Support for active EU engagement with Western Balkans

Bulgarian European Community Studies Association

Bulgaria welcomes the progress made by Western Balkans countries and shares the concerns expressed in the Strategy Document on EU enlargement published by the Commission in November 2007. Bulgaria supports the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of all Western Balkans countries.[1] It has signed bilateral agreements with all the countries of the Western Balkans for exchange of expertise and know-how in the process of European integration.[2]
 
As Slovenia assumed the Presidency of the EU on 1 January 2008, Bulgaria pledges full support for Slovenian initiatives and will back up efforts for all necessary reforms in the countries of the Western Balkans on their way to a closer European perspective.[3]
 
Bulgaria is aware of the major problems facing the Western Balkans as outlined in the Strategy Document of the European Commission. The country is concerned about institutional reforms, minority rights, corruption, criminality and preservation of historical sites in the countries of Western Balkans, especially in conflict-torn societies.[4] But still Bulgaria maintains (expressed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs in several statements and interviews) that the European perspective is an important reform-driving factor for societies and states in transition, and keeping these reforms on track would only be possible through the long-term commitment and engagement of the EU with the Western Balkans' future.
 
Position of Bulgaria on the Status of Kosovo
 
A Normative Reading of Bulgaria's Position
 
The government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicize their activities and policy with regard to the status of Kosovo. There are indisputable diplomatic efforts on behalf of Bulgaria to pursue an engaged but moderate course, thus earning the respect of both Pristina and Belgrade, as well as the acknowledgement of the international community. Bulgarian authorities repeatedly have met with representatives of the Contact Group, Ahtisaari's office, EU, US, and UN officials. Senior Bulgarian diplomatic and political representatives from the Government, the Parliament, the President, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, have made shuttles, exchange visits or hosted a variety of meetings in Sofia with representatives of Belgrade and Pristina. It has to be emphasized that Bulgaria attributes equal attention to both sides, even the type and intensity of diplomatic and political activity towards Kosovo and Serbia seems balanced.[5]
 
One of the few exceptions was the explicit statement made by Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin at the end of 2007. He forewarned that Kosovo Albanians would make a mistake if they unilaterally declare independence.[6] And he also recommended that processes in Kosovo should be regarded separatelyfrom the European integration of Serbia.[7]
 
The unilateral declaration of Kosovo independence on 17 February 2008 faced the Bulgarian government with the harsh regional realities and, in fact, spoiled the best-case scenario for Bulgarian authorities – a negotiated solution between Belgrade and Pristina on Kosovo's future. Bulgaria cannot ignore the facts on the ground in Kosovo, but at the same time, it cannot easily recognize the self-declared Kosovo independence. Public attitudes in Bulgaria are especially negative to recognizing Kosovo independence. In a televised interactive opinion polling on one of the TV channels (BTV, Sunday, 24 Feb. 2008) about 80 % of votes were against recognition of Kosovo independence, and only about 20 % were in favour. The Bulgarian government cannot easily disregard these public attitudes. Nor can it sacrifice the future of Bulgarian-Serbian relations. 
 
In a special statement of the Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs on 18 February 2008 several blueprints could be specified. First, Bulgaria did expect such an outcome, but it refrained to welcome it. Second, the Bulgarian government is concerned about regional security and emphasized that further escalation should be avoided. Third, Bulgaria would expect from Kosovo authorities to guarantee the multiethnic and democratic character of Kosovo, which expels the a priori notion that Kosovo is Albanian. Furthermore, although not officially, but yet publicly, some experts and opinion-leaders in Bulgaria have voiced alert about the situation of a particular minority group in Kosovo – Gorani, which have an ethnic Bulgarian descent.
 
Further, the Bulgarian Foreign Minister has stressed that Kosovo is “sui generis case arising from the unique circumstances of the disintegration of former Yugoslavia as well as the continued period of international administration” and it does not set any precedent.[8]
 
The most probable course of actions of the Bulgarian government with regard to Kosovo independence will be “wait-and-see”. The greater part of the political establishment as well as the prevailing public opinion do not favour a ready and quick recognition. Even if Bulgaria recognizes Kosovo independence, it will happen later and much reluctantly. As for many in Bulgaria Kosovo independence is a disturbing and alarming case, the situation there will be monitored very closely from Sofia, not to say that Kosovo authorities may face a tough Bulgarian approach of conditionality in order to prevent possible escalations in Macedonia and Southern Serbia. 
 
Generally, a perception of ambiguity and uncertainty of Bulgaria's position remains. If a more critical inquiry about Bulgaria's view(s) on the future of Kosovo is made, the following conclusions would be striking.
 
A Critical Reading of Bulgaria's Position (already in historical perspective)
 
The future of Kosovo presented a tough challenge to both the political establishment and the expert community in Bulgaria. And especially because of the intricacy and delicacy of the issue, all preferred evasive positions, which in their totality could be labelled as 'foreign policy mimicry'.
 
Outsiders (the EU and the US) believed that Bulgaria had a special know-how about Balkan problems, and Kosovo per se. This is how we could interpret various attempts for getting Bulgaria more actively involved in the process of finding a solution of the Kosovo case.
 
Bulgaria is an active observer of the Kosovo future negotiation process, but in fact, observing is all it does. Deputy Foreign Minister, Lyubomir Kyuchukov, was assigned a special mission to make shuttle visits to Belgrade and Pristina, and closely monitor the developments.
 
Many people in Bulgaria (especially NGO experts) fear an independent Kosovo. They try to advocate a multicultural vision of Kosovo, hence, a multicultural solution. Practitioners, however, regard this with extreme scepticism. And it is to practitioners that the 'foreign policy mimicry', mentioned above, could be attributed.
 
Condoleeza Rice during her visit in Sofia straightforwardly asked about Bulgaria's position on Kosovo and was ready to listen and take down notes. All she heard was nothing more than the formal position that Bulgaria would support any solution favourable and advantageous to both Serbs and Albanians. Reading Bulgaria's position between the lines, it says “We don't know what future Kosovo we want, but if you think you know, you can count on us for support, or at least, we will not oppose it.”
Bulgaria presumes as its vital interest, unlike other countries in the region, to be equally distant from both unhealthy Serbian nationalism and blatant aspirations of Kosovar Albanians for independent territorial and institutional power. This, in essence, is the discourse, which the Bulgarian government is trying to communicate domestically to Bulgarian public as well.
 
A major concern of Bulgaria's expert community is that Kosovar Albanians should not govern the province on their own. Even an exotic idea appeared in public about making Kosovo a Euro-region.[9] This idea again spells out a pressing need for an external actor in Kosovo. Presumably, this external actor has to be the European Union, which will need to face the challenge of 'extra-territorial government', i.e. governing beyond its territory.
 
Differences among main Bulgarian political parties on the future status of Kosovo
 
Before the act of self-declaration of independence by Kosovo Assembly no Bulgarian political party had issued a statement or party position on the future of Kosovo. On the basis of sporadic interviews and/ or party voting on issues related to Kosovo, the following general 'camps' could be specified. Bulgarian right-wing parties like Democrats for Strong Bulgaria and Union of Democratic Forces, as well as the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, are more likely to support an independent statehood for Kosovo. NDSV and GERB seem undecided about this issue for the time being, but some of their leaders and members show willingness to recognize the act of independence. ATAKA party is the most at odds with other political parties. It takes a clearly anti-Western position, blaming the West for all the historical misfortunes on the Balkans, and ATAKA's position sounds pretty much in tune with prompts from Russia.
 
The Bulgarian Socialist Party has marked some changes since its positions in late 1990s when it took a clearly pro-Serbian side. Now, once in power, BSP position on Kosovo has become much more ambiguous and it is generally influenced by PES (the Party of European Socialists). At present, BSP position represents the government position since it is the major partner in the coalition government. BSP is the only Bulgarian party that summoned a special meeting of its governing body a week after the declaration of Kosovo independence to elaborate and come up with a party position on this issue. The final communication from the meeting expressed various concerns about the unilateral declaration of independence related to regional security in Western Balkans and made proposals to Bulgarian government to align the establishment of relations with Kosovo authorities with the adoption by Kosovo parliament of a constitution and major laws according to Ahtisaari Plan, guaranteeing the multi-ethnic character of Kosovo and protecting the rights of minorities by including them in decision-making at all levels. BSP proposed that the Bulgarian government has to condition all its future relations with independent Kosovo authorities upon their fulfilment of basic democratic principles. At the same time, BSP supreme body advocates for preserving the active dialogue with Serbia and further promote good-neighbourly relations as well as fully support Serbia's European integration. In other words, BSP stance, hence government position on Kosovo independence, could be characterized as “wait-and-see”, recognize Kosovo independence rather later than sooner, and, eventually, do it reluctantly rather than willingly, but still insisting on some conditions.[10] In general, political parties in Bulgaria, like most of NGO experts, remain disunited or 'united in silence' on what Bulgaria's foreign policy position with regard to the future status of Kosovo should be.
 
Position of Bulgaria on the EU Prospects for Serbia
 
As far as the European perspective for Serbia is concerned, the unanimity here is bigger and it stands for “keeping the EU door open to Serbia”. This support, of course, is not unconditional and it is bound with observing the necessary criteria and implementing recommended reforms. Many Bulgarian experts, usually outside government, often refer to the most challenging reform Serbs will have to face – healing and reconciling Serbian nationalism. It is also comparable to Croatia's challenge of reconciling its own nationalism.
 
In sum, Bulgaria is supportive of active engagement of the EU with the future of the Western Balkans, without specifying, however, any particular stages or terms of integration. The future status of Kosovo, however, stirs this general determination and invokes cautiousness on all sides.

 


[1] See http://bgnewsroom.com, accessed on: 6.01.2008.

[2] See http://bulgaria.actualno.com/news_141891.html, accessed on: 5.01.2008.

[3] See http://www.mfa.bg/bg/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=16926&Ite..., accessed on: 5.01.2008.

[4] See http://evropa.dnevnik.bg/show/?storyid=393233, accessed on: 5.01.2008.

[5] Interview with Georgi Parvanov, President of Republic of Bulgaria, 24 Hours Daily, 27.12.2007, available at: http://www.president.bg/news.php?type=5, accessed on: 5.01.2008.

[6] Interview with Ivailo Kalfin, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, on Bulgarian National Television, 19.12.2007, available at: http://www.mfa.bg
/bg/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=16865&Itemid=225, accessed on: 5.01.2008.

[7] Interview with Ivailo Kalfin, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, for Focus News Agency, 28.12.2007, available at: http://www.mfa.bg/bg/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=16892&Ite..., accessed on: 5.01.2008.

[8] Statement of Ivaylo Kalfin, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria after GAERC, 18 February 2008, available at: http://www.mfa.bg/bg/files/pdf/KOSOVO-DECLARATION.pdf, accessed on: 2.03.2008.

[9] See: http://www.standartnews.com/archive/2006/02/06/worldfolio/index.htm, accessed on: 5.01.2008.

[10] Position of the Supreme Council of Bulgarian Socialist Party with regard to the self-declared by Kosovo authorities independence of the province, 25 February 2008, available at: http://www.bsp.bg, accessed on: 5.01.2008.