H.E. Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador Of Bulgaria:

Lean On Your Neighbours!

One of the main priorities of Bulgaria’s presidency of the EU will be supporting the Western Balkan countries and the preparation process for EU enlargement. Serbia’s EU perspective is clear, but membership depends primarily on the speed of reforms in this country - Radko Vlaykov, Bulgarian Ambassador to Serbia

The Bulgarian Ambassador to Serbia, H.E. Radko Vlaykov, says that his first eight months in the Serbian capital have been very pleasant and successful, and that Belgrade feels almost like home to him. In this interview for CorD Magazine, Ambassador Vlaykov reflects on Bulgaria’s 10 years in the EU and stresses the importance of broad public support for the integration process. The ambassador believes that Serbia could benefit from the fact that Bulgaria and Austria, Serbia’s neighbours, will preside over the EU Council in 2018.

Your Excellency, you arrived in Belgrade eight months ago. What have you set as the priorities of your term in Serbia?

– First of all, there are bilateral relations that are good, with no open problems between our countries. We have to use that advantage to strengthen our economic cooperation. There is an increase in the trade cooperation between us, but it is important to focus on concrete projects. I will mention a few of them. There is an interconnection for the gas pipeline that should connect Niš and Sofia, which is a project of strategic importance for the region, supported by the European Union. We are also interested in finalising the infrastructure project for a highway between Niš and Sofia, and I am glad that Serbia is doing very well on its part to complete the works from Niš to the Bulgarian border. I have spoken many times with Deputy Prime Minister Zorana Mihajlović and I am glad to see how very much involved in this process she is. One larger road section towards the Bulgarian border should be completed by the end of the year, while the completion of the whole project is envisaged for the next year. Now it is up to us on the Bulgarian side to do our job and take the highway from the border to Sofia. We’ve already started logistical preparations for the project and I am sure it will progress very quickly. I would also like to mention the importance of trans-border cooperation between the two countries, where we also have good collaboration. We had the presentation of that project recently in Pirot, attended by the deputy heads of mission of EU countries in Serbia. I must say that Pirot is a very good example of using EU funds for projects that are in our mutual interests.

How do you think our region could benefit from China’s growing interest in it?

– Being a member of the EU, Bulgaria’s economic relations are mostly with EU countries and the countries of the region, like Serbia. However, of course, it is important to utilise all opportunities. I spoke to my colleagues here in Serbia about the idea of promoting tourism in our region – not only with China, but Japan, the Middle East and other distant destinations. The idea is to create a joint offer which would mean travellers would spend a few days in Serbia then move to Bulgaria, Montenegro or Croatia… I see that as a very good opportunity.

Looking back in history, one must unfortunately conclude that our region is not like some in Western or Central Europe, where everything is calm and stable. I would say that here, in the Balkans, we are “sick of history“

Bulgaria and Serbia signed a memorandum on the construction of gas interconnections at the beginning of this year, which should enable the construction of a regional gas pipeline by 2020. How are preparations advancing?

– The interconnection for the pipeline you are referring to is part of the European project aimed at diversifying the gas supply in the region. That is very important. I am sure the deadline is realistic and we have to be optimistic that it will all be done according to schedule. Preparations are going well, the financing of the project is clear and now it depends on the good will of both governments to realise it.

How would you comment on the suggestion that the Western Balkans remains unstable and that the rise of new conflicts is not out of the question?

Looking back in history, one must unfortunately conclude that our region is not like some in Western or Central Europe, where everything is calm and stable. I would say that here, in the Balkans, we are “sick of history”. That’s our problem. We are looking into history instead of looking ahead. That’s why there is still potential for conflicts that are rooted in history. We have to look to the future. Bulgaria is a member of the EU; we want to contribute to the development of the region that would be focused on the future. I believe good neighbourly relations are the best basis for building a stable future. In the past eight months I met many people who have relatives and friends in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. What is more normal than having good relations with those countries? This aspect of relations between people is very important and I believe politicians must understand that the interest of people is to have peace. The future of the region should be built on the European principles of democracy, tolerance and good neighbourly relations. I’ve met many high ranking Serbian officials who are very much committed to those principles. They, I believe, as well as the reform process, should be supported not only by the EU, but also by the society. Sometimes I have the impression that there is a lack of information among people about the importance of EU integration for Serbia.

Bulgaria and Romania celebrated ten years of EU membership at the beginning of this year. How do the citizens of Bulgaria see that accession today; are there more satisfied or critical people?

– If you go to Sofia or Plovdiv or Varna… and ask people: how is your life, good or not so good, people will probably say it could be better. If you continue asking if they are satisfied with EU membership, they are likely to say “yes, but things could be better. We’ve been a member for 10 years already and we are still one of the poorest members of the Union”. But if you ask if they would prefer Bulgaria leave the EU everybody, would say “No, no, no!” That is the answer! People forget fast what was in the past, and that is normal. When we started reforms in Bulgaria the gap between us and the EU counties was very broad, in every aspect of life. When we started accession negotiations we started reducing the gap. When we joined the EU in 2007 we begin comparing ourselves with other EU countries. Today we are at 48% of the EU’s average GDP per capita. We are competing with Germany, the Netherlands, France… Some would insist on emphasising the fact that we are among the poorest countries. I would say yes, that is true, but it is better to be among the poorest in the EU club than to be doing well in some club of the poor. If we failed to get better results from EU membership so far, that is not because of the EU. It is because of us, and the lack of reforms from time to time.

“We’ve been a member for 10 years already and we are still one of the poorest members of the Union”. But if you ask if they would prefer Bulgaria leave the EU everybody, would say “No, no, no!” That is the answer! People forget fast what was in the past

Today, ten years on, are you concerned about the future of the EU?

– No, I am an optimist. There were a lot of crises in the world and in the EU during the past 6-7 years. Just to mention the financial crisis, economic crisis, migrant crisis, Brexit… All that did impact on the EU’s efficiency. That is why we have that call now for change, to make the EU more attractive for common people, more efficient, more orientated towards concrete projects, while continuing on the basic principles of democracy, freedom of movement… In other words, the EU has to become more modern under the new circumstances.

When it comes to changes within the EU, are you worried by this concept of a “Multi-speed Europe”, which is being discussed increasingly? Some even speak of the “first EU class” and others. Where would be Bulgaria’s place in that scheme?

– There are a lot of scenarios being discussed in the media. A lot of experts are pondering the future of the EU. However, there is nothing concrete about that, nothing yet. I am sure that whatever the decision on the future of the EU might be, it will be thoroughly discussed among the 27 or 28 member states and it will be taken in favour of all 27 members, or 28. That is why I am saying I am an optimist. Bulgaria is preparing to become a member of the Schengen zone and the Euro zone, and all those instruments should function like they do in other member states. In the EU we have the advantage of all countries, even the smallest, having their say. Important decisions are taken by consensus and that is very important. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and others will have their voices heard.

When he was elected President of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev pledged to strive for sanctions against Russia to be lifted. What are official relations like between Sofia and Moscow today, and can EU membership be reconciled with good relations with Russia, which is a question very often asked here in Serbia?

– First of all, our president, Mr Radev, was a general in the army of a country that is a NATO member. He became president of Bulgaria, which is an EU country. He was elected on a clear agenda of continuing our EU and NATO membership and becoming more active in both organisations. The EU and NATO are strategic choices of the Bulgarian people. When it comes to sanctions and Russia, there are different views within the EU on that. I would like to stress that the EU sanctions are against specific people, while the sanctions in the economic sphere are coming from Russia. Due to Russian sanctions there has been a decrease in Bulgarian exports to Russia by about five to six per cent. That’s nothing. We are not so vulnerable to those sanctions, I would say. The idea you are mentioning is that relations between Russia and the EU could be better without those sanctions that are more political than economic. I am sure we can have very good relations with Russia even though we are part of NATO and the EU. A lot of people in Bulgaria have friends in Russia, respect Russian culture, literature etc., but a lot of them disagree with Russian politics. People would prefer to see democratic changes in Russia. It is believed that the Russian people would benefit from democratic principles, in which case Russia could be a real political and economic partner in Europe.

Do you believe the countries of the Western Balkans have a future in the EU?

– I am absolutely sure that all Western Balkans countries, Serbia included, have EU prospects. We can’t speak about the concrete date of accession, but we shall, I am sure, discuss that too in the near future. Everything depends on reforms. As I said, I see many politicians committed to reforms – the President, the new Prime minister, the minister of EU integration, chief negotiator…a lot of people with a very pro-EU vision and clear agenda. I will repeat again, from my point of view, it is very important that people in Serbia have more information about the advantages of future membership. Your society has to be convinced it is good to undertake all the reforms, to join the EU, because the life of people will change for the better. Bulgaria is ready to support Serbia, and to share its experience from the negotiating process.

As of 1st July, Bulgaria will be part of the so-called toika – Estonia, Bulgaria, Austria (current and future presiding countries). We already have our programme for this 18-month period, adopted in June in Brussels

From January 2018 your country assumes the EU presidency. How high will enlargement be on your agenda?

– As of 1st July, Bulgaria will be part of the so-called toika – Estonia, Bulgaria, Austria (current and future presiding countries). We already have our programme for this 18-month period, adopted in June in Brussels. One of the main priorities of the Bulgarian presidency will be supporting Western Balkan countries, and Serbia primarily, and the preparation process for EU enlargement. Bulgaria’s accession negotiations lasted seven years under circumstances that were different than these today. Even then we needed time. Serbia now needs time. People have to understand it is not possible to have all those changes in one day. The process depends on the commitment of Serbian politicians and on the support of the people. Serbia’s prospects of joining the EU are clear, but membership depends primarily on the speed of reforms in this country. The next progress report by the European Commission will be published in April 2018, during our presidency, and I’m sure if efforts continue in the next 10 months the report will be positive. Our goal during our presidency is to organise a presidential summit of the Western Balkan countries in Sofia. We see it as a perfect occasion to strengthen relations between countries in the region. The neighbourhood is the most important, as I keep repeating. There is no example in the EU that a county joined without the support of its neighbouring EU members.

Speaking of that, why is Bulgaria not actively involved in the regional initiative of the Berlin Process, despite being the closest country to the Western Balkan states?

– The Berlin Process is relatively new and is more connected to Germany. We, of course, support it despite not being part of it. I would say, not yet. We support every initiative for regional cooperation. Every format might be useful in some area, especially if it contributes to building trust between countries.