Bulgarian Foreign Policy

Regional Cooperation and EU/NATO Relations

By
Bulgarian President Visit
Bulgarian Foreign Policy : Regional Cooperation and EU/NATO Relations - Radoslava Stefanova

The topic of regional cooperation in Bulgaria has always maintained a high profile in the country's regional policy making, but it has gained particular popular­ity with the current government in place since 1997. There are several reasons for the primacy of this topic, which differ in both structure and substance. These are worth exploring both because of the ascending importance of the topic of regional cooperation in South Eastern Europe in general and because of Bulgaria's growing credibility in the larger context of international efforts aimed at the stabilization of the region.

First, it is worth noting that prior to the coming to power of the pro-Western government headed by Prime Minister I van Kostov, Bulgaria professed an interest in Balkan regional cooperation for two basic reasons. On the one hand, the previous governments, and in particular the last one headed by Jean Videnov, had a very low credibility in the West. Thus, exalting Bulgaria's participation in the regional cooperation initiatives was one of the few available tools to the politicians of that period to conduct foreign policy activities without disturbing the sensitivity of Rus­sia. On the other hand, patterns of trade and communication remaining from the Cold War, particularly with Romania, revealed to some extent the need to trade on new and much more competitive markets, even if it did not prevent a severe economic crisis at the end of 1996. Furthermore, hiding behind regional cooperation at the time was also a convenient propaganda tool for politicians of the ancien regime to deliver promises devoid of substance related to the reformist pretences of governments unable and unwilling to change. As a result, it could be claimed that until mid-1997 Bulgaria's policy of regional cooperation was partly the result of a lack of choice, and partly the result of a certain inertia, due to the semi-isolation in the post-Cold War politicai and economic vacuum, in which Bulgaria had placed itself.

Secondly, with the qualitative change of the regime in Bulgaria in April 1997, regional cooperation continued to be one of the top items of the foreign policy agenda of the country, but for different reasons. While the Kostov government managed to quickly restore Western interest and trust in Bulgaria both as a "prime stability factor in the region,"1 and as an eventual member in the EU and NATO, Bulgaria's retarded economic development (despite significant progress made since 1997) still imposes regional cooperation as one of the most important economic trade and ex­change realities. Furthermore, in view of Bulgaria's new and more articulated for­eign policy priorities, namely, rapid integration with the Euro-Atlantic institutions, it is becoming increasingly clear that regional cooperation, understood primarily as integration in terms of export and import priorities, infrastructure, communica­tions, and labor mobility, is a fundamental prerequisite for the consolidation of the country's competitiveness in view of obtaining its wider foreign policy objectives.

Finally, and most importantly, it has been a policy of the current Bulgarian government to adopt with very little criticism foreign policy choices recommended by the West, in an attempt, perhaps, to reinforce the climate of trust and respect for a country without strong lobbies in the EU and NATO decision making forums. While it is not the purpose of this research to either qualify the usefulness of this policy choice in terms of effectiveness, or measure it in view of the realistic attain­ment of Bulgaria's proposed EU and NATO membership, it should be that in this context, especially in the aftermath of the Kosovo war, that the promotion of re­gional cooperation in the Balkans has emerged lately as a major Western policy prescription for stability and prosperity in the region. As a result, Bulgaria is con­fronted with a necessity to follow a policy of regional integration in the hope of reaping major foreign policy dividends in its bid for EU and NATO membership. This tendency was well articulated by Bulgaria's Foreign Minister, Nadejda Mihajlova, as early as 1997:

Bulgaria tries through its regional policy to promote European patterns of behavior among the countries of the area so as to accelerate incorporation of our area into the EU and NATO ... Bulgaria tries to coordinate all its activities in the area with the foreign and security policy of the EU and with the terms and positions agreed upon within the context of NATO...2

The Foreign Minister also recently reaffirmed this policy by noting that regional cooperation stands together with EU and NATO membership as the top priority for the Bulgarian government, while specifying that she sees these three different pro­cesses as intrinsically interlinked.3 Similar statements are also repeatedly reiter­ated by the Bulgarian President, Petar Stoyanov, whose speech of February 23, 2001 at the prestigious regional forum of the South Eastern Europe Cooperation Process was unequivocal; Stoyanov stated that Bulgaria's engagement in "regional cooperation should develop in the light of each Balkan state's European prospects, and not as a substitute for their independent path towards EU integration."4 Pre­mier I van Kostov has been even more explicit in his frustration over the necessity for Bulgaria to adopt regional cooperation in order to improve its prospects for join­ing the EU. On January 16, 2001 Kostov said in an interview with Financial Times Deutschland that Bulgaria's recent progress in meeting the criteria for EU mem­bership "has not been fully recognized" blaming the Union for assessing candidates' performance by "patching them up into groups" and not in line with their respective achievements or failures.5

Bulgarian Participation in South Eastern European Cooperation Initiatives

As is evident from the above discussion, Bulgaria has, therefore, tended to reinforce its participation in current and new initiatives of regional cooperation and integration. However, it is worth noting that the emphasis the government has tended to give to different initiatives has been dependent on the importance of the EU and the US accorded programs. As a result, if Bulgaria's participation and sup­port for the various regional cooperation initiatives is to be ranked, the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe launched in 1999 would undoubtedly loom more impor­tant than other regional initiatives, such as the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), which was criticized in the press for being too bureaucratic and ineffi­cient.6 Moreover, in the past the Bulgarian government has attempted to launch major regional cooperation initiatives, such as the Sofia Process, an annual meet­ing of the Balkan defense ministers, independently. Such efforts demonstrate Bulgaria's search for the foreign policy and economic dividends that would bring about among its Western allies. Many Bulgarian global policy aspirations can, there­fore, be found in its ostensibly quite superficial and straightforward regional coop­eration policy. It is for this reason that it is important to examine briefly Bulgarian attitudes towards the major regional cooperation organizations and agreements.

The Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe

As already mentioned, the most important regional cooperation initiative for Bulgaria is undoubtedly the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe adopted on June 10, 1999 in Cologne. There are two basic reasons for which the full adherence to the Stability Pact has become Bulgaria's top foreign policy priority. On the one hand, it is clear that the Pact represents an important demarche on the part of the European Union, which Bulgarian politicians undoubtedly interpret as a sine qua non stage to EU membership. In fact, the Stabilization and Association Process under the Stability Pact is a continuation and expansion of the Union's 1996 Re­gional Concept developed initially for the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Albania. The EU's Regional Concept's centerpiece was a political and economic con­ditionality aimed at the overall stabilization of the Western Balkans. Bulgaria con­siders this particularly important for its EU and NATO integration.7 An active involvement in and support of the Stability Pact, is therefore, seen as a way to promot Euro-Atlantic regional priorities, and consequently, as a gateway to mem­bership based on a reliable partner's behavior.

Secondly, supporting the Stability Pact has important economic implications for Bulgaria not only at a regional level (even if regional trade considerations cer­tainly go in the same direction), but even more so at the level of trade and commer­cial relations with the EU, which remains Bulgaria's main trade exchange partner.8 In fact, Bulgaria's exports to and imports from the EU amount to 49. 7 percent and 45.0 percent respectively, while exports to and imports from the countries in the region are 9.3 percent and 4.0 percent, respectively, excluding Greece, where the export-import relationship is 8.8 percent to 5.9 percent and Turkey, where the fig­ure is 7.9 percent to 2.6 percent.9 As evident from the statistics, the EU dominates Bulgarian regional trade activities.

Perhaps even more important in this context is the significant financial assis­tance in the form of grants and foreign direct investment (FDI) projects, generated in the framework of the three tables of the Stability Pact at the donors' conference in Brussels last March. Bulgaria was the only recipient country, which coined an elaborate lobbying strategy aimed at swiftly approaching the most likely donors taking part in the Brussels conference. Bulgaria now believes that it has benefited considerably by the fund-raising effort of the Stability Pact.10

It is worth noting, however, that after initially enthusiastic support for the Stability Pact, Bulgaria retreated significantly, attempting even to use its support for the Pact as leverage to achieve other very important goals, such as lifting the restrictions on the travel of Bulgarians abroad. Such attitudes clearly demonstrate that the country's policy makers do not believe in significant benefits stemming from adhesion to the Pact, other than as a means to display a good and reliable EU candidate's attitude. The visa lifting issue, however, emerged as the most impor­tant pre-electoral promise of the government, the realization of which was consid­ered to be the only tool available to raise the ruling coalition's falling popularity domestically.11 As a result, having conducted an intense visa-lifting campaign in virtually all European capitals, Bulgarian officials estimated that they needed an even stronger tool to use. On November 10, 200 Kostov declared that "Bulgaria must defend its national interest by preparing for an active and strong foreign policy response in case the visa restrictions are not lifted."12 The same day the Chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Policy Committee, Assen Agov, declared that Bul­garia would leave the Stability Pact if visas were not waived, 13 thus making explicit Bulgaria's consideration of the practical benefits it sees in participating in the Sta­bility Pact. Namely that Bulgaria considers the Pact a short-term foreign policy tool aimed at advancing its relations with the EU, an agreement that will eventually deliver long-term regional cooperation benefits. Kostov himself soon took up this explicit line of what could even be called an EU blackmailing, when he declared in Brussels that "it remains to be seen if in the future Bulgaria will be able to devote as much effort as in the past to regional initiatives and European integration."14 This statement was a clear warning to the EU, referring not only to the possible discrediting of the organization if an exemplary and core member like Bulgaria left it, but also to the difficulties the EU would have of the visa issue contributed to the ousting of the ruling coalition from power. Such an event would he a highly undesir­able eventuality for the EU, as the remaining party formations in Bulgaria are all much less Europe-oriented than the Kostov coalition.

It should be noted that Kostov's policy pressures were successful, displaying that he had correctly understood the mechanics of the EU decision-making process and its application to regional cooperation agreements in the Balkans. On Decem­ber 1, 2000 the EU Justice and Home Afifars Council announced that visa restric­tions will be removed, and on March 1, 2001 the European Parliament approved the Council's report on the unconditional waiver of visas for Bulgarian citizens travel­ing abroad. Bulgaria has since reconfirmed its commitment to the Stability Pact by signing an agreement to promote freer trade among the members in J anuary.15 On February 23, 2001 the Pact's Coordinator, Bodo Rombach, noted that he was im­pressed with the Bulgarian government's achievements and pledged his personal assistance for the country.16 As a result, it is apparent that the Stability Pact has proven to be an important foreign policy tool for Bulgaria, and in the future Bulgar­ian politicians will undoubtedly continue to consider it an important policy tool for applying pressure on the EU.

The Black Sea Economic Cooperation

In contrast, however, Bulgaria's participation in the Black Sea Economic Co­operation (BSEC) is not as active as with the Stability Pact. Based on the above analysis of Bulgarian foreign policy making, it could be claimed that the relatively low cooperative enthusiasm for this particular initiative was due to the fact that the BSEC has been relatively unimportant at the level of the EU and NATO. Indeed, only after the EU officially supported the BSEC's reformed structure and objectives at the BSEC's Parliamentary Assembly in Athens in June 1997, did Bulgaria show more vigor in its involvement. However, there are some important regional factors that contribute to Bulgaria's continued presence in the BSCE, such as the prospect for joint projects with considerable economic potential with Turkey and Russia. One example is the pipeline politics and preferential trade in and exchange of natu­ral gas, oil, and petroleum, which emerged under the aegis of the EU-sponsored "Synergy" program. Bulgaria, furthermore, volunteered to be the permanent host of the organization's Energy Center.

The Central European Initiative

Bulgaria's main reason for applying to and joining the Central European Ini­tiative (CEI) is again related to advancing its position in the EU integration process. In addition to the fact that joining that club has meant having preferential access (and possible lobbying ground) to two EU members, Italy and Austria, the other candidate states are all in a much more privileged position regarding the date of their EU entry. As a result, through participation in the CEI, Bulgarian foreign policy is also projected towards the future EU members, all of which will be ex­pected to support Bulgaria's bid for EU membership. Another point in favor of Bul­garian membership in the CEI in this respect relates to the particular importance given to the improvement of regional infrastructure. Particularly relevant for Bul­garia in this respect is the completion of Transport Corridor Eight, for the concrete realization of which the CEI members signed a memorandum at their annual meet­ing in 1997, which would greatly improve the country's trade relations with the EU, which were considerably crippled by the embargo placed upon the Former Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY).

South Eastern European Cooperation Initiative

Similar considerations condition Bulgaria's participation in the South East­ern European Cooperation Initiative (SECI), where the countcystl0reign policy makers are influenced strongly by the US support of the initiative. An additional element in the whole-hearted embrace of the Initiative was an initial objection on the part of Russia in 1997 to what it considered to be the imposition of US unilateral interests in the Balkans. At the time, the recently elected Kostov government con­sidered it particularly important to demonstrate support for the Initiative in order to show the US its level of sensibility towards Russian objections in contrast to that of its predecessors, as well as to improve its credibility as an aspirant NATO mem­ber.17 In addition, there are some strong economic considerations underlying Bul­garian support for the SECI; namely, the US is the third largest investor in Bul­garia after Belgium and Germany, while Russia comes only twelfth.18 Moreover, in 1997 under its sponsorship of the SECI the US granted Bulgaria $ 8 billion over a period of four years for the construction of Transport Corridor Eight.

Balkans Defense Ministerial (Sofia Process)

In yet another effort to reinforce its bid for NATO membership, the Bulgarian government launched a regional cooperation initiative of its own, that of the Balkans Defense Ministerial, which became known as the Sofia Process. The initiative gained immediate support from the US, which joined the initiative as a NATO member, and from the EU, from which Italy and Greece joined.19 The purpose of the Minis- , terial is to create efficient Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBM), which could contribute to creating a lasting climate of stability in the region. Some unease was created when participation was refused to Russia, after an explicit re­quest on the part of the Russian government. The Kostov government justified the denial by the fact that Russia was neither part of the Balkans, nor a NATO mem­ber, nor an EU member, conditions cited as indispensable for participation. How­ever, it was clear that such exclusion went much beyond the security cooperation interests of the organizers-it was another way of reaffirming Bulgaria's credibility as an ally in order to lay the ground for its future NATO membership. This senti­ment is similarly reflected in Foreign Minister Mihajlova' statement that regional cooperation should not lead to the creation of 'regional clubs,' but rather reinforce the broadening and deepening of the Partnership [for Peace] itself. Nor should this cooperation be seen as an alternative to early membership in NATO for qualified countries, but rather as an instrument to better engage their efforts to the benefit of regional security.20

Balkans Foreign Ministerial

Consistent with these approaches has been Bulgaria's attitude towards the Balkan Foreign Ministerial launched in 1996, the focus of which has been the pro­motion of stability in a broader sense, including aspects of cooperation in the fight against trans-regional organized crime and corruption, as well as discussion on social security, immigration, and human rights. While Bulgaria has always been represented at the highest level at the meetings, it demonstrated some criticism of the excessive bureaucratization of the regional cooperation initiatives, together with fear of duplication of initiatives. Premier Kostov thus pointed out that

Bulgaria supports the intensification of cooperation between the countries from South Eastern Europe, but it should not be too easy-going when the creation of new re­gional administrative structures is being proposed. In order to support a new insti­tution, Bulgaria must be sure that it is going to be efficient and capable of delivering economically.21

Clearly, this attitude of an increased demand for efficiency is fundamental to Bulgaria's approach to all initiatives and organizations. However, it should be noted that Kostov voiced no similar fears or criticisms at the launching of the Balkan Defense Ministerial only a year after the Foreign Ministerial, which essentially repeated the format and the basic objectives. The explanation of this behavior is to be found in the fact that while the Defense Ministerial was strongly supported by the US, NATO, and the EU, the Foreign Ministerial remained limited to the region and failed to receive substantial support and attention on the part of the Euro­Atlantic structures.

What emerges from this discussion is that Bulgaria's strong support for South Eastern European regional cooperation initiatives is at all times conditioned by foreign policy priorities judged to be more important, namely those of EU and NATO membership. From a more careful analysis it becomes clear that Bulgaria is inter­ested only in cooperation initiatives that in one way or another reinforce its position at the level of Euro-Atlantic policy-making. It is thus clear that regional coopera­tion is not seen as a goal in itself (trade exchange figures are, in fact quite eloquent in this respect), but as a policy course towards objectives that go beyond the region. While such an attitude towards regional integration is not necessarily constructive, it does imply some positive co-lateral effects, produced by the strong EU and NATO conditionality policy.

Regional Cooperation At Bilateral and Trilateral Levels

 Both the EU and NATO, as well as their individual members, have stressed in all major documents the primacy of human rights observance and the conduct of good neighborly relations. While Greece, as an EU and NATO member, and Turkey as a NATO member are not necessarily a good example of security and stability maintenance, human rights observance, or good neighborly relations at a regional level, the other Balkan countries are required and expected to fully comply with the strict conditionality policy of both the EU and NATO by fully addressing all points of friction with their neighbors and resident minorities. Failure to comply with these conditions immediately results in ever more elusive prospects for membership, fewer preferential trade agreements, and decreasing financial assistance packages.

Bulgaria, like most of the other countries of the region, has thus been forced to try to solve disagreements, overcome a history of hostility with some of its neigh­bors, and straighten its human and minority rights policy. This section will be con­cerned with the former process, while the latter must be the subject of a different piece of research.

Crudely put, on its way to regional cooperation Bulgaria has had to overcome minority and human rights disputes with Macedonia and Turkey, while relations with Greece and Romania have been less conditioned by patterns of ethnic discord. Relations with the FRY have been subject above all to the international embargo against the Milosevic regime, which has practically impeded the development of an independent policy course there, even if Bulgarian minority in the FRY has been officially recognized. Compared to the rest of the countries in the region, the Kostov government has had an impressive record of mending relations with neighbors, a political ability which was fortunately coupled with good will on the part of new and reform-minded governments in the neighboring countries in question, a process which is now extending also to the rump of Yugoslavia.

Turkey

Turkey was probably the first country with which Bulgaria re-established good neighborly relations after a history of repression of Bulgaria's 9.4 million ethnic Turks by the communist regime in the mid 1980s. Over 360,000 ethnic Turks were expelled from the country after refusing to change their Islamic names into Slavic ones. Premier Kostov called this unfortunate episode in Bulgarian minority policy "ethnic cleansing par excellence" and "ethnic genocide against the Bulgarian Turks."22

After the fall of communism, an important ethnic Turkish political party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms asserted itself among the ethnic Turkish elec­torate. They soon became a "force to be reckoned with"23 for the Bulgarian govern­ments, because of the attention Turkey manifested in this party.24 As a result, both major parties in Bulgaria essentially accepted the new party and tried to meet its demands of improving and guaranteeing ethnic Turkish minority rights, by bringing them to a truly European level.25 Indeed, the Movement for Rights and Free­doms has managed quite freely under all Bulgarian governments, despite the wide historical and ideological divide between various parties leading the Movement to vote for one party or the other quite circumstantially.26

As a result, relations with Turkey improved dramatically and many coopera­tive agreements were signed. For example, as early as 1991 Bulgaria and Turkey signed an important agreement, whereby they agreed to advise each other on mili­tary matters and not to conduct military exercises using large military units within 15 km of their common border. In 1992 a classic regional cooperation agreement on "Friendship, Good Neighborliness, Cooperation and Security" followed, which paved the way for a deeper cooperation commitment, and even better relations. In 1999 a free trade agreement between Bulgaria and Turkey was signed, which will be fully effective in 2002. For Bulgaria this is a big step forward, because it constitutes an indirect preferential access to the EU market, given that Turkey has had an effec­tive customs union with the EU since 1996. Trade patterns between Bulgaria and Turkey are thus intensifying and consolidating, a fact which also positively influ­ences other aspects of regional cooperation. Thanks to a Bulgarian governmental decree from 1999, Bulgarian ethnic Turks residing in Turkey will receive their Bul­garian pensions. Furthermore, a common family reunification program was adopted to help the movement of ethnic Turkish across both sides of the border. These facts have made the Turkish government one of Bulgaria's staunchest supporters for NATO membership and have certainly contributed to the climate of good neighbor­liness in the Balkans.

Greece

With Greece the situation has been more ambiguous, even if quite positive overall. Immediately after the fall of communism, it seemed that Bulgaria was will­ing to privilege Greece over Turkey in its regional policy making, mainly due to a certain solidarity with the Greek point of view on the non-existence of a Macedonian nation.27 However, strong Greek suspicion over Bulgarian intentions after Bul­garia recognized the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as an independent nation in 1991, coupled with a particularly nationalist rhetoric on the part of the Papandreu government regarding presumed Bulgarian aspirations for Macedonain territory, tended to favor Bulgarian rapprochement with Turkey rather than with Greece. As a result, the current policy of Bulgaria towards Greece and Turkey can be described as one of "positive energy,"28 clearly reflecting the Bulgarian government's realization that the two most important players of the region could be successfully played against each other.29 Greece still remains a very important regional partner for Bulgaria as a EU member, especially after the post-Papandreu governments reduced nationalist rhetoric.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

The question with Macedonia is more complicated for both historical and con­temporary domestic political reasons. Macedonian history, as described by native scholars, tends to coincide with major nation-building myths of the Bulgarian state.30 Moreover, delicate and strongly politicized issues, such as the long-lasting language controversy, or the existence or not of minorities, were for a long time hard to re­solve because of the nationalist-minded populism of governments on both sides.

While Bulgaria was the first country to recognize the Republic of Macedonia in 1991 under its new constitutional name (a fact which upset Greece), Bulgarian policy has long been one of refusal to recognize both the Macedonian nation and language as separate from Bulgarian. Lingering on old nationalist myths was a favorite policy of the ex-communist governments preceding the Kostov government, which made matters even more complex. As a result of the language controversy over thirty bilateral cooperation agreements with Macedonia were blocked for eight years, the result of which was both countries suffering economically and politically at the level of the EU and NATO.

The question of the existence of each country's minorities on both sides of the border is even more complicated than that of language and nationality. Officially both Bulgaria and Macedonia deny the existence of the other country's minority on their territory. Even discussing the existence of a Bulgarian minority in Macedonia is problematic for Bulgaria, as it would imply the recognition of two different na­tions. Another reason for Bulgarian passivity on the question of the minority de­bate with Macedonia is the imperative to show tolerance and open-mindedness to­wards its neighbors as part of the country's bid for EU and NATO membership. In that respect, it is clear that even if Bulgaria demanded discussion on the question of protecting citizens in Macedonia, who profess a Bulgarian ethnic identity, it would not be taken as a positive signal on the part of the EU and NATO, which are much more interested in the maintenance of stability in the region.

Kostov's coming to power in Bulgaria, followed by the more tolerant Demo­cratic Party for National Unity (VMRO) government in Macedonia, finally paved the way to a compromise on the language issue in February 1999 (while leaving the other controversies unresolved), which provided for the signature of all fundamen­tal cooperation agreements, even if some degree of suspicion still remains between the two neighbors. Here it should be noted, that EU and NATO conditionality con­tributed significantly to the easing of tensions and the signing of the accord, as both countries' priorities were anchored in closer links to NATO and the EU. Even if questions of national history myths and claimed or disclaimed minorities on both sides of the border still remain unresolved, both Kostov and Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubcho Georgievski signed a declaration in which they pledged that their countries "shall not undertake, incite, or support unfriendly activities against each other." 31 On the day of the declaration's signature Bulgaria donated 150 tanks and 150 howitzers to Macedonia, as a gesture of good will.32

A certain complication in bilateral relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia is related to the volatile situation in the ex-Yugoslavia. It could be claimed that chronic instability due to the Yugoslav wars has increased the strategic importance of Macedonia, a fact especially evident in the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict. Be­cause of the Macedonia's geopolitical situation, which makes the country central to all international involvement in all of the former Yugoslavia, even the new Macedonian policy makers seem to have become less prone to regional cooperation and more interested in cultivating direct relations with the US (dueito American military presence on Macedonian territory within the framework of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK)) and the EU, with which Macedonia negoti­ated a Stabilization and Association Agreement in January 2000.33

In fact, after a certain "warming of Macedonian-Bulgarian relations"34 in the immediate aftermath of the Macedonian general elections won by the VMRO gov­ernment of Georgievski, recently there have been some signs of "cooling down."35 However, Bulgarian Foreign Minster Mihajlova stated that "some political circles are trying to provoke this cooling down." She then indicated that relations with Macedonia would improve even further as the latter intensifies its ties to the EU.36

In fact, a high level visit by Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski is scheduled for May 2001,37 during which two important bi-lateral documents are expected to be signed: a Declaration of Friendship, and a Readmission Agreement. 38 Yet ultimately it becomes evident that Bulgaria's bilateral cooperation with its neighbors passes through Brussels.

Romania

A good example of bilateral cooperation is to be found in Bulgaria's relations with Romania. As already mentioned, there are practically no tensions with Roma­nia based on ethnic disaccord. As of 1992, the Bulgarian minority in Romania is officially recognized, has its own media, language schools, and parliamentary rep­resentation. Furthermore, both Bulgaria and Romania are in very similar political and economic positions regarding the status of their preparation for membership in the EU and NATO; both started structural reforms relatively late and encountered similar problems of implementation and imperfect efficiency. As a result, coopera­tion agreements between Bulgaria and Romania have been numerous and rela­tively easy to reach (with exception, perhaps, of the agreement for the building of a second bridge over the Danube, a problem which was solved at the Stability Pact donor conference in Brussels last March).

It was therefore natural for Bulgaria and Romania to join forces in making the most of regional cooperation both in terms of reinforcing their bids for EU and NATO membership, and by looking for strategic allies in the region to lobby for them at the Euro-Atlantic decision making forums. It is in this light that two impor­tant trilateral initiatives were born, where Bulgaria and Romania constituted the core and Greece and Turkey were approached and involved separately. On October 3, 1997 the Presidents of Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey gathered in Varna to sign a series of important regional cooperation agreements on trilateral cooperation against organized crime, illegal immigration, and corruption. Later that same month, on October 27, 1997, the Foreign Ministers of Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece signed practically the same series of agreements. On February 16, 2001 the three coun­tries' presidents met again to discuss issues related to the curbing of organized crime in the region. On this occasion President Stoyanov noted: "the idea that our three countries cannot do without the EU, whereas the EU can do without us, is absolutely wrong in respect to the struggle against organized crime."39 At the same meeting Bulgaria and Romania also pressured Turkey to pledge its support for their NATO membership. Ultimately, it could be concluded that Bulgarian regional cooperation works best with Romania because the two share not only common for­eign policy objectives, but also a common starting point and common problems in the course of reform implementation.

Conclusions

Clearly, this analysis reveals that Bulgaria's propensity for regional coopera­tion is undoubtedly one of the country's top foreign policy priorities. However, re­gional cooperation is not promoted by Bulgarian foreign policy makers for the sake of stabilizing and improving the economic performance of the region per se, but rather as a vehicle towards EU and NATO membership. Good neighborly relations, minority and human rights observance, and regional integration and consolidation are all priorities that the Euro-Atlantic policy makers have classified as fundamen­tal to policy-making strategies to be conducted in the Balkans. As a result, espous­ing this extrinsically prescribed policy course has become the precondition for mem­bership for the individual countries from the region. Bulgaria's foreign policy has thus turned towards the region, even if trade, historical and cultural patterns have seldom provided for intensive and effective cooperation in the past.

Bulgaria has greatly improved its relations with practically all of its neigh­bors, and is on the way to solving even such extremely difficult and emotionally charged controversies as that of Macedonian language and nationality. It must be recognized that much of the credit for the successful internalization of the EU's Copenhagen criteria must go to the present government of Premier Kostov, which put EU and NATO membership on the top of the Bulgarian foreign policy agenda. Bulgaria's relations with both Turkey and Greece are now excellent, the partial basis ofwhichis Bulgaria's very progressive policies towards the Turkish minority. Furthermore, Romania's foreign policy priorities, namely integration with the EU and NATO, coincide with these of Bulgaria, a fact that has paved the way for a' harmonious and fruitful regional cooperation track record between the two. Simi­larly, relations with the FRY now proceed in a calm and stable manner.

It can therefore be concluded that despite the drive for regional cooperation in the Balkans is external, rather than intrinsic to the traditional patterns of regional relations, it has effectively produced more stability and prosperity for the countries which have espoused it, relieving ethnic, historical, and economic tensions. The EU and NATO should therefore continue to conduct a measured conditionality policy, which combines credible membership perspectives for the South Eastern European countries with carefully targeted incentives and assistance on the basis of which the West could continue to maintain its leverage on the local policy makers of the region.

Notes

Radoslava Stefanova is the Head of the South East Europe Program and Project Director for the New Transatlantic Agenda Project at the International Affairs Institute, Rome. She is also a PhD candidate at the European University Institute, Florence, completing the dissertation: "Conceptual Dimensions of Conflict Prevention: Assessing Possible Applications in Europe."