|H.E. Stephan Tafrov|
Ambassador and Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of Bulgaria to the UN
|Intergovernmental Relations among Balkan Nations and the European Union||02/ 26/ 2014|
I am much honored to be here, it is a great occasion, and I hope we will have other occasions as well. It is a very broad subject, which I really love because you have chosen the key to look at the Balkans through the perspective of European integration. The EU is the best thing that has happened to Europe in its century. Balkans, as part of the Europe, is not different from the rest of the continent.
In our part of Europe, we can feel the benefits of what we call the transformative power of the European integration. It is mainly a network of bilateral historic reconciliation; the model of which goes back to the Franco-German reconciliation. The two countries which made war to each other, twice in the 20th century and also after the II World War, decided to give an end to wars and they, with others, decided to start the European integration. I think what has been happening in the Balkans in the aftermath of the Cold War has a similar process. What happens is bilateral and multilateral reconciliations and reproachments among Balkan nations.
Speaking for Bulgaria, I have to say that one of the worst crimes of communism was the prosecution of Turkish minority in Bulgaria in the 80s. The communist regime, which was already feeling its end because of the changes in the Soviet Union and so on, began prosecutions of the Turks, who constituted 8% of the Bulgarian citizens, and who had been actually very loyal citizens of Bulgaria. Suddenly, the communist regime thought its legitimacy was coming to an end, and decided to turn to nationalism and began prosecuting the Turks in Bulgaria and changing forcefully their names from Turkish into Bulgarian. It was a disgusting period of our history. It was actually an attempt of ethnic discrimination. Most of the Turks who didn’t feel safe in Bulgaria had to go to Turkey. At the time, I signed petitions against the prosecutions of the Turks and of course most part of the nation, and the Bulgarian intellectuals didn’t accept this. And after the fall of the regime, the first thing democratic Bulgaria did was to restore the rights of the Bulgarian citizens of Turkish origin.
Actually what happened after the collapse of Yugoslavia, -all those ethnic discriminations the practices of Milosevic- had been already tried in Bulgaria by the communist regime. The fact that we stopped that on time in 1990, didn’t allow Bulgaria to get really engulfed to this tragedy and bloody disintegration of former Yugoslavia. Because at the beginning of the 90’s Bulgarians had been already disgusted by extreme nationalism and had seen the very negative aspects of it. So it was much less tempting for Bulgaria to join the negative trends in former Yugoslavia. That’s why we stayed away from them and it was our great success. We stayed away and chose the path of European integration and of course Atlantic integration. I have to say that on our path to join NATO for instance, which is the guarantor for national security, we were greatly helped by two other southern Balkan neighbors; Turkey and Greece. Turkey even voted for us, obliging every government to support Bulgaria and Romania to become members of NATO, which was a very important help for us at that particular moment and which we will never forget.
And since then, we have been improving our relations with all our neighbors, especially with Turkey, with whom our relations had worsened a lot due to what happened in the 80’s. As a diplomat, I’ve been part of this process, I have experienced many emotional moments I remember, and I was accompanying the then Bulgarian president’s official visit in Turkey. In the Turkish parliament he apologized on behalf of Bulgaria for what happened in the 80’s and it was really a very emotional moment.
Truth is always the sound basis of bilateral relations. I’ve given the example of Bulgarian-Turkish relations but I can give examples of other countries in the region. Since the fall of the Berlin wall and beginning of the democratic change, our target has been to encourage the right of the Balkan people for self-determination first, and second, their right to join NATO and the European Union, if they decide to. And this is the basis of our foreign policy. In 92, Bulgaria recognized the four former Yugoslav republics; Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republic of Macedonia. And by the way, Bulgaria was the first country in the world to recognize both Republic of Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as independent states. And history proved us to be right; because those countries are now independent, democratic and are on their path to the European integration. As we became a member state of the EU in 2007, we have been trying to help both countries to achieve their goal. I think this very positive trend on our part of the EU should be recognized and we should talk more about it.
We have to realize that we, the Balkan people, the Turks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Greeks, Macedonians, and Bosnians and so on, need to fight negative stereotypes in Europe and in the world about the Balkans and about the region, which is being showed as a source of war, source of instability and so on and so forth. This is not true. It becomes true when we allow our elites, and I gave the example of the communist regime in Bulgaria in the 80’s, to manipulate our public to nationalism, to hatred against our neighbors. The movement citizens themselves, all of us -ordinary Balkan people, take their destiny in hand, and elect democratically their leaders; there is no normal person that would be for the war and be for the fight against neighbors. This is a thing left in the past. From that point of view, our region, our part of Europe, is already part of the European integration.
I think we have been doing our homework very successfully. Of course there is still much to do in the Balkans. And that’s why I like such initiatives and platforms like this panel and organizations like Peace Islands Institute because this is exactly what we should do. We should know more about each other. I have to say that there have been too many prejudices against each other, and too much misinformation and lack of interest.
I also want to mention these infrastructure delays in the Balkans. For instance in Bulgaria, we are facing the infrastructure stops somewhere between our western border (we border two countries; Serbia and Macedonia), where the development of the highway stopped. This is the main thing that has to be improved. By the way, between Bulgaria and Turkey things are much improving and we are about to finish the last part of the highway that would connect us to the Turkish border. So we can drive from Istanbul to Sofia on a highway within two months or so. Governments should be dealing exactly with these things and work on infrastructure, on economy, culture and also to facilitate the contact among people. At diplomatic level, my view is that there is a great progress and continuity.
Of course there are still some problems in the region that has to be solved. And one of the main problems is the fact that not all Balkan countries have recognized the country of Kosovo, which is unfortunate and which, on my view, is an impediment for Serbia for its own European integration. This is bad for the Serbs themselves, and this has to be solved so that Kosovo can entirely join every international organization such as the United Nations also and so that relations among Balkan people can be normalized.
Last but not least, I think it is very important that our nations and governments have to work against prejudices that still exist. We have to face this. For instance, I believe something has to be done about how history is being thought in our schools. If you open a Bulgarian, Turkish, or let’s say Serbian history textbook, you wouldn’t recognize the same period of history. We have to fix this. We are talking about the European integration; how did French and Germans come to reconcile? The two countries had a very successful youth exchange for long years. They had a commission of the two educational ministries which worked in collaboration to build the same perspective on history. I am eager to see this happen in the Balkans too. I believe the whole richness of the historic periods should be taught in the right way.
I would like to conclude my speech indicating that our nation of interest is to see the whole region, including Albania, Macedonia, with whom our governments are now negotiating on signing bilateral treaties, Serbia and of course Kosovo, Bosnia, as members of the EU.