The first full day in office of Bulgaria’s new Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov dawned six months and a day after Boiko Borissov’s Government took office.
Mladenov spent those months at the Defence Ministry which, while it like all other ministries had been hard-hit by budget cuts, did not find its chief lacking initiative. It is unlikely, however, that vested interests around that ministry would have liked all of Mladenov’s initiatives.
Not only are two of his predecessors under formal investigation, with at least one set for a reappearance in court, and not only did a certain pink BMW make headlines, but there was a general scouring through the ministry to try to root out dubious dealings. It is little wonder that on July 27, Borissov publicly ordered Mladenov’s successor, General Anyu Angelov, with leading the charge to continue reform of Bulgaria’s defence arm.
Across at the Foreign Ministry, it has not been a quiet six months, however much leadership has fallen by default mainly to the ministry’s three deputies – one of whom, Krassimir Kostov, did not survive the first six months after the revelation by the Dossier Commission linking him to Bulgaria’s communist-era secret services led to Kostov quitting office.
On the foreign front, there were plenty of events affecting Bulgaria either directly or because of the neighbourhood in which it finds itself.
Elsewhere in South Eastern Europe, Schengen visa requirements for citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro were lifted; Armenia and Turkey moved towards rapprochement; Croatia’s progress towards European Union membership was restarted; and the respective thorny bilateral issues between, respectively, Greece and Turkey, and Greece and Macedonia continued, as did attempts to resolve the Cyprus imbroglio.
At EU level, the Lisbon Treaty was approved, and the process of selecting a new European Commission got underway which, for reasons not worth dwelling on here, set in train the events that led to Mladenov becoming Foreign Minister.
Matters directly affecting Bulgaria included the unblocking of significant Phare, Ispa and Sapard funds, and an agreement to increase EU compensation for Bulgaria for the shutting down of units of the Kozloduy nuclear power station when the country joined the EU in 2007.
There were the controversies and unforeseen incidents that directly affected Bulgaria’s foreign affairs: the Spaska Mitrova case, the Ilinden ship sinking in Macedonia, the arrests at the Bulgarian Industrial Centre in Moscow on charges of alleged manufacture of illegal discs – and, of course, the episodes in which Bozhidar Dimitrov, minister for Bulgarians abroad, unleashed controversy with comments about, respectively, Macedonia and Turkey.
In all of these last-mentioned events, the difficulties were hardly handled solely (or at all) by the Foreign Ministry; more often than not, it was clear that Prime Minister Borissov took the leadership.
A Deputy Foreign Minister was also not the only appointment shed; allegations about irregularities during voting abroad in the July 2009 elections saw Bulgaria’s ambassadors in Turkey and the United States step down.
Mladenov inherits a ministry that will require a new dynamism and serious reform, as well as an entirely new vision for professionalisation and career development of the country’s diplomats.
And that is not the least task; in several areas, Bulgaria’s foreign policies remain to be clearly articulated (given his academic background and his experience so far, expectations are high that Mladenov will be well-placed to do this).
Against this background, Mladenov’s brief sketch to journalists of his priorities – brief because he was rushing to catch an aircraft to London to discuss Afghanistan – are illuminating.
Mladenov, speaking on arrival at the Foreign Ministry on July 27, said that he would be paying special attention to Bulgaria’s policy in South Eastern Europe (cynics might point out that this might produce some firsts, because recent years have not seen much clarity and detail about just what these policies are, beyond platitudes about stability and the EU prospects of Western Balkans states).
He also identified Bulgaria’s aspirations towards membership of the Schengen visa and euro zones, task which will require careful co-ordination with, among others, his colleagues at the Interior, Finance and Economy ministries.
He promised, in effect, a style strongly based on dialogue and consultation within his own ministry and with his colleagues elsewhere in Government – spelling out that foreign policies cannot succeed without being accompanied by successful domestic policies.
Mladenov told his audience to expect to see more inter-agency co-operation, hinting that this would be helped by improved resources and capacity for other departments such as Economy and Defence.
Nothing is likely to prove him wrong in his prediction that there would be a lot of work to do on energy issues, nor that Bulgarian institutions will have to work together to build the EU’s confidence in Bulgaria – along with expediting the use of EU funds in the country.
On a realistic note, Mladenov said that his Foreign Ministry would not work in a vacuum on these issues, but as part of cross-departmental efforts.
The difference that raises hopes is Mladenov’s promise of a Foreign Ministry that will work with clear and focused priorities.
Could Bulgaria play a constructive role, say, in the Serbia - Kosovo impasse? Possibly, if it can articulate a useful strategy, and this issue is also one that illustrates quite how lame the "position" of Bulgaria has been questioned about a number of issues, when Sofia's response has tended to be that its position is that of the EU - even when the EU has no single position.
Could we at last see Bulgaria come up with a coherent and long-term outlook on the Middle East? With Mladenov's intellectual capacity, yes; and while it may be that Bulgaria may hardly be called on to play any meaningful role on an issue that has defied the efforts of vastly more powerful players, it is as well that Bulgaria does produce a proper policy; it is, after all, a Nato and EU member state, and must have something to guide its way and inform its voice.
Yes, it is true that the best thing for everyone's sake that Bulgaria could do is to get its mafia thugs convicted and sent to jail for the longest time possible; but it also needs a mind and a voice that will build a role for the country in the EU, and by extension, lend weight to the right-hand-side of the EU map as, in the years immediately before us, issues such as EU expansion become ever more pressing.