We know each other well, we are brothers!
On the 1st of January, Bulgaria took over the EU presidency for 6 months. Since it is the Balkan country, economically and culturally similar to other Balkan EU candidates, the main priority for Bulgaria is pushing the accession agenda. And nobody knows our problems better than Bulgaria. We talked to H. E. Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria in Belgrade.
Having in mind that Bulgaria has become the presiding member of the EU since the 1st January, it is logical that the stability of the Balkans will be one of the top priorities of the agenda?
I totally agree with you. There was nothing more logical than to transform Bulgaria’s decades of stability for the Balkans into an accent of the six months of our first Presidency and in a lasting commitment of the EU. In this way, we are implementing a Balkan Presidency. The very formulation of the priority – the perspective and connectivity of the Western Balkans – implies a wider decipherment. We are working for a stable, secure and solidarity Europe. And this can only happen with the further integration of the Western Balkan countries. And notice: the benefit of this is for everyone. For us in the EU – all over Europe will be both geographically and politically united. For Serbia and other countries in the region – you are implementing reforms that modernize your countries and societies and become part of Europe’s most successful model of development. And I repeat – at the end of this process, Europe will be even more stable, secure and solidary.
The Balkans have always been a source of conflict over the centuries. Often they have created problems for the whole of Europe. We believe that the last few years have given the region a completely different perspective. Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, let’s also add the bordering Italy, Austria and Hungary to the Balkans, we are members of the European Union. And that makes us much more stable, secure and solidary. If we look at the map of this part of Europe and immediately see that the most logical is that the Western Balkan countries are also part of us, from a united Europe. And finally stop looking at the Balkans as Europe’s “gunfire”. In the first half of this year, the motto of Bulgaria is also the EU’s motto: “United we stand strong” – the message from the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union to Serbia and other countries of the Western Balkans cannot be clearer!
Over the past months, you have witnessed that gradually the topic of the perspective of the countries of the Western Balkans is one of the central topics, even in Serbia. With a huge satisfaction I welcomed the news from the mid-January, that the support of the citizens of Serbia for the EU for the last six months increased from 48% to 52%. Increase of 4% for six months! A very good results! It is logical that the further increase is the main priority of the Bulgarian Presidency.
The support of the public opinion is key to the pro-European and pro-reform politicians in Serbia. Only with the support of the citizens of Serbia, the President Aleksandar Vučić, PM Ana Brnabić, her ministers, the entire negotiating team of Serbia and the European Union will continue to fulfill the basic priority – the membership of Serbia in the EU. From my experience in Bulgaria, I know that the path of reforms is painful for the citizens. But you have to believe that your politicians are doing the reforms not simply because of Bruxelles, you have to believe it, they are done for the citizens of Serbia to live much better.
Over the centuries, regardless of the history of the history, the Serb people have carried and stored the heart of the European spirit. I am convinced that this European spirit, which is compatible with the tradition of fighting for stability and determination to keep its goals, will be the keys to the successful completion of the negotiating process and the future membership of Serbia in the EU.
Do you think that the accession of the Western Balkan states is feasible untile 2025, as Jean-Claude Juncker suggested?
The year mentioned by the Mr Juncker is indicative. It is clear that to some candidate countries this year will be proved to be unattainable. You know that not all states from the Western Balkans have begun to negotiate. And the vice versa. In the case of vigorous reform, in a speedy process, it is possible for the criteria to be covered both earlier and correspondingly to extend the membership a year or two earlier. The different hypotheses are possible. The basic is that there is no compromise with the criteria. In this way, it is all in the hands of the candidate countries. The statement of the President of the EC Juncker from September 2017 is crucial. This is also the result of our enormous impact on the return of the issue of enlargement to the agenda of the Union. Commenting on concrete data is an important motive for the negotiating countries. Often, I have often heard from the Serbian politicians how important it is to look at the deadlines. And in that sense, we are very much satisfied with the concrete approach.
Over the next few months, there will be a series of events which will be an important indicator of the course of Serbia’s accession to the EU. A few days ago, the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Taiani visited Belgrade. It is already a fact that there is the Strategy for Serbia and Montenegro as the leading candidates for EU membership. This is an unprecedented document that proves the special attention to your state. It is worth mentioning that it is introducing a special visit to the Serbian politicians of the Commissioner for the EU Enlargement, Mr Hahn. The upcoming weeks will see the visit of the EC President Jean-Claude Juncker. In April we expect a report of Serbia accession process.
It is being understood that I want to give special attention to the high-level meeting of the leaders of the European institutions and of the Member States with the leaders of the countries of the Western Balkans. On May 17, in Sofia, the new history of the region, and Europe, is likely to be written. Our position is that Serbia and other candidates from the region are to be regarded as part of the EU form now on. Therefore, apart from the high-level meetings, we have invited your ministers and parliamentarians to participate in the Council on sectoral issues. These intense contacts are very important for building beliefs and trust.
During our presidency, we are actively and more pragmatically working on questions for all citizens of Serbia and other countries of the Western Balkans, without waiting for 2025. Priority is the popularization of the EU’s digital policies in the Western Balkans. Bulgaria gave an example of this by signing a Memorandum of Understanding on reducing international roaming fees with Serbia and the Republic of Macedonia. This, which we seek as the ultimate goal, translated on a very understandable language, is that every citizen of Serbia, as well as a citizen of a country in the Western Balkans, can make a phone call to any EU conutry by the price valid in Serbia and so that they will feel as a part of the European space.
Way before 2025 Serbia has already participated and will continue to take part in a joint fight against terrorism, the migrant crisis, serious challenges to the EU and to humanity. This co-operation is very important for building administrative capacity, trust, that Serbia is a trustworthy partner.
Bulgaria and Romania entered in 2007, during the final phase of the „Big Bang“. Are you satisfied 11 years later?
Of course! I think that there is no sane person in Bulgaria, who is going to be reluctant whether the EU membership is good or not. If here and there we have some Euroskeptics, it’s because of the external, anti-European impact. It is not a secret that some Eurosceptics are financed directly from the anti-European structures.
We have a proverb – “You can easily be adjusted to the good.” It’s been about 11 years and that lots of people have forgotten how life in Bulgaria has been radically changed. And the economic indicators for this change speak for themselves. At the beginning of the changes in 1989 between us and the countries of the European Union thare was a huge gap and comparisons could not be made. In 2007 when we became an EU member, we were able to compare – the GDP per capita in Bulgaria was 41% of the EU average. And today is a little over 49% with a lot of persistent growth tendency. With its accession to the EU, Bulgaria is a part of one of the largest markets in the world – the single market, with 500m European Citizens. Billions were invested by the EC for the modernisation of the Bulgarian regions and infrastructure. The stability and the predictability provided by the standards and rules of the EU created favourable conditions for the increase of both foreign investments in the Bulgarian economy and the permanent increase in the number of newly created jobs.
The membership in the EC brought Bulgaria far more than the concrete economic benefits. This is reflected in the political, social and human plan of the Bulgarian citizens. Every day the Bulgarians feels as European. Europe is part of everyday life. Little Bulgaria is an equal participant in the debate and solutions for the future of our continent. At the same time, not only in the 6 months of the Presidency, but in the course of time. Because such are democratic rules of our Union.
The advantages that the membership of the EU gives to all of its citizens, have become evident to the Bulgarians and the assessment of the Bulgarian citizens of these advantages is excellent. Many more Bulgarians support the membership of the country in the EU than in the first years of 2007. At the same time, the public trust in the European institutions in Bulgaria remains at a very high level.
Is it true that every year the conditions for EU membership are hasrher and sticter, so Serbia will have to face tougher criteria than Bulgaria?
The countries of any next enlargment of the EU think that more and more pre-requisites are placed in front of them, than in the previous case. This was also the case with Bulgaria and Romania, for which first monitoring was established in the judiciary, in contrast to the group of countries of the previous enlargement. Similar was the situation with the enlargement of Croatia, which also carried out laborious negotiations, after the negotiating process with the EU was blocked for the years from Slovenia.
I do not think that similar comparisons are possible. The global and regional conditions are changing. We are facing new challenges, and there are problems within the EU itself. The implementation of the law is a very important area, but there is already a lot of attention and good-neighborly relations, the resolution of the unresolved bilateral issues, and regional cooperation, which contributes significantly to the process of reconciliation in the context of the region. Bulgaria has also travelled a complex path and responded to difficult requirements, did necessary compromise, to become an EU member. This is why we clearly understand Serbia and other countries. Therefore, we have put a lot of effort into contributing to the enlargement of the EU with the Western Balkans to become a fundamental issue in the EU agenda. That is why I want to help Western Balkan countries with all the possible on their way to Europe. This, which can be captured by the time of the Bulgarian Presidency, is not easy at all. As it was not easy to reach agreement, this focus should be on the accent of our Presidency. It’s true, however, that it will be beneficial to the region.
How do you estimate Serbian-Bulgarian relations, since during the last 150 years there have been many unfortunate events, so the tow incredibly close nations don’t exactly know or understand each other?
The question is very complex. I can partially agree with it, but partially – no! As a man who respects the significance of numbers, I take into account the mentioned 150 years. This has been around 1868. A little before this, the First and Second Bulgarian Legions were established in Belgrade. And even before that, Bulgarian volunteers actively participated in the liberation of the Serbs. Today in the park “Tašmajdan” has a modest monument to the heroes of Bulgaria and Serbia Vasil Levski and Georgi Rakovski. Or, until the second half of the 19th century, the Bulgarians and the Serbs were together. We had a joint participation in the past, we were looking forward to the future.
And then the turn-tide of the destiny begins. The Russian-Turkish War and the Berlin Congress with the points that diverge the interests of Serbia and Bulgaria. The first open conflict, the beginning of a row of others, was the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885, when Serbia attacked Bulgaria. This war is known in us as the “Brother-killing War”. “Brother-killing“! I hope you understand my emotion. Bulgarians and Serbs are brothers. „Brother-killing“!
Above Dimitrovgrad, or Caribrod, as it is said by the locals, the Neškov Vrh Peak looms. On this top there is a unique ossuary, built in 1887. In the ossuary, the remains of the killed Bulgarian and Serbian soldiers were placed. Remember – 1887! Only two years after a bloodshed. The bones of the killed Bulgarians and Serbs were collected and buried together. The ossuary is the natural place for repentance and reconciliation of Bulgarians are Serbs. And it’s tough when you look at the board with an inscription in the Bulgarian and Serbian languages – “In the memory of the victims of the brother-killing war.”
I am particularly pleased that, in 2017, the Bulgarian Vice-President Iliyana Yotova and the Secretary General of the President Aleksandar Vučić, Nikola Selaković, and several days later the Deputy Prime-Ministers of Bulgaria and Serbia Valeri Simeonov and Rasim Ljajić laid flowers and revived the memory of the giants of the Bulgarians and the Serbs. With this sign we show that were already on the path of the European approach to tolerance, the cancellation of the hate speech, the striving for unification. For those laid down there, the wreaths have huge value and they are investment in the future.
When on 8 September 2016 I presented the letters of credentials to the then–President of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolić, I stated that the prejudice towards my country and my people would be eradicated. And I’m actively working on this. This ends the answer to the part of your question about misunderstanding. Quite briefly about the part of your question that we do not know each other. We know each other, well! It cannot be otherwise with these similar tongues and traditions, our common religion, the similar cuisine, our similar jokes and indecent words that we sometimes use. That is why, if someone still has prejudices in their heads and rumbled from the past, it is high time to leave them to the historians. And I become a daily witness of friendly relations between modern Bulgarians and Serbs. And that makes me happy.
Otherwise, if as a diplomat I have to appreciate our relationship – it is excellent! Excellent political dialogue, active work on connectivity in the economy, transport and energy, cooperation in the context of European integration, joint cross-border projects, projects under the Bulgarian Development Cooperation Programme and so on. Another important place in this respect is the protection of the rights of the Bulgarian national minority in Serbia.
What can we do to bring our peoples close, apart from the obvious, like city break tourism and Black Sea coast or ski tourism?
Wonderful question and my favourite theme. Few figures. In 2017, tourists continued to grow in both countries. For the period January – October 2017, Bulgaria was visited by 331,484 Serbian tourists, which is 4.4% more than the same period in 2016. Serbian tourists are eighth among foreigners visiting Bulgaria. At the same time, Serbia is in 4th place as the preferred tourist destination for Bulgarian citizens. In the first ten months of 2017, our western neighbour was visited by 398,283 of our compatriots, which is 14.1% more than the same period in 2016.
Dry figures speak to the experts. But they cannot tranfer the emotions of the hotels full of Bulgarian tourists every weekend from the Bulgarian border to Niš. Nor the fact that for the New Year’s Eve the most numerous tourists in Belgrade and throughout Serbia are Bulgarians. And they remain very pleased with everything – food, service, music. We are working actively for Serbian tourists to discover that Bulgaria is not just a sea and ski resorts. Bulgaria has a very developed tourist infrastructure. We want to share it with our Serb friends.
The importance that we attribute to tourism is also mentioned by the fact that Bulgaria’s Minister of Tourism Nikolina Angelkova and Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia Rasim Ljajić are just about to sign a Memorandum of cooperation in the field of tourism between the two countries.