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Countering Russia in Bulgaria

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When Antonio Tajani, European Parliament President, visited Bulgaria earlier this week, the country’s political leadership was keen to project the image of unwavering commitment to the EU.

During the visit, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov even claimed that Bulgarians are among the least Eurosceptic in Eastern Europe. But as is the case with most things in the Balkans, the country’s position in the EU is not so clear-cut. As Russia is making increasingly assertive moves to spread its influence across Eastern Europe, whether Bulgaria will stand steadfast has become a matter of debate.

Over the years, surveys have revealed that Bulgarian public opinion toward the EU often hangs in a precarious balance. The most recent Eurobarometer of September 2017, for example, revealed that 55 percent of respondents had a positive image of the EU. Although this result is indicative of a mild upward trend compared to the previous year, such a razor thin margin hardly means that Sofia’s European path is set in stone.

Having always had one foot in the West and the other in the East, Bulgaria has been performing a particularly delicate balancing act between the EU and Russia. Incumbent President Rumen Radev has hedged his bets in both directions, positioning himself in favor of maintaining friendly relations with Russia, while repeatedly stressing his Euro-Atlantic inclinations. While this leaves his true stance on the EU ambiguous, foreign diplomats ultimately found it unlikely that Radev would avert Bulgaria’s pro-EU course.

However, times have become more complicated and the carefully maintained balance is at risk to come undone. With the EU going through its arguably most difficult time since its inception, and with US President Donald Trump eager for better ties with Moscow, the EU is rapidly losing its role as the anchor fastening Bulgaria to the West. Russia was quick to jump on this opportunity to turn Bulgaria – as well as other Eastern EU members – away from Brussels, and draw Sofia closer into its orbit.

At the same time, rising nationalism with strong anti-European currents is increasingly weakening Radev’s hand. There is little doubt that the flames of nationalism are stoked by Russia. Between 2013 and 2016, the number of Eurosceptic and anti-NATO/US publications per year increased 16-fold and 34-fold, respectively. Meanwhile, availability of Russia-friendly propaganda increased 144 times, giving Bulgaria’s media landscape a distinctly pro-Russian touch.

The effects of this subversive campaign were clearly felt in the 2017 parliamentary elections, where Bulgaria’s government came to include far-right nationalist parties for the first time. They are opposing sanctions against Russia and have threatened to topple the government if it supported retaliatory measures against Moscow. In the 2016 presidential race, Krasimir Karachakanov, running on a conservative platform of nationalism and Orthodoxism, came in third place. Coupled with Bulgaria’s sizable Russian population, his party remains a potential vehicle for Russia to induce a decidedly anti-Western tone in public debates.

Even if the elections ultimately saw Radev emerge victoriously, his room for strategic action against Russia is critically restrained: Bulgaria is highly vulnerable to Russian pressure, owing to the fact that Russian companies own the Bulgarian energy market. Gazprom is the only natural gas player in the country, and controls the infrastructure to deliver half of the country’s gas resources. Lukoil is similarly positioned in fuel production and distribution, owning the only oil refinery and 50% of the wholesale fuel market.

Not only is Bulgaria’s energy security already shaky, but the problem could get worse. Moscow’s recently offered to provide the necessary funding for the modernization of Bulgaria’s energy sector. If this ambition came to pass, Russia would succeed in firmly entrenching itself further and pose an energy threat to Europe at large. Russia’s sway over the industry could see it potentially repeat the 2009 gas cut-off in Bulgaria and in Southeastern European countries depending on Bulgarian supply.   

However, this is precisely where Brussels has the chance to step in and loosen Moscow’s chokehold. Through its Energy Union instrument, designed to improve the EU’s energy security through supply diversification, it possesses a potent means to counter Russian investments with European ones. The EU’s support and guidance is definitely needed to offset Bulgaria’s structural energy problems, including delays in building critical energy infrastructure – a gap Russia is only too eager to fill. As an added benefit, the Energy Union adds legal weight to the push-back on Russian energy firms like Gazprom, which the EU is investigating for abusing its market position by charging excessively high gas prices in Bulgaria.

More positive engagement with Bulgaria through the Energy Union could help reduce shortfalls in other areas crucial for reducing dependence on Russia, especially as the regulatory environment and trustworthiness of the authorities are concerned. Arbitrary enforcement of the rule of law is constantly cited as a primary reasons by investors to avoid the country. A clear commitment to help Bulgaria tackle its problems through the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CMV) would go a long way to encourage reforms that make the Bulgarian market more attractive to Western investors.

And that cooperation with the Energy Union yields positive results is more than wishful thinking. Lithuania managed to overcome its crippling dependency on Russian energy by diversifying its supply with the EU’s help. It began importing Scandinavian gas in 2014, opened an LNG terminal in Klaipėda, and inaugurated an electric grid link with Poland and Sweden in 2016. In fact, the EU’s engagement has already reduced Bulgaria’s reliance on Russia as well, as the Energy Union is slowly undermining the monopoly of Russian energy companies.

The EU has a chance to shine by providing positive examples of its actions in the country and thereby counter Russia’s battle for Bulgarian’s minds. Though closer engagement through the Energy Union and the CMV can only be a part in a broader strategy of improving conditions in Bulgaria, they are important steps in increasing economic and social opportunities through Western participation, rather than Russia’s.

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Merkel’s projection regarding nationalist movements in Europe

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In recent years, we have repeatedly spoken about the blows that hit the United Europe hard, and resulted in constant and overwhelming crises in this block. The European authorities now refer to “returning to nationalism” as a potential danger (and in some cases, the actual danger!) In this block, and warn against it without mentioning the origin of this danger.

The German Chancellor has once again warned about the rise of nationalism in Europe. The warning comes at a time when other European officials, including French President Emmanuel Macron, have directly or indirectly, acknowledged the weakening of Europe’s common values. This indicates that the EU authorities don’t see the danger of extensive nationalism far from reality.

“Nationalism and a winner-take-all attitude are undermining the cohesion of Europe”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. “Perhaps the most threatening development for me is that multilateralism has come under such pressure,” Merkel said. “Europe is facing attacks from the outside and from the inside.”

A simple contemplation on the issue of “return of the United Europe to nationalism” suggests that the current European authorities have played an active role in the desire of their citizens to return to the time before the formation of the European Union. In the 2014 general election, we saw more than 100 right-wing extremist candidates finding way to the European Parliament.

This could be the starting point for making fundamental changes in macroeconomic policies and creating a different relationship between the European leaders and the citizens of this block. But this did not happen in practice.

Although the failure of European leaders to manage the immigration crisis and, most importantly, the continuation of the economic crisis in some of the Eurozone countries has contributed to the formation of the current situation, but it should not be forgotten that the growth of radical and nationalist parties in Europe has largely been due to the block’s officials incapability in convincing European citizens about the major policies in Europe. In this regard, those like Angela Merkel and Macron don’t actually feel any responsibility.

Undoubtedly, if this process doesn’t stop, the tendency to nationalism will spread across the Europe, and especially in the Eurozone. European officials are now deeply concerned about next year’s parliamentary elections in Europe. If this time the extreme right parties can raise their total votes and thus gain more seats in the European Parliament, there will be a critical situation in the Green Continent.

The fact is that far-right extremists in countries such as France, Sweden, Austria and Germany have been able to increase their votes, and while strengthening their position in their country’s political equations, they have many supporters in the social atmosphere.
Finally, the German Chancellor remarks, shouldn’t be regarded as a kind of self-criticism, but rather are a new projection of the European leaders. Merkel, Macron and other European officials who are now warning about the emergence of nationalism in Europe should accept their role in this equation.

This is the main prerequisite for reforming the foundations in Europe. If they refuse to feel responsible, the collapse of the European Union will be inevitable, an issue that Merkel and Macron are well aware of.

First published in our partner MNA

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Dayton Peace Accord 23 Years On: Ensured Peace and Stability in Former Yugoslavia

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For the past twenty-three years life has been comparatively peaceful in the breakaway republics of the former Yugoslavia. The complicated civil war that began in Yugoslavia in 1991 had numerous causes and began to break up along the ethnic lines. The touching stories and the aftermath effects of the breakaway republics of Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia and in Kosovo are still unfolding. Though the numbers of deaths in the Bosnia- Herzegovina conflict in former Yugoslavia are not known precisely, most sources agree that the estimates of deaths vary between 150,000 to 200,000 and displaced more than two million people. During the conflict a Srebrenica a North-eastern enclave of Bosnia once declared as a United  Nations  (UN ) safe area” saw one of the worst atrocity since second world war.

It has been estimated that more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks were massacred in Srebrenica and it was one of the most brutal ethnic cleansing operations of its kind in modern warfare. The US brokered peace talks revived the a peace process between the three warring factions in Bosnia- Herzegovina. For Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina a United States (US ) -brokered peace deal reached in Dayton on 21st November 1995. In a historic reconciliation bid on 14 December 1995 , the Dayton Peace Accord was signed in Paris, France, between Franjo Tudjman president of the Republic of Croatia and Slobodan Milosevic president of the Federal Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), Alija Izetbegovic, president of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

When conflict in Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia ended, the reconciliation began between ethnically divided region. The US played a crucial role in defining the direction of the Peace process. In 1996, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) -led 60,000 multinational peace enforcement force known as the Implementation Force (IFOR)) was deployed to help preserve the cease-fire and enforce the treaty provisions. Thereafter, the Court was established by Resolution 808 and later, Resolution 827 of the United Nations Security Council, which endorsed to proceed with setting up of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to try crimes against humanity . International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was the first United Nations (UN) war crimes tribunal of its kind since the post-second world war Nuremberg tribunal.

In the late 1990’s, as the political crisis deepened a spiral of violence fuelled the Kosovo crisis between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Yugoslav forces. Unlike the Bosnia- Herzegovina, Kosovo was a province of Serbia, of former Yugoslavia that dates back to 1946, when Kosovo gained autonomy as a province within Serbia. It is estimated that more than 800,000. Kosovos were forced out of Kosovo in search of refuge and as many as 500,000 more were displaced within Kosovo.

Subsequent t hostilities in Kosovo the eleven week air campaign led by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) against Yugoslavia in 1999 the Yugoslavian forces pulled troops out of Kosovo NATO. After the war was over, the United Nations Security Council, under the resolution 1244 (1999) approved to establish an international civil presence in Kosovo, known as the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Nevertheless UNMIK regulation No 1999/24 provided that the Law in Force in Kosovo prior to March 22, 1989 would serve as the applicable law for the duration of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

In this  context reconciliation is a key to national healing of wounds after ending a violent conflict. Healing the wounds of the past and redressing past wrongs is a process through which a society moves from a divided past to a shared future. Over the years in Serbia, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia and in Kosovo the successful peace building processes had happened. The success of the peace building process was possible because of participation of those concerned, and since appropriate strategies to effectively approach was applied with all relevant actors. The strengthening of institutions for the benefit of all citizens has many important benefits for the peace and stability of former Yugoslavia. Hence, the future looks bright for the Balkan states of Serbia, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo.

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Hungarian Interest, Ukraine and European Values

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Diplomatic conflicts that have recently arisen between Hungary and its neighboring countries and the European Union as a whole most clearly show the new trend in European politics. This trend is committing to national and  state values of a specific  European country, doubting  the priority of supranational  interests within the European Union. Political analyst Timofey Bordachev believes that “the era of stale politics and the same stale politicians, who make backstage decisions based on the“ lowest common denominator,” are finally coming to an end. Politicians with a new vision of the world order come to power, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Austrian Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz, or the new head of the Italian Interior Ministry, leader of the right-wing League of the North Party, Matteo Salvini ”.

It is not the first year that Hungary is trying to protect the interests of its citizens and the state from external influence, to protect the Hungarians in the territory of neighbouring states  by establishing for this  a special position (Commissioner  for the development of the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine), to determine relations with other countries on the basis of their attitude to the rights of Hungarians. This is how conflicts with the European Union arose, after Hungary refused to let migrants into the country, in the same manner, a conflict  arose with Ukraine, which is trying to build a state ideology, based on nationalism, which a priori does not provide for the proper level of realization and protection of the rights of non-titular nations.

In relation to Hungary, Ukraine follows the same policy as in relation to Russia – to initiate various accusations, to call for punishment, to talk about the inconsistency with European values of the Hungarian policy under the leadership of  Orban. Doing so Kiev has its multifaceted interest: cooperation with NATO and the EU, support  for any decisions of Brussels, the anti-Russian course, domestic policy based on the nationalist  ideology. And in all these areas  Hungary poses  a problem for Ukraine. In the description of relations with Hungary  Kiev even  uses the word “annexation“.

Hungary is hardly planning to seize any Ukrainian territory, but on what  grounds Ukraine falsely accuses Hungary of its annexation intentions in relation to Transcarpathia?  The Ukrainian side highlights several positions:

Issuing Hungarian passports  to Ukrainian citizens (ethnic Hungerians)

This  is an old story, it has come to light again recently due to the growth of Ukrainian nationalism. Moreover,  there are concerns about the implementation by Hungary of the “Crimean scenario” in relation to Transcarpathia.

The Hungarian government has created the position of  “Commissioner  for the development of Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region and the program for the development of kindergartens in the Carpathian region”.

Ukraine demanded an explanation. A note of protest was delivered to the Hungarian Charge d’Affaires in Ukraine, and the Foreign ministers of Ukraine and Hungary had a telephone conversation on the problem. Hungary continues to ignore the requirements of Kiev.

Ukraine fears further disintegration processes

At the same time, in Kiev there is no understanding  of the fact that combining the ideology of nationalism with the country’s national diversity and European integration is hardly possible.

Ukrainian experts note the growth of separatism in the Transcarpathian region, as well as the “strange behavior” of the governor, who plays on the side of Hungary. They also complain that “pro-Ukrainian ideology”(?) is not being сonsolidated in Transcarpathia, and this region is not controlled and monitored by  the Ministry of information. In a word, the state is losing control over the territory, which it neither develops nor controls. Such behavior of the governor and the region’s residents may indicate that the state is not sufficiently present in the lives of residents of Transcarpathia, and this a financial and humanitarian drawback they compensate with the help of Hungary, – experts believe.

Apparently, Ukraine is unable to reach an agreement with Hungary as relations are tense. In response to the Ukrainian law on education, adopted in the fall of 2017, which infringes the rights of national minorities, Budapest blocked another, the third, Ukraine-NATO meeting. Ukraine witnessed this embarrassing  situation  in April 2018.  At the same time elections were held in Hungary, in  which Viktor Orban’s party won a majority in the parliament. Such a tough stance of Budapest in relation to the Ukrainian educational policy Kiev considered to be just a sign of electoral populism. However, this was a mistake.

Viktor Orban’s victory in spring 2018 was convincing, and a convincing victory means obvious support of his migration policies as well as his support  for compatriots abroad. The party of Orban – Fides – not only won a majority but a constitutional majority – 133 of the 199 seats  in the National Assembly of Hungary.

There is no doubt  that Hungary has become Ukraine’s another serious opponent in the process of its European integration. And it is unlikely that either  country  will take a step back: there will be presidential elections in Ukraine soon, and in Hungary, the victory won by Orban, apparently, confirms the  approval of his independent  foreign  policy  by  the citizens.  So the conflict is likely to develop.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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