22 March, 2023
A conversation with the Bulgarian foreign policy analyst on the rise of sovereignism in Southeast Europe and the consolidation of Poland in the region
Valentin Radomirski (source: Facebook)

Vladimir Mitev

Valentin Radomirski is a career diplomat. From 1976 to 1992 he worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, rising through all ranks from trainee attache to minister plenipotentiary. He served as our country’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Romania and as a non-accredited Ambassador to Moldova. From 2005 to 2009, he was Foreign Policy and National Security Adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office. He is a co-founder and a member of the Bulgarian Diplomatic Society. He is also the executive director of the Institute of Economics and International Relations (IIR).

Mr Radomirski, sovereignist tendencies are growing in our region and in Europe. How do these trends affect international relations in our region in general and Bulgarian-Romanian relations in particular?

Let us start by clarifying the concepts. You use the adjective ‘sovereignist’, which, at least for me, is not found in Bulgarian political jargon. It is more suited to Romanian constructions. To me, its translation into Bulgarian can mean, in a positive interpretation, national responsibility, and in a more critical interpretation, nationalist tendencies. Therefore my answer cannot be unambiguous. 

The tendency to search for a nationally responsible policy has become more and more evident in recent years, and the reason for this is the increasingly noticeable shortcomings of global (above all economic-financial) integration processes, generically referred to as ‘globalisation’. It is precisely these shortcomings of the imposed integration model that are provoking resistance (varying in scale from country to country) in ever larger sections of civil society. And this, in turn, creates a breeding ground both for the search for nationally-responsible policies and for the drift towards nationalist sentiments, which, as we know from history, can easily be manipulated to the level of national chauvinism. And this is the last stage before turning our backs on diplomacy and moving on to its sequel, war. 

Both Bulgaria and Romania are subject to these processes. Moreover, in my opinion, for a number of historically shaped reasons, these tendencies are more pronounced in Romania than in our country. This makes it more difficult to find increasingly effective formulas for developing mutually beneficial and equal relations. Nationalist sentiments are reviving old and exaggerating new fears both in the public and in the political elites of both countries. Forgotten historical conflicts are recalled, topped with failed political and economic initiatives of recent years. Examples of this are the setbacks surrounding the Danube bridges projects and the particularly unpleasant incident during the Romanian President’s visit with Prime Minister Borissov’s refusal to confirm President Plevneliev’s commitment to create a joint Romanian-Ukrainian-Bulgarian military alliance.

There are also differences in the optics of the two countries vis-à-vis NATO and EU partners. Both countries are trying to gain Washington’s favour, but this often turns into competition for the same NATO initiatives. In truth, it must be said that in this respect Bucharest has won far more prestigious positions in NATO and preferences in cooperation with the US and the alliance. A difference can be observed in the EU, where Romania relies mainly on France and Italy, while Bulgaria follows quite straightforwardly the turns in German policy towards the union.

Political conflicts in the Balkans (Turkish-Greek controversies and frozen conflicts in the Western Balkans) prevent Romania and Bulgaria from playing together for a greater role of the region in international relations. The trilateral formats for annual meetings of governments (Turkey-Romania-Bulgaria and Greece-Romania-Bulgaria) that characterised the first decade of the current century no longer exist in practice. The “sovereignist” tendencies prevailed.

One of the countries in our region that has followed a sovereigntist line for years is Poland. How should Bulgaria and Romania deal with the increased interaction between Poland and Ukraine in the context of the war in Ukraine? To what extent is Bulgarian-Romanian rapprochement justified in the context of the formation of various situational alliances in our region?

We cannot influence the relations of any two countries when they want to develop them. On the other hand, there are individual scenarios in which this interest could seriously affect the interests of both Bulgaria and Romania. I am not going to analyse all of them, because most of them depend on what form and whether the Ukrainian state will exist after the current conflict. 

In the event of a Ukrainian victory, there will be the possibility of a strong Polish-Ukrainian alliance. It can be confidently predicted that the Baltic States will join it. What Romania’s participation in it would be would depend on whether it would be an equal partner of Warsaw and Kiev or whether it would be given a supporting role, as the Baltic capitals would probably be. Perhaps Bulgaria, as well as the other countries of the Three Seas initiative, will also be invited to join, but at this stage it is difficult to predict the reactions in such a scenario.

In the event of Ukraine’s defeat (without meaning an end to its independence), the process of forming a Polish-Romanian tandem to increasingly pursue Anglo-Saxon interests in Eastern Europe will intensify. Romania’s growing geostrategic role has been confirmed in recent years by a series of visits by senior U.S. government officials and is a sign that Romania has succeeded in becoming the most important and reliable U.S. ally in the Black Sea region. Back in 2014, the head of the influential US global intelligence agency Stratfor, George Friedman, pointed out that this diplomatic activity on the part of the US was not at all accidental, as “if this little Cold War becomes significant, there are two European countries that are of paramount importance: Poland and Romania”. Friedman highlighted the fact that ‘of the approximately 82 million people living along the eastern border (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria), some 58 million live in Poland and Romania’.

Much of the reason for the lack of sufficient interest and desire for Romanian-Bulgarian cooperation in this area is the historically shaped foreign policy priorities of the two countries.

For Bulgaria, the attitude towards the rapprochement of Romania and Poland is in direct dependence on the growing threats to it from the two regional superpowers – Russia and, above all, Turkey, which is facing crucial elections this year. For Romania, rapprochement with Poland is strategically justified in terms of the serious problems it has with its neighbours to the north-west (Hungary) and north-east (Russia in the light of Moldova’s future). The southern direction of its policy is therefore secondary at this stage, especially since its good relations with Serbia are a historical tradition.

In general, the rapprochement of Bulgaria and Romania will follow, as before, mainly geopolitical trends, and will not receive impetus from the realisation that the advantages of greater coherence of common policies outweigh the disadvantages this may have on their current elites.

Photo: The Romanian Mircea Geoana is deputy secretary general of NATO – a recognition for the strategic importance of his country for the Alliance (source: YouTube)

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