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De-Balkanizing the Balkans

Bulgaria’s EU presidency next year probably won’t be very grandiose, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have purpose. 

by Boyko Vassilev 19 June 2017

If there’s one thing in the future by which to remember 2018 or at least its first half, it should be the Balkan country that will be the first hold the presidency of the European Council. That country is Bulgaria.


There is something of a precedent in the region, as an older member, Greece, did hold the role in the era before the Lisbon Treaty, when the EU rotating presidency was much more potent. Even newcomer Slovenia once presided over united Europe. However, Greeks and Slovenes would raise their eyebrows if considered part of the “Balkans,” a description whose undertones many consider derogative.


But not the Bulgarians who, 30 years ago, had Balkan Airlines, a Balkan hotel that happened to be the best one in Sofia, a Balkan bike, and most importantly, still have a Balkan mountain range, Stara planina, in the heart of their country and at the center of their national myth. Do not expect these people to be much ashamed to be Balkanians – or just a little bit because they are perhaps the only ones who cannot escape such a designation. 


And for sure, they cannot shed the region’s notoriety and fragility, which once gave birth to the term “Balkanization” – meaning a fragmentation into smaller units that are hostile to one another. Though the word is 100 years old, this is exactly what happened in the1990s with the collapse of Yugoslavia.


Bulgaria evaded the war next door but not some of its worst consequences. Foreign investors walked away from the scary Balkans. An embargo on the Yugoslavia that remained helped shatter Bulgaria’s already shaken post-communist economy. The wars exported corruption, organized crime, and a special viral strain of anti-Western populism.


Yet it was not all bad being the good guy on the hooligans’ block. Bulgaria passed the test of peacefulness and stability, miraculously propelling its way into NATO and the EU, an achievement even more notable given that if someone was ready to integrate into these international bodies in 1990, it was Yugoslavia, not Bulgaria.


Of course, Bulgaria did not only advance as a result of other people’s mistakes. Sofia supported the Yugo-embargo (despite painful losses), stuck by EU and NATO policies (despite popular discontent), and put historical passions to rest. On 15 January 1992, Bulgaria recognized the independence from Yugoslavia of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia – the first country to do so in regard to the latter two. Macedonia’s case was especially meaningful because of the delicate historical issues between the two countries. Bulgaria even convinced powerful players Turkey and Russia to add their voices to Macedonia’s recognition.


Such moves earned the country a good amount of prestige and encouraged Western officials to dub Bulgaria a “leader of the region,” which was music to a Balkan ear. The EU presidency, though, offers Bulgaria a real opportunity to lead, or, less ambitiously, to shed light on the region and its many problems.


And many there are. Instability is particularly conspicuous in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Macedonia, where protestors recently stormed the parliament, and Zoran Zaev, who has since then been appointed prime minister, was severely beaten. Additionally, Serbia, Albania, and Kosovo still aren’t high flyers in the fields of economy and the rule of law. They all aspire to enter the EU, a wish at odds with current events, given that even before Brexit the Union has not been in the mood to enlarge.


“One day they [the countries from the Western Balkans] will also join the EU. But today we cannot accept them,” Jean-David Levitte, a French senior diplomat and former advisor to three French presidents, told me in an interview, “The negotiations will go slowly; they should aim to accomplish the rule of law. Here, Bulgaria can help.”


“We shall not let you in but keep improving.” This is the only message that Bulgaria can deliver from its position as EU president – and it does not sound very promising. Yet there are ways to sweeten the bitter pill. In the first week of June, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov met recently elected French President Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel. According to Merkel’s statements, Europe will come up with a financial plan, which the Belgrade newspaper Vecernje novosti labeled “Berlin 2.” Borissov hinted at other measures, such as free travel, and kept saying that the Western Balkans belong in Europe. The other side is already responding. “We need our neighbors,” Zaev said. He will go to Sofia and his foreign minister to Athens, with some real potential to clear the air of historic tensions.


What will come out of this? The Bulgarian EU presidency will not win the hearts and minds among its neighbors – but will have a meaningful purpose. Do not expect grandiose results, but even small steps would help, as big issues are indeed at stake. In 1914, after some shots in the Balkans (in Sarajevo), Europe was plunged into two world wars, whose aftermath relegated her to second-rate status. In 1991 it was Europe again who failed to stop a new war from taking place on its soil.


To be tested in the Balkans: perhaps this is united Europe’s destiny. You wonder whether the center holds? Check the periphery. 

Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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