Bulgaria and Poland – an episode in Warsaw’s push toward the Black Sea?

It is common knowledge that more than two decades ago the European continent was mainly divided between two rival geopolitical blocs – “Western”, mostly the EU and the North-Atlantic club, and “Eastern”, dominated militarily and economically by the USSR. This Eastern Bloc occupied a geographical space spreading from the flatland of the Great East European Plain along the Baltic coast in the north to the Black Sea shores in the south.

After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991, it took about a decade for the geopolitical texture of Eastern Europe to be completely refurbished.  The very concept of Eastern Europe disintegrated to be overtaken by reinvented and often overlapping terms like Central Europe, Central-Eastern Europe, South-Eastern Europe, the Balkans, post-Soviet space, etc.

Poland and Bulgaria have been two perfect examples of this reinvention phenomenon. Most Poles today would consider themselves part of Central Europe, not to be associated with the notorious Eastern Europe, a domain increasingly reserved for the ex-Soviet republics of Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus. Bulgaria, traditionally a core Balkan nation, has become a piece of South-Eastern Europe as the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s associated the term “Balkans” mostly with the lands of ex-Yugoslavia.

Both Poland and Bulgaria are NATO and EU member states today. The former joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004, while the latter did so in 2004 and 2007 respectively. In the grand scheme of things, Poland and Bulgaria are allies, members of the same military and political blocs. But on the ground, the actual active relations between Warsaw and Sofia have been minimal ever since the 1990s.

During the first decade after 1989, both countries resorted to dealing with internal affairs and had dozens of problems to solve with their economies and societies in the aftermath of the regime changes. The re-orientation of the Polish and Bulgarian societies and economies along market principles meant that it was easier to do business with the immediate neighboring markets, for example – Germany for Poland, Turkey for Bulgaria. The inefficient Comecon system, the common economic area of the USSR-associated states, made no more sense. Regional realities completely took over commercial activity. And where the money goes, politicians usually follow. Foreign policies were aligned in the direction of seeking western partners, old links were largely neglected.

In 2016, however, there are many indications that the regional dynamics in ex-Eastern Europe are again in motion. The 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula by the Russian Federation and the subsequent Russian-backed separatist insurrection in eastern Ukraine have stirred fairly forgotten geopolitical contemplation among policy-makers in Europe, and particularly in Warsaw. For a decade now, Poland has emerged as the champion among the EU’s new members, with a robust economy and growing industry.  It is the only new member state that more or less equals in population and territory some of the major EU founding members.  Romania has the territorial, but not yet the economic or demographic potential.

The Ukrainian crisis and growing nationalist and revanchist tendencies in Russia combined with a perceived lack of will to firmly resist Russian aggression in the Black Sea and Baltic regions on behalf of certain core EU members has made Poland look for alternative regional counterweights. Experts and politicians have revived the interwar concept, known as “Intermarium” (Międzymorze in Polish) – a geopolitical and military alliance spread between the Baltic , Black, and Adriatic Seas, which was to counter Bolshevik and Stalinist expansion in the 1920s and 1930s. To illustrate, a look at the map would show you that the territories of Poland, Romania, and Ukraine alone already constitute an “intermarium” in the geographic sense.

© jozefdarski.pl :Intermarium countries
© jozefdarski.pl :Intermarium countries

Increasing involvement in Bulgaria

Curiously enough, the past year has brought a couple of events showing that new links may have started to form between Sofia and Warsaw, a possible break with the traditional regional paradigms.

The current president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, has been in office since May 2015 and has talked of a project  resembling the “intermarium” as being his foreign policy goal. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary have already created a forum for regional cooperation, excluding so far military matters – the Visegrad Four (V4). However, the perceived strategy of Poland needs expanding beyond a land-locked Central Europe bloc. Moreover, it seems that neither of the other three V4 countries feels directly threatened by Russia and is willing to embark on a path towards open confrontation with Moscow at the time being.

For the first time in 13 years, on 18 April a Polish president – Andrzej Duda – was on a state visit to Sofia to meet his counterpart Rossen Plevneliev and Bulgaria’s prime minister Boiko Borissov. The heads of states discussed the options to expand business relations and deepen bilateral cooperation in the security sphere.  In a joint press conference Presidents Plevneliev and Duda called for Russia to give up its “aggressive actions” and “come back” to international order and stood by the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Prime minister Borissov noted that Poland is a “very important country” for Bulgaria and Sofia values the development of bilateral relations in the context of the EU and NATO. Other topics of discussion were cooperation in defense and security, trade and economic relations and opportunities to realize their full potential. Mr Borrisov added that Bulgaria “relies” on Poland to support “common interests”  in the field of energy security and in establishing the EU’s Energy Union.

President Duda said that his visit in Sofia is a “realization of the ABC format” – Adriatic, Baltic, Black Sea  (in Polish – Adriatyk, Bałtyk, Morze Czarne) – a project to  expand the transport and energy infrastructure in this large region.  Mr Duda also said “there is no doubt” that NATO must strengthen its eastern flank from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In a joint statement, Mr  Duda and Mr Plevneliev said that the forthcoming NATO summit in Warsaw in July is “crucial for the security of the countries of Eastern Europe”.  Mr Plevneliev stressed the need for increased NATO presence in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as conducting more joint exercises and drills.

Growing ties

In October 2015, Bulgaria signed a contract with two Polish companies to carry out repair works on six engines for the country’s Mig-29 fighter jets. Maintenance and supply for the Soviet-made military hardware was usually done by Russia’s RSK MiG, but in September 2015 the contract ran its course. The price of the Polish contracts was EUR 6.1 million and reports said it was lower than what the Russian company had offered, although a figure was never made public.  Bulgaria’s defense minister Nikolay Nenchev said the new contract would be about EUR 12 million cheaper. In December 2015, Poland delivered two spare Mig-29 engines to Bulgaria to be used while repairs on the other six engines will be ongoing. At the end of March, the Bulgarian government approved a EUR 1.2 billion program aiming to modernize its ageing armed forces. During Mr Nenchev’s working visit to Warsaw in February 2015, the then-minister of defense of Poland, Tomasz Siemoniak, said Bulgaria was interested in Poland’s experience with military reforms, drill programs, and equipment and military hardware. We could only speculate whether President Duda’s would have expressed Poland’s interest in Sofia’s rearmament program while meeting his Bulgarian counterpart behind closed doors yesterday.

Bulgarian Mig-29
Bulgarian Mig-29

All these military developments come on the background of increased economic ties between Warsaw and Sofia. A statement by Bulgaria’s Presidential Office said that trade exchanges between the two countries have doubled over the past five years, from EUR 670 million in 2010 to EUR 1.3 billion in 2015. Bulgaria is also traditional destination for Polish tourists as last year 260,000 Polish tourists visited Bulgarian resorts, the statement said.  Statistical data from Bulgaria’s National Statistics Institute confirms the figures and also shows that the trade exchange is more or less balanced, with imports from Poland slightly exceeding exports for the same period. For example, the trade data for 2015 shows that imports and exports from and to Poland are at about the same level as those with the Netherlands, a traditional investor and trade partner for Bulgaria. Tourist visits from Poland have increased with 7% in 2014 and 3.2% in 2015. In 2015, Poland occupied the 8th spot in the top 10 ranking for most important tourist markets for Bulgaria. In January 2016, the Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism said it expects a 40% increase in the number of Poles visiting Bulgaria in 2016. Major Bulgarian cities like the capital Sofia and Varna on the Black Sea coast have purchased Polish-made trams and buses for their public transport systems. According to media reports, the total figure of the purchase is valued at about EUR 90 million*. Finally, for those observers careful enough to notice, apart from the gross figures, a couple of visits at Bulgarian supermarkets will show the large number of Polish-made goods available for sale.

Another point of attention when it comes to Poland’s Black Sea policy vector is the grand infrastructure project called “Via Carpatia”, a network of highways and railways to connect the Baltic with the Black and Aegean Seas. In March 2016, at an international conference in Warsaw government representatives from Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey , Hungary and Ukraine signed a declaration on promoting the construction of the new transport route. Bulgaria was not a signatory to the document, but a Polish government spokesman was reported by Polish media as saying that Bulgaria supported the project and would “join it in the future”. The statements by Presidents Duda and Plevneliev made yesterday do touch upon the development of trans-border links and infrastructure.

Via Carpatia project
©Gazeta Wyborcza: Via Carpatia project

Finally, as a cultural teaser, on 3 March this year, on the occasion of Bulgaria’s main national holiday, the Polish embassy in Sofia released in all social media a video, in which Polish diplomats were citing national poetry in Bulgarian language. The video message was intended as a commemorative address to congratulate Bulgarians for their national day. A minor event, but yet something that has never happened in the past and could be taken as a sign for Poland’s increased interest in “courting” Bulgarians. The short message did receive large acclaim. Keep also in mind that on 3 March each year Bulgarians commemorate their hard-won independence from the Ottoman Empire, brought by a Russian victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, a fact that traditionally reserves this day for visits by Russian dignitaries.

Wider geopolitics

Getting back on topic, the wider geopolitical concept which Warsaw is trying to develop does not integrally depend on Bulgaria. The Balkan country is certainly a piece in the puzzle. A large potential trade and security partner in the Black Sea region and possibly the Mediterranean is Turkey. After its clash with Russia over Syria and eventually, most recently, the Caucasus, Ankara has potentially become attractive for Poland’s strategy to counterweight Russian expansion. Romania and Bulgaria are on the “geopolitical path” to Turkey, which could be seen as the high prize. At the same time, Warsaw is looking for partners outside NATO – Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova. The Intermarium  can thus be an overarching security space not subjected solely to NATO. Andreas Umland, a German politologist, wrote in a recent article that chances of countries like Georgia and Ukraine receiving full NATO membership are slight. Therefore, Poland and other Central and East European states must look for alternative security structures for the Wider Baltic and Black Sea regions.

The issue of migration provoked several efforts to expand the format of the V4 cooperation process. In February, 2016 Bulgaria and Macedonia attended a V4 meeting in Prague to discuss migration. In June 2015, the V4 countries, Bulgaria and Romania signed a cooperation agreement on regional development and planning. But as mentioned earlier in this text, this all stops short of building a major political bloc.

It is still rather early to speculate on any actual materialization of a project like Intermarium. It would possibly remain more or less conceptual. It certainly has its critics as well. Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist, has called the project “the dream of Intermarium” and has warned that Poland’s economic and demographic potential is insufficient for the successful implementation of such ambitious geopolitical project.

He may have a point and may be we should not be referring to the Intermarium as a concrete project with a timeline and set goals. However, it is obvious that Poland is taking a more active role to expand its reach outside its immediate neighborhood, a policy still in its infancy, but certainly worth keeping an eye on  for the future. It’s a bout time new EU member states realized that they should not be mere subjects of events in their shared neighborhood.


*Press reports (Bulgarian): here and here