27 March, 2023
Vladimir Chukov (photo: YouTube)

Interview with the foreign policy expert on his vision for regional cooperation in Southeastern Europe, which should be realised by Romania, Greece and Bulgaria and on the models of cooperation, which can inspire – Benelux and the Visegrad Group

Vladimir Mitev

Vladimir Chukov is an international relations analyst, who has specialised in the Middle East, the issues of Muslim religion, terrorism and security. He is born on 22 April 1960 in Athens, Greece. He has studied in a French college in Tunisia and graduates from the French language school in Sofia. He has graduated from the faculty of social sciences at the Damascus University, Syria. In 1998 he became associate professor, in 2005 – doctor of economic sciences, and in 2007 – professor. He teaches in a number of Bulgarian universities: the Free University of Varna, the University of Sofia, the New Bulgarian University, the University of Rousse and others.

Mr. Chukov, this month Serbia, Northern Macedonia and Albania announced that they would create their own small “EU”, in which there will be free movement of “people, goods, services and capitals”. What should we think about this initiative? In the context of the Serbian signing of a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union, does this mean that indirectly Albania also becomes part of this economic union through Serbia?

In my view such initiatives are to a greater extent only words and will have a more limited real effect. We see “the rebellion of the unhappy ones” in the Western Balkans. They announce this initiative in order to pressure Bruxelles.

The initiative itself is a good one. But in my view it cannot be realised. Its role is to be an instrument for pressure. Through it it is said to Bruxelles: “If you don’t accept us, we go to Moscow and make our own territory, which will be a black spot for the EU”. The threat is that in Western Balkans other countries, such as Russia and Turkey will get involved.

The idea for a Balkan Benelux is older. Is it a Balkan idea or comes from outside of the region?

It doesn’t come from the outside. This idea has existed back in the 20th century. The Bulgarian prime minister from the peasant’s party Alexander Stamboliiski, who is the prime minister after the World War One was supporter of a Balkan federation.

I call for such an idea myself, but with another content. The Balkan countries with a similar value system, which make part of NATO and the EU should looke for closer integration. First, they need to do that in the economy. Then in the social sphere. And of course, security must be involved. The model is set by Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg.

The three countries in the region, which I see as suitable for interaction – Greece, Romania and Bulgaria, together have a population of 38 million people, which is close to Spain’s population of 40 million people. But it has GDP close to three times larger that their joint GDP (1,29 trillion euro in Spain against 196 billion euro in Greece, 203 billion euro in Romania and 59 billion euro in Bulgaria for 2018).

But if the three member states of the EU from the eastern part of the Balkans manage to coordonate and link themselves, creating a common market, they will have population of almost 40 million people. Big investors love to come in large territories. Volkswagen, which still considers where to build a large automotive plant in the region, will see the Bulgarian proposals for hosting of this plant otherwise, if Bulgaria was giving an easy access to a market of 40 million people. There are however historical accumulations, lack of trust, Balkan mentality of insidiousness, which prevent the countries in our region from dong what is necessary.

6-7 years ago experts and businessmen from Bulgaria, Romania and the Republic of Moldova were inivited to Riyadh at a forum. The investors from this region consider our countries as something whole. Not only the Saudis, but also the Chinese watch us as a whole. China made the format 16+1 for cooperation with the countries from Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe. They consider all the former communist countries as a common group of countries. Such a large group however can not work. Three states, one market. This is what we should aim for.

A step in this direction could be if Bulgaria and Romania eliminate the border control between themselves. To make a bilateral Schengen. What’s your attitude towards such an idea?

It is a great idea. I have articulated it at a conference in Rousse. Then I came out emotional, because we had been denied access to Schengen for another time. Such a Bulgarian-Romanian initiative could be instrument for pressure. We are rejected by the USA with regards to the visas for our citizens as well. This should unite us with Bucharest. We could be united in the resistance to our isolation.

We are strong, when we make strategic partnership. We need to have trilateral governmental meetings of Romania, Greece and Bulgaria. Permanent commissions should exist with the goal of coordination of policy in supernational areas – in the economy, in the social sphere, in defense and security.

Are there other countries, which could enter into this cooperation format?

I have been speaking for years for the need of trilateral cooperation between Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. They ask me why I don’t put Northern Macedonia in the group. First of all, there needs to be statehood there. Northern Macedonia should prove itself as a state. It has a long way to travel. Then we could consider what to do.

The rest is emotion. It is one thing what I want, but another what is possible. Personally, I don’t think that Kosovo is a state. It is a spot on the map, but is far from the notion of state.

What initiatives could be developed between Romania, Greece and Bulgaria? And what blocks them?

Formally, things started with the Group of Craiova. It was a trilateral format between Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia, which has started in the times of the Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta and was supported by the Bulgarian premier Boyko Borisov. The idea is that countries build their infrastructure project and communications – roads, river and sea ports.

In my view the strategic partner is Greece, because our economic and geopolitic center is the Aegean sea. Southern Bulgaria has always been richer than Northern Bulgaria. All the transport corridors go to the south. The export and the communication of Bulgaria goes there.

We can give Greece access to the Black Sea and the Danube through the respective transport corridors. That is how Greece can connect through the Danube with Western Europe and through the Black Sea with Russia. They can have their own Black sea port with joint administration. Greece could give us a similar port at the Aegean sea. There are American interests in the place, where our liquefied gas terminal in Alexandroupolis witll be. Such joint adiministration could be made for the Danube port of Lom.

This is a very good idea, which has been articulated many times over the last years. But at this moment it is just words. At the level of state it is believe that history prevents us from approaching our neighbours.

Let me return you again to the Bulgarian-Romanian cooperation. What do both countries lose from sight?

We need to think not only in Bulgarian-Romanian terms, but also in the terms of the threesome Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. Bulgaria and Romania are more backward countries. The two of them together with Greece form a Balkan threesome much like the Visegrad Group. Such a format could allow us to coordinate our activities on important European issues in Bruxelles. For example, we can act coordinated for the distribution of positions in the EU. Croatia could join such a format.

There must be a strategic partnership. Each six months the three governments should have meetings. It is good that at the meetings of the Balkan four (Greece, Romania, Serbia and bulgaria) in Varna and Bucharest were invited also leaders from countries outside this group.

What could the leaders of the Greece, Romania and Bulgaira do? VAT is different in our countries. The income tax is different. We need to go towards uniformisation of the economic and social rules. We need to attract foreign capital.

In 1955 – 11 after the establishment of Benelux, the parliament of this community was formed. Joint political organs were established. This parliament comes out with its own political initiatives. No one wants to dismantle the states. The states continue to be a leading factor. But formulas for cooperation are searched for.

You know that Romania has strong anti-Russian attitudes, while Bulgarian preserves its bonds with Russia. For Sofia the security threats comes rather from the Middle East. Doesn’t this difference hinder the cooperation you talk about?

We have the model of the Visegrad Group. Orban has one attitude towards Russia. Poland has another attitude. That is not a problem for them. Historically, the closer you are to Russia, the more you have suffered. The criteria which countries form a community is whether they are member of the EU or not. When Poland was threatened that its access to European funds would be suspended, because of its judicial reform, Hungary said that it would impose a veto on such a suspension. The same is valid for those countries with exchanged role. They look for what is common, not for what is different.

The meetings of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Romania have been taking place for a few years, but there are still no agreements on infrastructural projects in terms of financing and deadlines…

Here the leaders can play a great role. They can ask for European cofunding. On the contrary, there are project, upon which it is being worked – e.g. the highway Belgrade-Sofia. Active work on the highway Sofia-Bucharest also started.

Bulgaria and Romania just now started talking about a third bridge. The more we go to the West, the more bridges upon the Danube there are. Bulgaria and Romania have only two bridges. This means that both countries are isolated. The river doesn’t unite them, but divides them.

If a government of the National Liberal Party is formed in Bucharest, a party member of the European People’s Party like GERB, do you expect intensification of the bilateral relations?

I would like it to be like that. It matters from which family are the ruling parties in the two countries. But whoever rules, he needs to understand that the river should connect us and not to divide us. The ideology should cede ground to pragmatism. History should be left forever to the historians. Politicians should look to the future. It doesn’t matter who governs. The direction is well chosen. All that happens in the context of our Balkan prejudices from the past century. The “patriotary” sentiments can’t be eliminated inany of our nations. This is what hinders us to raise the living standard. We need time. When both countries have political differences, the arbitrator is European rules.

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