1 February, 2023
The second part of the interview with the Bulgarian foreign policy expert focuses on the rise of Poland and Turkey and what it means for Bulgaria and Romania
Vessela Tcherneva (source: European Council on Foreign Relations)

Vladimir Mitev

The war in Ukraine has changed the geography of the EU and shifted its centre of political gravity eastwards – towards Poland and away from the Franco-German engine of integration. Currently, this cooperation is stalling. Instead, Poland is trying to draw the centre of the European debate towards itself. This is what Vessela Tcherneva of the European Council on Foreign Relations says in the second part of her interview with The Bridge of Friendship. However, Tcherneva refrains from predicting that the Polish-Ukrainian tandem will play a decisive role. In her opinion, Poland will have to participate in European processes in order to have an influence on them. 

“Yes, Ukraine really needs to be helped at the moment. Of course, Poland’s role is exceptional and can be seen in many areas with the naked eye. At the same time, however, Poland’s rule of law problems remain. And, as we have seen, the European Commission has been unwilling to budge either on Hungary or on Poland as far as the recovery plan is concerned. Both countries still have conditions in the plan for changes so that both countries meet the European criteria of separation of powers, rule of law. And that is why I think that this condition, although to a certain extent it is now on the back burner because of the war, will continue to be a firm requirement for Poland to play a bigger and more significant role in the European Union,” Tcherneva explains.

How does Turkey’s strategic ambiguity affect Bulgaria and Romania and how should the two countries deal with it? The two countries’ positions on Russia are very different, Tcherneva reminds us… As for Turkey, it is a desirable partner for both the West and Russia, but the benefits it receives from this policy are mostly important for solving its economic problems. 

According to Vessela Tcherenva, it is important what positions Turkey will take in NATO. A declaration on cooperation between NATO and the EU is expected to be signed these days, which means that Turkey has also agreed to this. Turkey’s energy policy and becoming an energy hub for the Balkans and a stabiliser of the region are vital evolutions for Bulgaria and Romania.

Things are also more complicated when we talk about populism, because in Europe, apart from Viktor Orbán, who is constantly accused of having ties with Russia, there are also populists who are anti-Russian, and these are, for example, those in Poland. In the context of the war in Ukraine, Poland is forming very close cooperation with Ukraine. This cooperation has the prospect, perhaps, of becoming a Slavic Euro-Atlantic bloc in the region of Eastern Europe. How do you view the formation of this bloc and how should Bulgaria and Romania approach it?

I think you are raising a very important question, because it is, in fact, a question about the future of the European Union. If until a few years ago the European Union was mainly driven by the so-called Franco-German engine of integration, at the moment we see that this cooperation between Berlin and Paris is quite stymied. There is a lack of energy and a lack of solidarity between the two countries. Instead, Poland is increasingly trying to draw the centre of the debate around itself.

You are absolutely right. If we were talking this time last year, we would probably be talking about Hungary and Poland in the same breath. At the moment, however, that is far from the case, because the Polish Government has really taken a very strong stance on the war in Ukraine, has taken in three and a half million Ukrainian refugees and, above all, has set a tone of moral superiority in relation to the West that says, ‘We told you Putin’s Russia was revisionist, did we not? Didn’t we tell you that the European Union’s eastern border is not secure? Didn’t we tell you that what happened in 2008 in Georgia and 2014 in Crimea are not isolated incidents, but episodes in an ongoing saga that will have its inevitable climax, its denouement.”

In this sense. Poland, as well as the Baltic states, is indeed now not only an unavoidable factor, but also the center of the debate about what should. What should be the European Union’s relations with Russia and with countries in general to the east of Poland. So there is such a shift in the centre of political gravity. But I would not make such a prediction that the Polish-Ukrainian tandem will rule Europe, or at least will continue to play such a centripetal role. I think ultimately Poland will have to participate in European processes more intensively in order to be able to have an influence on them. I don’t think that the expectation that everyone in Europe will go Warsaw-style is going to be a long-term justified expectation. Yes, Ukraine really needs to be helped at the moment. Certainly Poland’s role is exceptional and can be seen in many areas with the naked eye. At the same time, however, Poland’s rule of law problems remain. And, as we have seen, the European Commission has been unwilling to budge either on Hungary or on Poland as far as the recovery plan is concerned. Both countries still have conditions in the plan for changes so that both countries meet the European criteria of separation of powers, rule of law. I therefore think that this condition, although it is to some extent on the back burner at the moment because of the war, will continue to be a firm requirement in order for Poland to play a greater and more significant role in the European Union.

I will also ask you about European development in these conditions, but before that, there is another country in our region that has also been asserting itself in recent times, including in the context of the war in Ukraine. This is Turkey, which is becoming a mediator between the West and Russia in these conditions. It is developing what some call strategic ambiguity. How does this strategic ambiguity of Turkey affect Bulgaria and Romania and how should we deal with it?

When we border two countries like Russia and Turkey, it always affects foreign policy. And this applies to Romania as well as to Bulgaria. The positions of the two countries with regard to Russia are very different. Romania has a much clearer anti-Russian stance and a much clearer position in support of Ukraine. And in Bulgaria, we know this is much more difficult, much more hesitant.

In fact, as far as Turkey is concerned, the situation there for Bulgaria is, of course, more complicated than for Romania. Firstly, because we have a direct border and, secondly, because Bulgaria has a corresponding Turkish minority, which is involved both politically and economically. Ultimately, these two aspects, the foreign and the domestic political, they are constantly interacting and coexisting from Sofia’s point of view. But as far as Turkey’s role is concerned at the moment, I think it is largely subordinated to the forthcoming presidential elections in Turkey. It is also subordinate to President Erdogan’s desire to come out of a certain isolation or a rather detached position, as he was a year ago. At the moment, Turkey is a desirable partner both in Europe and in Russia, but I would say that the benefits for Turkey at the moment – apart from the image benefits – are primarily related to the economic problems that Turkey has. We know inflation is very high there and the supply of cheap energy, for example, is very important for President Erdogan’s government. He is trying to maximise his new geopolitical role. Therefore, how Turkey will stand in NATO is very important. The talks between NATO and the EU have not been easy for years, but it seems that these days a joint declaration on cooperation between NATO and the European Union will eventually be signed. This means that Turkey has also agreed to this cooperation. Also, what will Turkey look like in these coming months until the elections? I think it will be very important for our region included, because Turkey’s policy both in terms of energy, namely its intention to become in practice an energy hub for the Balkans, but also in general as a stabiliser of the region, is important. And it is vital for Bulgaria and Romania.

Photo: Warsaw’s skyline (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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