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Warsaw pivots to the Black Sea

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

April 28, 2016 - Kamen Kraev - Articles and Commentary

duda bulgaria

Photo by Kancelaria Prezydenta RP (via Twitter)

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 realigned. The very concept of Eastern Europe seems to have disintegrated and then reinterpreted, in 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.

Today, Poland and Bulgaria are members of both NATO and the European Union. Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004, while Bulgaria did the same 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 relationship between Warsaw and Sofia has been minimal since the 1990s.

During the first decade after 1989, both countries resorted to dealing with internal affairs and had many problems to solve within their own economies and societies in the aftermath of communist rule. The re-orientation of both the Polish and Bulgarian societies and economies along market principles meant that it was easier to do business with the immediate neighbouring markets, for example – Germany for Poland and Turkey for Bulgaria. The inefficient Comecon system, the common economic area of the Soviet bloc, had collapsed. 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 countries 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 old memories and changed the geopolitical position among many policy-makers in Europe. This is particularly true in Warsaw. For a decade now, Poland has emerged as the champion among the EU’s new member states, with a robust economy and industrial growth. It is the only new member state that more or less equals in population and territory some of the major EU founding members.  Romania matches territorially, but does not compare yet economically nor demographically.

The Ukrainian crisis and growing fears of Russian actions, combined with an awareness that certain core EU members may not firmly resist Russian aggression in the Black Sea and Baltic regions, has led Poland to look for an alternative regional counterweight. 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.

Increased 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 paradigm.

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 – in the Visegrad Four (V4). However, the strategy of Poland needs to look beyond the land-locked Central Europe bloc. Moreover, it seems that neither of the other three V4 countries feel as directly threatened by Russia and are willing to embark on a path towards an open confrontation with Moscow at the moment.

For the first time in 13 years, on April 18th 2016, Polish President Andrzej Duda made a state visit to Sofia to meet his counterpart – Rossen Plevneliev and Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borissov. The heads of state discussed options to expand economic relations and deepen bilateral security. In a joint press conference, Presidents Plevneliev and Duda called for Russia to give up its “aggressive actions” and “come back” to the international order standing up for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

President Duda said that his visit in Sofia is a “realisation of the ABC format” – Adriatic, Baltic, Black Sea (in Polish – Adriatyk, Bałtyk, Morze Czarne) – a project to expand the transport and energy infrastructure of this large region. 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, Duda and Plevneliev said that the forthcoming NATO summit in Warsaw in July is “crucial for the security of Eastern Europe”. Plevneliev stressed the need for an 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 work 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 had run its course. The price of the Polish contracts was 6.1 million euros and reports said it was lower than what the Russian company had offered, although a definitive figure was never made public.  Bulgaria’s defence minister, Nikolay Nenchev, said the new contract would be about 12 million euros cheaper.

In December 2015 Poland delivered two spare Mig-29 engines to Bulgaria to be used while repairs on the other six engines were ongoing. At the end of March, the Bulgarian government approved a 1.2 billion euro programme aimed at modernising its aging armed forces. During Nenchev’s working visit to Warsaw in February 2015, the then-minister of defence of Poland, Tomasz Siemoniak, said Bulgaria was interested in Poland’s experience with military reforms, drills and military equipment. There can only be speculation on whether President Duda expressed Poland’s interest in Sofia’s rearmament program, while meeting his Bulgarian counterpart behind closed doors.

All these military developments come with 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 670 million euros in 2010 to 1.3 billion euros in 2015. Bulgaria is also a traditional destination for Polish tourists, as last year 260,000 Polish tourists visited Bulgarian resorts. 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 from the same period.

Major Bulgarian cities like the capital of 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 90 million euros. Finally, for those observers careful enough to notice, apart from the gross figures, a couple of visits to Bulgarian supermarkets will showcase the large amount of Polish-made goods available.

Another point of attention when it comes to Poland’s Black Sea policy 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 for promoting the construction of a 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 have touched upon the development of trans-border links and infrastructure.

Wider geopolitics

The wider geopolitical concept that Warsaw is trying to develop does not integrally depend on Bulgaria. The Balkan country is certainly a piece of a larger puzzle. A beneficial potential trade and security partner in the Black Sea region, and possibly the Mediterranean, is also Turkey. After its clash with Russia over Syria, and most recently in the Caucasus region, Ankara has potentially become attractive for Poland’s strategy in counterweighting Russia.

Romania and Bulgaria are on the “geopolitical path” to Turkey, which could be seen as the higher prize. At the same time, Warsaw is looking for partners outside NATO – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The Intermarium can then be an overarching security space not subjected solely to NATO. Andreas Umland, a German political scientist wrote in a recent article that the 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 V4 cooperation process. In February 2016 Bulgaria and Macedonia attended a V4 meeting in Prague to discuss migration. In June 2015 the V4 countries along with Bulgaria and Romania signed a co-operation agreement on regional development and planning. But this does stop short of building a major political bloc.

It is still rather early to speculate on any actual materialisation 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 an ambitious geopolitical project.

He may have a valid point and maybe reference to the Intermarium as a concrete project with a timeline and set goals is premature. 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 in the future. It is an indication that the newer EU eastern member states are taking some initiative to developments that effect their region. 

Kamen Kraev is the founder of Vox Orientalis, a blog aiming to express views and opinions on a wide variety of topics concerning the “East of Europe” and its periphery.


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