Imports from Ukraine: Bulgarian PM speaks after talks with protesters

Ukrainian sunflower seeds will not be allowed into Bulgaria until the grain producers and the government have set a quota, Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov said on September 19 after he and the country’s finance and agriculture ministers held talks for several hours with representatives of protesters from agricultural sector organisations.

The catalyst for the protests was the Bulgaria’s Parliament’s decision on September 14 that a ban on imports of various basic foodstuffs from Ukraine should not be extended. The protests are also billed by organisers as being about other grievances regarding state policies on the agricultural sector in Bulgaria.

The logic of a restriction on imports of sunflower seeds from Ukraine was not immediately obvious, given that while the ban on imports from Ukraine was in place, Bulgarian production of sunflower oil was negatively affected by a lack of imports to make up for the shortfall in domestic production of sunflower seeds.

Bulgarian grain producer organisations have objected to the lifting of the ban on imports from Ukraine, apparently concerned by competition from imports from that country, though the ruling majority in Bulgaria has its suspicions about protest organisers’ political connections and a motivation to seek to discredit and destabilise the pro-Western government that took office in Bulgarian in June.

Denkov told the briefing after that talks that he would soon speak to to Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and “inform him that our country will set a quota for sunflowers, and until then imports will not be allowed”.

It is not yet clear how much the quota will be. It is to be clarified in further talks with grain producers and sunflower processors. Until then, “in the near future”, Bulgaria will not allow the import of sunflower seeds from Ukraine.

Denkov said that he would ask the European Commission whether other Ukrainian products could be included in restrictive import quotas. The protest organisers are demanding a ban on the import of powdered milk, honey, fruits, vegetables.

Previously, Denkov, his finance minister and the parliamentary groups that supported the lifting of the ban on imports of foodstuffs from Ukraine have pointed to not only lost tax revenue resulting from the ban, but also that liberalisation of imports from Ukraine should mean lower prices of basic foodstuffs for consumers in Bulgaria.

Denkov told the September 19 briefing: “And negotiations are currently underway whether other products can be included. We will do our best, if not, we will negotiate on a bilateral basis with Ukraine”.

The government has assured farmers that by the end of September they will receive compensation because of the consequences of the war in Ukraine and the increased costs of energy, fertilisers and other items, to a total of 213 million leva.

Additional “de minimis” aid will also be increased, for which reserves will be sought from the budget, Finance Minister Assen Vasilev said.

It was not announced how much this support will increase, with an estimate yet to be made.

“The sunflower import quota will be determined so that sunflower oil production does not stop and the production of Bulgarian farmers is achieved. Budget revenue will not be limited,” Vassilev said.

He said that there was a a lot of work to be done regarding the problems in agriculture in Bulgaria, where there had been many mistakes in support and subsidies.

The government has committed itself to the Customs Agency publishing weekly the import and export volumes of the four cereals the import of which from Ukraine was banned until recently, as well as the average price at which these are imported and exported. The goal is to avoid speculation and misinformation.

“The discussion was very animated, at times tense. We agreed that regarding each of the protesters’ demands, we can either propose a solution or explain how we will seek one in the shortest possible time,” Denkov said.

The representatives of the protesting grain producers who participated in the meeting did not say whether they were satisfied or whether they would stop the protests.

“We will present the results of the talks to the protesting farmers outside and they must say whether they are satisfied and whether the protests will continue,” Iliya Prodanov, head of the National Association of Grain Producers, said.

Agriculture Minister Kiril Vatev described the talks as constructive, and said that the government had undertaken a great effort to meet the farmers’ demands.

“I expect tonight’s protest to end. Otherwise, we will draw other conclusions,” Vatev said.

Earlier on September 19, Vatev went to Dolni Bogrov, on the outskirts of Sofia, to meet the protesters, who recently have refused talks with him and the government, preferring to insist on protests. In recent days, Denkov has accused the protesters of seeking confrontation, not negotiations, hinting at a partisan political motive for their behaviour.

On Vatev’s arrival, the protesters poured Bulgarian fresh milk on the ground, as well as dropping Bulgarian fruit in the road, claiming that this symbolised what would happen if imports from Ukraine were allowed.

Vatev said that the protest had a fair basis, but the grievances dated back for some time. The government was seeking solutions, he said, but added that this did not imply a rapid solution.

“You have five demands addressed to us, the solutions to which have already been found,” he said.

These words of his were met with boos and chants of “crooks, resign”. Vatev asked if he was at a football match or a normal dialogue.

He said that he had come to the protest to discuss the problems in the industry and possible solutions.

The protests involve not only grain producers, but also animal breeders and vegetable producers, though support in the agricultural sector for the protests in far from unanimous.

Sunflower oil producers earlier voiced support publicly for the lifting of the ban on imports from Ukraine. The Association of Young Farmers has rejected the protests, pointing to what they called the unfair advantage the large-scale grain producers have been given in recent years.

The National Association of Greenhouse Growers distanced itself from the September 19 protest.

In an open letter to the Prime Minister and the media, the greenhouse growers said that they supported the government regarding its decision to drop the ban on the import of Ukrainian agricultural goods into Bulgaria.

There has been cynicism from some quarters about the protests, which have involved disruptions of traffic on Bulgaria’s major roads. The greenhouse growers said in their open letter that if the protesters used their EU-funded expensive tractors to block the roads, the vehicles should be confiscated.

Critics also have pointed to the way that agricultural subsidies have been handled in Bulgaria for several years, apparently vastly enriching grain producers – the ones at the core of the protests – to the detriment of producers of fruits and vegetables traditional for Bulgaria, forcing consumers to pay for imports of the latter.

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