Velizar Shalamanov on the prospects of deeper integration of Bulgaria into NATO and its intensification of regional cooperation after the early parliamentary elections in the country
By Igor Fedyk
The recent parliamentary elections in Bulgaria have shown that the domestic political situation in the country is beginning to change, which in turn opens the prospect for changing of the country’s foreign policy vector towards deeper Euro-Atlantic and European integration. How realistic is this prospect, will it mean an increase of NATO military presence in Bulgaria and in South-Eastern Europe in general, what steps are already being taken by Bulgaria and NATO in this direction and what are the obstacles? The New Geopolitics Research Network tried to answer these questions together with Velizar Shalamanov, a member of the “Democratic Bulgaria” party and the former Bulgarian Minister of Defense.
Fedyk: The era of government of GERB party in Bulgaria, which in its foreign policy preferred to balance between the West and Russia, is coming to an end. Given this, should we expect from Bulgaria more pro-Western stance in the international arena, particularly within NATO and in the Black Sea region?
Shalamanov: Well, it is still to be decided by Bulgarian citizens at the early parliamentary elections on July 11. For sure, we are NATO and EU and we have a strategic partnership with US, but further behavior of the country will depend on the Public agreement between the Bulgarian citizens for the long-term strategy of the country’s development within NATO and EU, and the level of the country’s ambition. As for the Public agreement, it has to be the following: Bulgaria is a part of NATO and EU and doesn’t have to balance between Russian interests and interests of the institutions that Bulgaria is representing and is part of. As for the level of ambition, it means, for instance, whether we need multinational forces deployed on our territory, as they are in Romania and Greece? Having recognized the threat coming from the East, the best way to show the solidarity is to have multinational forces deployed on your territory. Moreover, if you have land forces deployed, you’ll have more commitment in the area of air defense, missile defense, air policing and extended maritime security. Today, in terms of deployment of multinational troops on its territory, Bulgaria unfortunately is a kind of white spot between Romania, Greece and Turkey. Here we could also add the North Macedonia that is moving fast towards close relations with the West and Serbia, who is established as a Russian front post on the Balkans. Also, the level of ambition includes improvement of infrastructure “South to North” on our territory, energy independence, and other aspects that require substantial changes.
Fedyk: At the closing of the Bucharest-9 summit Romanian President Klaus Iohannis spoke about increasing of NATO and US military presence in the country and on the Alliance’s eastern flank as a whole. Should we expect such a statement from Bulgaria in the future and does the country need it at all?
Shalamanov: Bulgaria needs such a statement and this is contained in our proposal for Public agreement on defense policy, offered by our party “Democratic Bulgaria” in September 2018, and in our “Freedom, Rule of Law and Modernization” program for 2021. We included such a statement in proposed declaration for the previous (45th) parliament and after the NATO Summit in June we will further extend this declaration to offer to the next (46th) parliament.
Frankly saying, I have doubts that President Radev will make such a statement, but for Bulgaria, which is a Parliamentarian Republic, it is important that the parliament should agree on it.
Moreover, I would say that not only Bulgaria, but NATO and EU need a deployment of the NATO force structure and European assets on its territory, as well as development of the “South to North” infrastructure, because it will strengthen our deterrence and defense and will prepare a good basis for a dialog on security in Black Sea region.
In addition to this, Bulgaria will host the Summit of the Three Seas Initiative and will take over the chairmanship of the SEE Defense Ministerial (SEDM), which synchronized with the NATO/EU development, will bring it different in different spheres and on the new level.
Fedyk: What practical benefits for Bulgaria do you expect from chairmanship in these initiatives?
Shalamanov: As for the Three Seas initiative, one immediate benefit is that there will be an opportunity to communicate about cooperation in the frames of development of “North to South” infrastructure – between Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas. This cooperation, which is based on transatlantic link and strategic partnership with the USA, will make this region more resilient and independent from Russia, especially in the sphere of energy. The important dimension is the technological cooperation and building technological sovereignty, as well as the protection of the technological development from our competitors outside NATO.
As for the SEDM, we see the opportunity for reinvention and stressing the importance of this cooperation in the context of preparation for Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO membership and it will be opportunity to consolidate different bilateral relations in multilateral framework in the region, which is of critical importance for us.
Fedyk: Is there an option for closer cooperation in the Black Sea in order to cope with the Russia’s aggressive actions?
Shalamanov: It is not just an option, but it is something that must be. This has already been proposed through initiatives as the Black Sea Maritime Coordination center in Bulgaria as well as the Euro Atlantic Resilience Center in Romania. And together with the Bucharest-9 declaration of May 10, these are the right signals.
Much more could be achieved with an adapted NATO Strategic Concept around NATO 2030 Vision and reflected in European foreign and security policy, as well as in development of the European defense. NATO 2030 Vision document is already approved by the foreign ministers. So now based on it, on June 14 meeting in Brussels the heads of states and governments will agree on key directions of adaptation of current NATO Strategic Concept, which was approved in 2010. These documents will reflect our need to be more united around the improvement of resilience, cyber defense, protection against hybrid attacks and increased Russian intelligence activity in Eastern Europe. And this would be the best way to limit the space for further aggressive actions of Russia, particularly in the area of intelligence and other hybrid operations.
Fedyk: Have the Russian blowing up the Bulgarian military depots and attempt to poison a Bulgarian businessman changed the Bulgaria’s attitude toward Russia?
Shalamanov: To be honest, Russia is a very difficult challenge for Bulgaria. Most of us appreciate the support of Russia in liberation from the Ottoman Empire and we feel close in the area of culture. At the same time, more and more people start comprehending the aggressive behavior of Russian government nowadays and over the years. It means we need on one hand to limit our vulnerabilities, to strengthen our resilience to aggressive and definitely “unfriendly” actions of Russia against Bulgaria, but on another side – to try to maintain dialog and normal relations between people, based on shared culture and traditional relations. It is an extremely complex task, which will require clear policy based on the national interest of Bulgaria without any attempt for “balancing” between West and Russia, but keeping integrity as “we are NATO” and “we are EU”.
Fedyk: Did the Russia’s subversive activities in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria require a strong response from NATO based on the articles of the North Atlantic Treaty?
Shalamanov: These Russian activities activated kind of consultations within NATO. When a NATO member has security concerns, it has the right under Article 4 to call for the political consultations. So did the Czech Republic. Bulgaria instead just informed North Atlantic Council about what was discovered, but this was not considered as consultation. I’m afraid that it was a kind of request from other NATO nations to be informed, because they already had some information from the ministerial meeting and maybe there were additional questions. So in order to response to these questions from other NATO nations, some kind of hearing was organized. But that were definitely not consultations. The consultations mean bringing the assessment that you’re threatened and you need solidarity of other nations. It is more or less what Czech Republic asked for. Here in Bulgaria, if we wanted to expect the support from NATO, we first needed to have a hearing in the Bulgarian Parliament, then – a consolidation of our Governmental and Parliamentary position. And only after all that we could ask for consultations and position of North Atlantic Council.
Fedyk: Why there was a difference between the Czech and Bulgarian reaction?
Shalamanov: It was mostly because of Russian influence and because of overall strategic communication in Bulgaria. Its citizens don’t feel threatened by Russia. And Russian activities on Bulgarian territory were not considered as real threat to national security by ex-prime minister and president. Moreover, such a reaction of the state authorities was a signal to our secret services: when these activities are not identified as main threat to state security, they’re not working on it with enough effort and focus. Instead of that they have to receive the task to work on this issue, and there has to be a public speaking of the state leaders in order to make people to comprehend the threat and to generate public support for such a work.
Fedyk: But instead of that, President Radev didn’t want to talk on this issue and to support publicly the Bucharest-9 declaration…
Shalamanov: Better to say – he wanted to avoid associating himself publicly with the declaration and communicating on it in the country. That is really pity, because this declaration is adopted and signed in order to be communicated. Such declarations are the instrument for the strategic communication – that is educating the population to generate support for certain policy. And this is exactly in relation with the first question: without clear long-term strategic vision, without communication on daily basis on strategic level, you cannot count on motivation and commitment of people to move in certain direction.
Also the Bucharest-9 declaration is very important, because it shows the consolidation of these nine nations plus USA and gives all the NATO allies better understanding and comprehending the threats coming from Russia. Because it is probably not well understood by such states as Spain or France, which have different problems and which are far from Russia, Ukraine and Georgia.
Fedyk: What should be the role of Bulgaria as a member of NATO and EU towards the Black Sea and Russia’s actions in it?
Shalamanov: It is to be seen in the nearest future when the NATO strategic concept will be adapted and EU security and defense policy will be evolved. For us it is the time now through Parliamentarian and Presidential elections to consolidate the national position and develop regional response in dialog with NATO littoral states – Greece, Romania, Turkey, with involvement of USA and of course in consultations with key partners – Georgia and Ukraine. As for EU, Bulgaria will work very close with Romania and Greece to develop a comprehensive security policy for the Black Sea-Eastern Mediterranean region. Here I mean that we need a kind of interlink strategy between the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. This is important for the EU in terms of economy and for NATO in terms of security and defense. And it is definitely important for Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, in terms of combining the funding and solidarity instruments of NATO and EU in order to strengthen their position vis-a-vis Russia and to certain extent Turkey, which has an ambition to be a regional leading power.
Fedyk: Should we see the leveling of NATO’s military presence on its Eastern flank (the same in the Black Sea as in Baltic states and Poland)? And what is needed for that?
Shalamanov: I’m sure it will happen, but first we need a little more political vision and political will, followed by infrastructure improvement and strategic communication. At the same time we need to provide security for such a military presence, which means the suppressing of foreign intelligence and active measures networks, which are adversarial to us. The explosions in Czech Republic and Bulgaria is the evidence that we need to improve our physical and cyber security, as well as resilience to hybrid attacks in the way the Baltic states did under the Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin with associated NATO Force Integration Units from Estonia to Hungary. Obviously, the multinational corps and division in Romania could be a center of gravity for such a change.
Generally, we can see that NATO’s military presence on the Eastern flank has been evolving since 2014 Summit in Wales with more to come. The previous (45th) Bulgarian parliament managed at the last minute to ratify a Protocol to an Agreement with Romania for missile defense and air policing, providing opportunity for fighters form the third NATO countries to operate in Romania and Bulgaria airspace. And I would say that it was really symbolic, because we could be divided on many domestic topics, but when it comes to defense, security and NATO – we are quite united. And we know: when we’re united – we’re stronger.