Bulgaria's participation in the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe was brought into question last week after Assen Agov, head of the parliamentary committee for foreign and integration policy made a shocking announcement. Agov said that if Bulgaria were not removed from the European Union's Schengen blacklist, it would re-examine its membership in the pact.
Furthermore, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Peter Jotev threatened that Bulgaria would re-impose a visa regime on citizens of the European Union if Bulgarians were not granted a visa-free way to travel to the West.
According to the press, the government is holding discussions on whether to freeze last year's agreement with the EU on the early closure of the Kozlodoui nuclear power plant.
In protest over Agov's statements, National Stability Pact Coordinator Nikola Karadimov resigned his post. The move received significant backing from governmental officials. In turn, opposition parties took advantage of the opportunity to criticize the government for its failure to lift visa requirements.
These developments have raised many questions in Bulgarian society. Many have been left wondering how, if at all, society benefits from the pact; why Bulgarians are unwanted travellers in Europe, given the fact that their country is negotiating membership in the EU; and what the connection is between Bulgaria and the two organisations. Moreover, last week Bulgarians were confronted once again with the unwritten postulate that "no one in the civilized world wants us."
During a meeting on 30 November—1 December, the EU Council of Ministers of Justice and Interior Affairs will decide whether to grant Bulgarians and Romanians a visa-free regime for short-term travel in the countries of the Schengen Agreement. The European Commission and the European Parliament voted earlier in the year for the lifting of visa restrictions.
Bulgaria and Romania are the only countries negotiating for accession whose citizens are subject to a visa regime. Even some countries that haven't yet reached a Stabilization and Association Agreement, such as Croatia, are exempt from this complicated procedure of obtaining permission to travel in Europe. Even if the Council of Ministers decide to put Bulgaria onto the "white" list, Bulgarians will have to wait until every national parliament of the EU member countries ratifies the agreement.
On 28 September, Bulgaria received the first negative signal from Brussels that the de facto lifting of the visa regime won't happen overnight. The Council of Justice and Interior Minister then gathered to discuss the issue but failed to reach an agreement.
The ministers approved the principle that visas should be lifted, but said there should be a monitoring procedure to make sure both countries would not become gateways for possible waves of immigrants from third countries. It remained unclear, however, how this monitoring would be put into practice. Well-informed sources then reported that the ministers had discussed a compromise solution, in which both countries would be removed from the negative list, but their citizens would still need visas for travelling in the countries of the EU.
The humiliating visa regime
If Bulgarians want to travel in Europe, they need to obtain a visa. This means that their host in the relevant country has to send an official letter of invitation, stamped and sealed by the city hall of the desired location. Depending on the embassy's requirements, the host may also need to send their personal pay slips from the last three months.
When the Bulgarian tourists receive their invitations, they must go to the embassy with their own pay slips and a written statement from their employer that they will be granted leave for that period. It is almost impossible for young students with an adventurous spirit and no job to travel in Western Europe, even if other students from an EU country have invited them.
Depending upon the diplomatic mission, would-be Bulgarian tourists may need to provide evidence that they are married, have a bank account and own real estate or a car. During the interview with the relevant consular representative, they might have to answer humiliating questions, such as how they know the person to be visited, and what exactly is the nature of their relationship, do they have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, where the money to travel abroad came from and how much they have.
If the process is successful, the Bulgarian must pay roughly DEM 60 for the visa, which equals around one quarter of the average monthly Bulgarian salary.
EU company executives are often surprised to learn that they need to provide their diplomatic mission in Bulgaria with details of when a desired deal will be concluded. This in itself is a violation of the principle of business confidentiality.
Due to the European orientation of the Bulgarian economy, 56 percent of its exports are now directed to EU countries, and one can see, early in the morning, queues of businesspeople in front of the embassy waiting to plea for a visa.
Business visas are issued for an exact period; therefore, a random event, such as missing your plane, could make you a criminal. Embassies often deliberately delay important trips for business officials, academics or even journalists. Aside from being difficult to explain to partners and colleagues abroad, this is a pure waste of resources, especially given the small size of the Bulgarian market, and is bound to result in losses.
It is clear that Bulgaria's accession to the EU cannot be expected to proceed as fast as for other applicants if a visa-free regime is not introduced. At present, the current situation results in fewer opportunities for direct communication and contacts.
The new iron wall
The feeling that Bulgarians are not welcome in the rest of the world is hardly new. During the Communist era, it was equally difficult to travel in the "Free World" because the Iron Curtain divided the West from the East.
Nowadays, the Iron Curtain has been replaced by a new, invisible, yet even tighter, fortification: the Schengen wall, which was established several years ago. Unlike the Iron Curtain, the Schengen barricade is more difficult to see through. In an age of unlimited means of communication and information technology, and at a time when the West continually declares a common democratic future for all European nations and citizens, it is odd that the richest countries feel the need to build new walls to protect their high standard of living within a new fortress of Europe.
The West is hiding behind a mask of rhetoric, hypocrisy and empty promises. Bulgaria entered the new millennium with a promise to become, one day, part of the European club of developed nations. In February 2000, they began negotiations for membership in the EU whilst their citizens continued to be banned from seeing, for even a short while, their so-called future European home.
Not all Bulgarians would be able to afford such a trip to the "promised land," but at least they would like to know they are welcome. And perhaps, in their dreams, Bulgarians would enjoy imagining that they live in that small southern village in Luxembourg, called Schengen, where people don't know what a border checkpoint is and, if they desire, can freely go shopping in France.
Agov's ultimatum: why the Stability Pact?
The recent wave of Euroscepticism among Bulgarian politicians is embodied in the simple message—sent by the head of Bulgaria's Parliament Foreign and Integration Policy Committee Assen Agov—that if Bulgaria is not removed from the visa blacklist of the EU, it will withdraw from the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe. While this statement was first expected to remain a weird personal view, it received significant support from other officials and analysts, both local and foreign. Most importantly, it gained considerable attention and provoked public debate.
When the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe was launched last year, it was meant as an instrument for democratization, development and stabilisation for the Balkan region. If we look at it from another angle, the message we get is that several Balkan nations are
undemocratic, underdeveloped and unstable. So, why not unite them in one organization and help them in a package? The poor region was ravaged by four wars in one decade; it went through ethnic cleansing, dictatorship, one economic collapse after the other and international isolation.
Since its establishment, the pact has concentrated on two main areas: stabilisation and development. It was meant to compensate the losses from the Yugoslav crisis, and attract investment in the region. Under the pact, Bulgaria has received nothing except the unhelpful label "Southeastern European Country" or even "Western Balkan country."
In or out of the pact, Bulgaria has access to its main creditors, and also to the pre-accession funds of the European Union. Agov's thesis makes sense, as Bulgaria's only role in the pact is political: to serve as a model for development of the Western Balkan countries. A negative answer over visa restrictions from Brussels at the end of this month would turn Bulgaria into a direct object of concern for the pact.
As Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova recently said in defence of Agov's statement, it is crucially important for Bulgaria that the Stability Pact is not turned into a replacement for, or alternative to, its European goal. If Bulgarians continue to be unwanted in Europe, the pact might turn into a political alibi for deflecting the country from its real aims.
German Interior Minister Otto Schily recently informed the Bundestag Committee on European Affairs that he is in favour of dropping visa requirements for Bulgarian nationals. In his speech, Schily described Romania as a main transit route for illegal immigration into Germany and said that Romanian passports remained easy to forge.
He also pointed out that Iraqi and Iranian citizens could enter Romania without a visa. Romania fell below par on border controls, and a point that especially angered Germany was the failure of Romania to take back its own citizens that were deported from Germany.
In contrast, Bulgaria has made good progress both in beefing up its border controls and in the introduction of "difficult-to-forge" travel documents, Schily acknowledged. He recommended that Germany lift visa requirements for Bulgarians as soon as possible.
Schily was the first high-ranking politician to say that Romania and Bulgaria should not be lumped together, but considered in isolation. Days before this statement, Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov objected to placing Bulgaria "in the same package" as Romania. The comments were in reaction to European Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen's statement that Bulgaria and Romania lack functional market economies.
In response, Romania's Foreign Minister Petre Roman said in an interview with Romanian daily newspaper Adevarul that "recent comments on the situation in Romania regarding the EU's enlargement might lead to complications in bilateral relations." He added, "There is no place for polemics where there is a common interest."
However, on Wednesday 1 November, this same newspaper published a comment by its leading foreign affairs columnist, claiming that Bulgaria has dignified authorities that present and defend its people's interests. The author, Bogdan Chireac, writes, "Today we watch amazed at how our neighbours in Bulgaria managed to conquer the West's support and admiration, while we are falling again in Europe's cursed land."
"The perception of Bulgaria as a Siamese twin of Romania must be done away with," a representative of the Conrad Adenauer Foundation in Bulgaria said last Tuesday.
According to Jozeph Grueber, it is unfair that both countries fall in the same category without making note of the progress Bulgaria has achieved. "It is an indisputable fact that Bulgaria showed much better results than Romania," he commented, adding that the constant parallels between the two countries are partly a result of the French presidency of the European Union, which backs Romania.
Ever since December 1999, Bulgaria has made significant progress in meeting the EU's Maastricht criteria. Furthermore, major efforts have been directed toward meeting the requirements for lifting the visa restrictions: economic growth is steadying, the democratic process is advancing, and there is remarkable success in tightening border controls; new, modern passports and IDs have been introduced and readmission agreements with all EU countries have been reached.
Surely, Bulgaria's threats would hardly scare the EU. Also, it is difficult to predict what decision will be taken on the issue at the Brussels meeting. In a way, it is difficult to understand why Bulgarian politicians chose to debate the issue and threaten Europe by setting conditions before a decision has been made.
Perhaps the government is already sure what the future decision of the European justice and interior ministers will be. In this case, the government can only win. They have demonstrated concern for the people and, through their decisiveness, have defended the national interest.
Alternatively, if the decision is unknown, the authorities have at least shown that they have tried everything in their power to remove what is thought of as discrimination against Bulgarians.
In either case, politicians will gain trust and popularity, which they desperately need for the forthcoming general elections, due in June 2001.
Matilda Nahabedian, 6 November 2000
- Archive of articles on Bulgaria in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and Eastern Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page