Interview: Bulgarian FM Mladenov on Awakenings and transitions

Nikolai Mladenov has a vision of the countries of the Western Balkans integrated into the European Union and Nato, and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa – those he describes as currently undergoing the “Arab Awakening” – joined in an Arab Union along the lines of the EU. But however carefully you examine the desk of Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister, you will find no rose-tinted spectacles lying there.

For the Western Balkans, European integration has been a stop-start process enduring for several years. For the Arab world, the current turbulence of transition is still in early days. Both processes are marathons, and completion of any marathon calls for a certain mindset.

Mindset is an issue in EU expansion in the Balkans; governments change or remain, serious shortcomings are resolved or not; “expansion fatigue” among some countries to the west of the region is a well-canvassed phenomenon.

Serbia has seen significant changes in recent months. While a green light was given for the opening of EU accession negotiations with Belgrade, the presidential election produced a new head of state, nationalist Tomislav Nikolić, and then in turn, parliamentary elections resulted in a new governing coalition, a socialist-nationalist array under the prime ministership of the Socialist Party of Serbia’s Ivica Dačić.

Nikolić’s reported statements on Srebrenica and Vukovar stirred controversy and offended neighbours. Observers might well be concerned that the subtle pragmatism of Serbia under the Boris Tadić presidency has made way for much more difficult engagements between Serbia, the EU and Serbia’s neighbours in the region.

Mladenov, speaking in an interview with The Sofia Globe, says that it is too early to draw conclusions. The Bulgarian Foreign Minister marks as a good sign the fact that, when Nikolić met EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Brussels in mid-June, Nikolić confirmed that he would abide by all the commitments made in the Priština – Belgrade dialogue (a process brokered by the EU to resolve practical issues between Kosovo and Serbia).

“I think that this is very important because a lot had been achieved (in the dialogue) before the Serbian elections, some symbolic, some substantial, but important because it meant that people in Kosovo could get on with their lives, as could people in Serbia,” Mladenov says.

But, he adds, “we have to see how that pans out in the next few weeks and months”.

The statements made by Nikolić before and after the Serbian elections, on Srebrenica and Vukovar, were “not helpful, but he’s been wise enough to clarify them”.

Importantly, Mladenov adds, Serbia faces very serious economic challenges, and the only way for the country to address these in the long term is by strengthening its relationship with the EU and by making sure that its candidacy process moves forward instead of stalling.

“Because, if it was stalled, it would chase away investors and create further economic difficulties for Serbia and the region. I don’t think anyone has an interest in seeing that happen,” Mladenov says.

Of risks and reforms

It is put to Mladenov that the very fact that the Sofia Forum for the Balkans was held in the Bulgarian capital city by the Foreign Ministry in June 2012 was because of the indications that the region has slid down the agenda of the EU – and that if this continues, in combination with any country not earnestly pursuing fulfillment of the criteria for accession, there is a risk of would-be accession countries falling between two stools being steadily pulled apart.

“There is always a risk of that,” Mladenov says, “but again, I hope that it doesn’t happen.”

The Sofia Forum was held, he says, to highlight the importance of EU enlargement for reforms in the region.

It was clear that there was less enthusiasm for enlarging the EU now than there was a few years ago. He says that this was made clear in the process of deciding on opening negotiations with Montenegro.

Any decision now on opening negotiations with countries in the Western Balkans would be taken in a very complicated environment, Mladenov says. At the same time, he cautions that failure to move ahead on expansion would feed only those forces that want to see the countries of the Western Balkans deviate from their path towards the EU – these forces, he says, are those of the grey economy and the criminal world.

This means that countries with EU aspirations need to “double if not triple” their reform efforts, to prove that they will be net contributors to stability in the region. The EU should move forward with the enlargement process with each of these countries on the basis of their own merits.

Further, Mladenov adds, people in the EU need to realise that EU enlargement to encompass the Western Balkans “is not some sort of technical issue to be dealt with by bureaucrats and that will take its course and happen in due time” but is a process that is a “vastly political” one, involving transforming countries in the region into capable member states of the EU.

He says that the dramatic move forward by the countries in the region from the days of one or two decades past when they were enmeshed in wars is indeed an achievement, but not enough given the challenges that the region as a whole, Europe and the world face right now.

“If you want to survive in the global economy, in the context of rapidly shifting centres of power, you cannot in this part of the world if you’re not part of the European family – you’d be just falling off the map.”

He is asked about Macedonia, where unlike Serbia the same government has remained in power for a long time and where Euro-Atlantic integration seems to run on the spot – and is asked whether the time has arrived for more directness in public statements directed towardsSkopje.

Mladenov says that overall, the EU needs to be “much more clear” about the risks of nationalism in the region “and particularly playing with history, the symbolism of the past; the more that governments in the Western Balkans get involved that type of symbolic politics, the more they deviate from that which they need to do”.

Macedonia, he says, is a perfect example of a country that needs to focus much more vigorously on its own internal reform processes – issues of justice and home affairs, media freedoms, human rights.

But he adds that this is a challenge not just in Macedonia but also very clearly is a challenge in Bosnia, increasingly so in Albania and not to mention Serbia.

“We need to take a tougher line on nationalism and the dangers that it brings; we seem to have forgotten that, here on the Balkans,” Mladenov says.

He says that the EU needs to take a much clearer line on the reform processes that countries need to undergo, that becoming an EU member state will happen not of sympathy but because of criteria being met in reality and sustainably.

Mladenov adds that “we need to focus very much on the fact that candidate countries need to build friendships with their neighbours, not antagonize them”.

He points to Croatia, due to join the EU in July 2013, as a success story. Croatia went through its own very difficult transition process, devoted much political energy to reforms from dealing with organised crime and corruption to revamping its administration, and also rebuilt relationships with its neighbours.

“It’s a combination of these three things that have made (Croatia) a successful case of a country in the Western Balkans moving towards Europe,” Mladenov says.

The EU, he says, must not be complacent when it sees the rise of nationalism in the Western Balkans or of policies that divide societies or are aimed at advancing one part of society at the expense of another.

Turkey, bridge and partner

For close observers of the unfolding process in the Middle East and North Africa, the role of Turkey has been a compelling phenomenon.

Mladenov, who recently held talks in Sofia with Turkish minister for EU affairs Egemen Bağış and has been in touch regularly with his Turkish counterpart, is asked about Ankara’s role and its work with the EU in the region – as well as about the implications of Syria’s downing of a Turkish jet for the dynamics of the process.

For Mladenov, the relationship between Turkey and the EU, working together in the Middle East, is a very important one.

“It helps many in Europe better understand the Middle East but it also helps Turkey, to a large extent, to understand what are the parameters of soft power, and what you can do together.”

In the process of the Arab Awakening, both the EU and Turkey have a strong interest in advancing the development of representative democracy, “making sure that social stability in the countries of the Arab Spring stems not from the fist of a dictator but from the popular vote, and that economic opportunities emerge for people”.

The two also have a joint interest in ensuring that radical political elements – radical Islamists – do not come to the fore while “there’s a careful balance that we strike between religion and politics, that we are sensitive to the cultures of each country in the region, and to their societies, that we do not end up imposing one single blueprint for every country but use whatever lessons that we have learnt collectively and individually to help these countries.”

Mladenov says that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Bulgaria included, each have their own transition experiences, as does Turkey.

Turkey has experience in dealing with the issue of the armed forces, of balancing religion and politics, while Europe as a whole has a plethora of experience in issues of minorities and of human rights. “So there are lots of things that we can do together.”

Mladenov adds that the EU working together with Turkey breaks the perception – a perception that he fully rejects – “that Christian Europe doesn’t work with anyone else, from the Muslim world”.

Bulgaria and Turkey, in particular, have a very good relationship as far as policy towards the Middle East and North Africa, Mladenov says.

“We practically see eye-to-eye on the challenges that we need to address and what is the priorities in each and every country.”

He praises Turkey’s approach after the downing of its jet by Syria as very restrained and notes Turkey and all of Syria’s neighbours are continuing to call for a political settlement to the crisis.

Interviewed on July 2, as the first day’s proceedings began of a meeting in Cairo bringing together about 300 Syrian opposition figures in an attempt to get them to coalesce around a common vision for the future of Syria, in the light of the forthcoming Paris meeting, Mladenov underlines that such a common vision is essential.

Of expectations and awakenings

Asked whether the performance of the countries caught up in the changes that followed events in Tunisia in spring 2011 has been disappointing and whether expectations have been too high, Mladenov responds, “well, if one expected to move in 12 months from a dictatorship to a flourishing democracy, one must have been rather stupid”.

The societies involved have, in only a few cases, experienced brief periods of democracy about 60 years ago but since then all have been governed through various forms of dictatorship.

Add to this a disconnect of people from politics, poverty, no tradition of taxation and thus the impetus to accountability that normally brings, and the fact is that expectations should not be unrealistic.

At the same time, Mladenov says, in the year since the Arab Awakening started, there have been elections in Egypt that have been recognised as legitimate and that produced the country’s first civilian president, Tunisia is seeing an active debate about its constitutional future; but Libya has come out of one of the region’s most brutal dictatorships “and clearly Syria has a major challenge”.

He explains why he does not accept the concept of the “Arab Spring”.

“I always prefer to look at it as the Arab Awakening, a people awakens, and then, a new sort of balance will be achieved, somewhere along the line, hopefully that balance will be based on constitutional government, on free elections, and on sustainable economic opportunity.”

Mladenov cautions that there are differences to the processes of transition in Central and Eastern Europe after the end of the Soviet communist era.

For these countries in Europe, there was a sense of return to the larger European family, of a return to normality and an escape from the bondage of Soviet communism.

In the Middle East, these factors are not present.

“It’s a much more open-ended process, therefore we need to be much more engaged with it, in assisting these countries to make the right decisions and make them on the basis of an informed opinion, that they look at the experiences that we’ve had, at the lessons that we’ve learnt, and avoid the mistakes that we’ve made, build on our achievements,” Mladenov says.

“It’s a fascinating process. To me personally, this is the most fascinating process in the Mediterranean that has happened since the end of colonialism.”

Understanding perspectives

Mladenov is asked about the interplay between the countries of the Western democracies, on one side, and Russia on the other, and how it could play out in relation to Syria and the MENA region as a whole.

He underlines the need to understand the respective perspectives as seen from different capitals and how they inform approaches to the changes in the Middle East and North Africa.

Mladenov starts by pointing out that “we were all completely unprepared for what started in Tunisia and now has practically overtaken all of the Middle East”.

For this reason, countries drew on their own experiences in their views of the changes. Experiences of the changes in the 1990s in Europe and in Russia were quite different.

“To many in today’s Russia, the end of the Cold War meant the end of the Soviet Empire and the loss of the imperial glory and influence and a long period of instability and corruption that we saw in Russia in the 1990s.

“Now if you approach it from that perspective, obviously for us it’s an issue about helping people in the Middle East develop institutions of democracy and stability, while for some in Moscow it’s probably a geopolitical game.”

Mladenov emphasises: “I think that one shouldn’t be judgmental about who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s very dangerous if we become judgmental this early in the process.

“Because if we do, then, the next step is that we’re heading for another major confrontation, between East and West, and we’re not there. We need to be careful in understanding the perspective of everyone.”

Differences of approaches to the Syria issue, Mladenov says, are illustrative.

“In Syria, we see the desire by people in Europe and America and the new democracies of the Middle East to see the end of the Assad dictatorship and to see a free and democratic Syria based on the rule of law and protection of minorities – but we fail to see the complexity of the Russian criticism of our policies on Syria, we simplify that criticism to say they’re only interested in their strategic game – I think that it’s much more complicated, we must be much more engaged with the Russians to see that we have same understanding of what are the risks of the current situation prolonging itself or what can come after it.”

He says that countries like Russia and China, among others, are concerned about what happens after the end of the Assad regime.

This, he says, calls for careful engagement with the Syrian opposition to ensure that the end of regime is not followed by a collapse of the security of the country, that it is followed by guarantees for minorities, “and general agreement that the Assad dictatorship will not be replaced by another dictatorship somewhere down the road”

Mladenov says that what must be avoided is “getting into the paradigm that the differences that we have between Europe and the United States, on the one hand, and Russia on the other hand, on the Middle East, signal the emergence of some new Cold War system of international relations.

“We’d be digging our own grave if we think in those terms, particularly because we saw as far as Libya as concerned, the Russians in the Security Council acted in a very constructive manner, we see Russia now engaged together with the rest of the EU on the Iran negotiations, also in a rather constructive manner – we face similar security threats.

“We need to understand their (Russia’s) point of view a little bit more and clearly they need to understand our point of view a little bit more,” Mladenov says.

Of fatigue and the future

Asked if there is – as has happened regarding EU expansion and attitudes towards the Balkans – a risk of “Arab Awakening Fatigue”, Mladenov says that there is a risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The dimensions of this self-fulfilling prophecy, he says, are that “Europe fears that the Middle East will be engulfed by radical religious leaders that will become a threat to our world and our way of doing things, and we need to insulate ourselves from that risk, and the danger in this self-fulfilling prophecy is that if we’re not engaged in the right manner with these countries right now, if we sit back and say, well, this will happen, it’s inevitable, there’s nothing we can do about it, it will”.

He urges, instead, active engagement.

This means active engagement with the Islamist parties in the Middle East, which are by no means monolithic, and with the fundamental political and ideological debate going on within Islamic political movements. It means an active engagement to try to understand their perspectives. It also, as a separate but related point, opening to economic engagements.

Rather than thinking of “Arab Awakening Fatigue,” Mladenov says, he offers his own dream – of countries in that region emulating the principles of the European Union on issues such as free movement of people, goods and services, of common institutions – of all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, or at least most of them, in an Arab Union.




Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.