Bulgaria is a matter of geopolitical and geostrategic importance. Investing in transport infrastructure would ensure better economic, trade and energy connectivity, while it has also a significant potential to provide for strengthened security and defense along the NATO Eastern Flank.

Bulgaria is a country with a historical relationship with Russia but also a committed EU and NATO member-state. Your country had to rearrange decades-old energy security policy connected with Russia because of the war in Ukraine. Do you believe that we are heading towards a period of prolonged, constant friction with Russia?

You are right. Bulgaria has had strong historical ties with Russia (as well as with Ukraine, indeed). In the late 19th century Russia had played a significant role for the re-establishment of the independent Bulgarian state and its institutions, but also in the cultural field, etc. It is noteworthy, however, that since day one of its independence from the Ottoman empire, Bulgaria has always strived to establish its sovereign place among modern European nations. After the end of the Cold war and the Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria has decisively made its choice to become a member of NATO and the European Union. We consider this a rightful and long-awaited return to where we have always belonged – Europe.

Furthermore, notwithstanding any sensitivities towards Russia’s role in our history that might still exist in parts of our society, Bulgaria most categorically condemns Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine. We fully support Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. We will continue to provide our support to Ukraine, taking into account its needs and in accordance with our capabilities. We will continue to support the Ukrainian refugees on our territory.

Having said that, allow me to elaborate further on one more point. We are nearing a very sad one-year anniversary of this brutal war, which has brought horrible suffering, death, utter devastation and destruction upon Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, with dangerous repercussions globally. It is my firm belief that collective pressure is badly needed to put an end to this terrible tragedy and to stop the relentless violence, to avoid its escalation, as soon as possible. Our unwavering support to Ukraine should go hand in hand with active diplomatic and political efforts to stop this war of attrition and to open the way for achieving a just peace and restoring the rules-based international order.

What is your evaluation of the current relations between Sofia and Skopje and what could be done in order to open the way for accession talks with North Macedonia?

Bulgaria has always been open and constructively engaged in dialogue with the Republic of North Macedonia (RNM). We were the first to recognize the new Balkan state back in 1992 and have always been there to support Skopje even in the most difficult times. I repeat, always. Our strong belief is that the future of our region belongs to the European Union. Starting accession talks to join the EU requires a certain European maturity, and the fulfilment of a number of criteria, among them, notably, the respect for human rights and good-neighborly relations.

Both Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia have agreed with the proposal of the French Presidency of the Council, which envisaged a negotiation framework for our neighbor. We all expect from a candidate country, which has declared its desire to be part of the Union and its values, to commit itself to guaranteeing and protecting fundamental human rights. This is, per se, an essential part of the Copenhagen criteria. In order to start accession negotiations, RNM has agreed to amend its Constitution and include the Bulgarians on an equal footing with the other peoples living in that country. I repeat, this is an obligation that North Macedonia has agreed to implement when accepting the framework for negotiations with the European Union. Without this step, the real start of the negotiations cannot take place.

Alas, in recent months we have rather witnessed a setback in North Macedonia’s ambition for European integration, as a series of hate crimes were committed against local Bulgarians. Firing and shooting against Bulgarian cultural clubs in the RNM and violence over the Bulgarians there indicate a situation, which is closer to the dark past of the Balkans rather than its European future. We cannot agree with that.

That is why North Macedonia’s leadership should be encouraged to make active steps towards genuine democratization and prove that the anti-Bulgarian ideology that is rampant there belongs to the past and not crippling its future. In the European Union, one does not need to build its identity upon historic falsifications, distort reality in order to justify hate crimes or deny the right of self-identification. I truly believe that outgrowing the legacy of the totalitarian past is an essential prerequisite for the European future of North Macedonia.   

There are still crises to be dealt with within the Balkans. Do you believe there is space for pushing for compromise in the existing conflicts with the encouragement of local actors, such as Greece and Bulgaria?

The Western Balkans are facing various challenges of different type, essence and origin. In addition, and alongside their declared European aspirations, the Western Balkan countries are exposed and still very vulnerable to malign external hybrid influences.

The new geopolitical context in Europe and the world has led to an increased engagement of the EU and NATO with the Western Balkans. The EU–Western Balkans summit (Tirana, December 6th, 2022) has confirmed their membership perspective. Concrete steps have been taken to help our partners mitigate the negative impact of the war in Ukraine in terms of energy, food security, resilience to hybrid threats, etc. A new initiative is being launched to address the issues between Serbia and Kosovo. My view is that long-term solutions require irreversible commitment to good-neighborly relations and reconciliation. 

The good-neighborly relations between Bulgaria and Greece are exemplary. Being EU and NATO members with a solid knowledge on the neighborhood, our two countries have the important task to provide a key contribution to the right decisions for the Western Balkans. Bulgaria and Greece can also play a role in striking the right balance between the expectations for an accelerated integration process and the necessity to adhere to the core principle of own merits. We should encourage our partners from the region to double their efforts in implementing reforms, improving administrative capacity and strengthening good-neighborly relations. This is the shortest way to taking full advantage of the opportunities, provided by the increased EU commitment. 
As someone who had a long career in the Bulgarian Armed Forces and the Air Force, you recognize the importance of enhanced European defense cooperation. Do you believe that Greece and Bulgaria could work on some European projects?

Bulgaria and Greece are already working together on several European projects aimed at enhancing European defense cooperation through the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). PESCO is an integral part of the Union’s defense policies and a key mechanism for capability development and acquisition. Bulgaria remains a strong proponent of the initiative, particularly in relation to the implementation of the Strategic Compass. Against this backdrop, Bulgaria and Greece are partners in four PESCO projects, covering key priority areas, such as Maritime Security and Logistics.

The war in Ukraine has led to a fundamental change in the European security architecture. In this respect, the responsibility that Bulgaria and Greece bear as EU member-states and NATO allies for strengthening regional security and protecting the Union’s external borders is growing on a daily basis.
I see merit, also, in strengthening our common policies against disinformation and other hybrid threats, which have the potential to undermine the credibility of NATO’s strategic communications, the public order and the security of our region and the entire EU.

Your country is moving towards a fifth election in two years. In this period, you stood out as a stabilizing factor, in difficult times such as the pandemic or the war in Ukraine. Do you believe that the country could end up with a more stable government after the next elections?
Free elections are the core of democracy. The citizens of Bulgaria expect the politicians to deliver on their promises and take full responsibility for reforms. The caretaker governments did a lot, indeed, to address the consequences of the energy and economic crises, but for most of their stay in office, they do not enjoy the support of a working Parliament that regular governments do. Bulgaria needs an effective Parliament to move further with the judicial reforms, improve social and business climate and make the next steps in its European integration, i.e. accede to the eurozone. As president, I will continue to support every effort in this direction by the next regular government as I did with the caretaker governments.

As for the bilateral relations between Bulgaria and Greece, I am satisfied, indeed, to note that regardless of all the political changes in our two countries during the last decades, they remain stable, forward-looking, intensive and results-oriented. Together we have managed to build a truly strategic partnership, which serves as beacon of stability for the entire region. Because it is based on common values, mutual confidence and genuine good-neighborliness.

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