• Except for Macedonia, Bulgaria still lacks real counterparts in the other Western Balkan countries.
In his third term as prime minister, Boyko Borissov has decided to devote himself to geopolitics. And the upcoming Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2018 offers a perfect opportunity for him to shine in international politics. Which is not necessarily bad, especially if Bulgaria manages to leave a lasting positive mark on the Western Balkans - one of the main priorities for the six months it will be at the head of the Council.
The first step has already been made - the signing of the treaty for good neighborly relations with Macedonia on August 1. With that years of diplomatic wrangling have been put officially to an end and a major hurdle to the relations between Sofia and Skopje has been finally removed.
The treaty is also a sine qua non for the announced priority for the EU presidency to make sense. Bulgaria can't be a serious voice in the region and lead the EU conversations on the Western Balkans while having an open bilateral problem with Macedonia. Neither can Sofia participate in other European initiatives for the region such as the Germany-led Berlin Plus process, part of which is the "mini-Marshall Plan" for the Balkans envisaging a common market and customs union for the six countries, and also 200 million euro in European financing for big infrastructure projects. EU funds are also the source of the 70 million euro financing for the railroad connection between Bulgaria and Macedonia (a segment of Pan-European Corridor 8 announced in Trieste in July where Bulgaria was invited at the Annual Western Balkans Summit for the first time.
The rapprochement with Macedonia has won Borissov the praise of both the EU and the USA and has given him the self-confidence to boast that "for the first time, without mediators or somebody telling us what to do, the two states came to a solution", thus setting a positive example and showing the way forward for the whole region. Which is a good beginning, but doesn't guarantee yet the Western Balkan focus of the presidency will be a success.
Let's be good neighbours
The reason for this treaty to be signed was the coincidence of interests in Sofia and Skopje. Macedonia's prime minister Zoran Zaev needed quick and powerful moves to distinguish himself from his predecessor Nikola Gruevski and to get the country out of the international isolation and closer to the EU and NATO. He felt opportunity with Bulgaria and grabbed it. At the same time Sofia needed to fill with substance its term of EU presidency and solving the problem with Macedonia was an absolute necessity.
Whether the treaty will work is another matter, given domestic political wrangling (especially in Skopje, where opposition VMRO-DPMNE party led by Gruevski threatens to do everything possible to try to foil the ratification in parliament) and the differing interpretations of history in the two countries, that could easily undermine it. What is even more important for the document to be filled with substance it needs to be followed by actions, especially in the economic area. Otherwise Macedonia will remain Bulgaria's only neighbor, to which there is no railway connection, no decent road, no direct flight and though over 70 000 Macedonians hold Bulgarian passports, the economic links between both countries will remain much less developed than the ones Macedonia has with Greece or Serbia.
Priority, priority on the wall
For the moment the biggest political dividend Borissov has managed to extract is the invitation to the Trieste Summit, after he convinced German Chancellor Angela Merkel that given the upcoming presidency and its priority, Bulgaria cannot be excluded. But his presence there will be only remembered with a couple of photo ops with fellow leaders, not with substantial ideas or contributions to the overall debate.
"I have to admit that this time Borissov managed to play his cards well with Merkel. But the question is whether it will be an accidental invitation or he will manage to make it a permanent participation," says a former Bulgarian foreign minister, who prefers not to be named. He recalls that Greece also succeeded once to be invited at a Berlin Process Summit but it all ended there. "This initiative was made up by Germany, France and Austria for their interests and companies. The whole thing is not so much geostrategic as economic. For years Sofia has been trying to be present at the table. If Borissov manages to get us in, it will really be a success. But the way to do it is to work together with Greece and Romania and I don't see this happening," notes the former foreign minister.
What Sofia could do during its six months in the spotlight is to work for a more categorical EU political engagement in the Western Balkans.
"There must be a strong re-confirmation of the European perspective for the region. Everybody knows that accession will not happen today or tomorrow. But it has to be clear there is no alternative. Russia has nothing to offer to these countries," says former Bulgarian foreign minister Ivailo Kalfin.
And since declarations are not enough, some concrete actions will be needed. "During the presidency, it is important to focus on one or two things and to move them forward - be it the dropping of roaming charges, the customs union or the infrastructure projects," says Vessela Cherneva, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) office in Sofia. Otherwise all will come down to photo-ops and Bulgaria's presidency will be forgotten right after the cameras and the politicians move to Austria, next in line of the rotating presidency.