'1878-2018, From Liberation to EU Presidency'
By Genc Mlloja
Albanian Daily News
Published March 5, 2018
The celebration of Bulgaria's National Day on March 3 this year had a special significance for this Balkan country as it coincided with its rotating European Union Presidency, the first since its eleven-year membership in the Club and a meeting of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with leaders of the Western Balkan countries in Sofia on March 1, 2018.
Bulgarians observe March 3 as a very special historical day dating back in 1878 when the San Stefano Peace Treaty between Russia and the Ottoman Empire was signed, which provided for the rebuilding of Bulgaria. Independence was proclaimed thirty years later - on September 22, 1908. By this act the Bulgarian state rejected its political and financial dependence on the Ottoman Empire imposed by the Great Powers on the Berlin Treaty.
March 3 was celebrated for the first time in 1880 - two years after the Liberation - as the day on which Russian Emperor Alexander II ascended to the throne. Two years later, in 1882, the State Council adopted a list of holidays in the Principality of Bulgaria in which the date was set down as one for celebrating the conclusion of the Treaty of San Stefano. In the period of the communist rule celebration of the day was suspended in 1950 with the exception of 1978 when the centenary of the Liberation was marked. Ten years later in 1987, March 3 was restored as an official holiday by a decision of ? Plenum of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party. A decision of the National Assembly of February 27, 1990 declared March 3 a national holiday.
The 140th anniversary of the Liberation from the Ottoman Rule was marked by special events in Capital Sofia and other cities of the country last Saturday, which will continue until Monday. Celebrations and patriotic initiatives were held throughout the country, and wreaths and flowers were laid at the monuments of the fallen for freedom, Bulgarian media reported. Special memorial observances were held in Sofia as well as at Mt. Shipka and Pleven which were both the scene of decisive battles in the Russo-Turkish War.
"Shipka is the capital of national dignity in history bequeathed to us, the descendants, by a few thousand valiant men, and we should never waste this capital," said Bulgarian President Rumen Radev in a speech at the ceremony held at the Shipka peak on Saturday climaxing events held to mark Bulgaria's National Day. In the statement he made, Rumen Radev said that some 140 years later it can hardly be told which the bones of the Bulgarians are and which the Russian ones are. However, Bulgaria's freedom was built on the fundament of these bones, on the fundament of the Russian and Bulgarian military glory. "Today, we have gathered at the famous, wild peak to bow our heads to the heroes of Bulgarian liberty and to pay tribute to our common past," the President said as quoted by his Office.
Brussels' Top Head and Russia's Patriarch Kirill in Sofia
While EU's chief executive Juncker was in Sofia on March 1 wrapping up his tour of the region as Commission president seeking to show Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia that the bloc was serious about integrating them, starting from 2025, Russia's Patriarch Kirill arrived in Bulgaria's Capital on March 2 on a three-day visit. He was in Sofia at the invitation of the Bulgarian Patriarch Neophyte and the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to participate in the celebrations dedicated to the 140th anniversary of the Liberation. This was the second official visit of the Russian Patriarch to Bulgaria after his trip in April 2012.
Certainly both visits are a coincidence with regards to the timing but their messages are not.
The latest moves of Brussels have been considered as its aim of reclaiming the Western Balkans as its own amidst concerns about Russia's growing assertiveness on its borders since the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014. They were exacerbated in the Balkans after Montenegro accused Moscow of supporting a failed coup in 2016. "Since January 1, we've seen a political assassination in Kosovo, a bombing attack in Montenegro, and Russian-trained paramilitaries assisting the rearming of the Dodik regime in Bosnia. The temperature keeps rising in the Balkans but few in Brussels or Washington seem concerned," Jasmin Mujanovic, a political analyst and author of 'Hunger And Fury: The Crisis Of Democracy In The Balkans', based in Durham, North Carolina, was quoted as saying by Radio Free Europe on February 22, 2018.
Stepping on Bulgarian soil on March 2, Patriarch Kirill said Russian and Bulgarian people have a profound spiritual connection which is expressed by the church. "I will gladly confirm that today this spiritual role which unites peoples is entirely undertaken by the Bulgarian and the Russian Orthodox churches, which maintain fraternal relations and feelings of solidarity," BTA quoted Russian Patriarch as saying. "That is why thousands of Russian soldiers who forsake their lives to liberate Bulgaria from bondage, repaid Bulgarians this great historical duty, which has been evidence of the fraternal love between the two churches through the centuries," he said.
For his part Bulgarian Patriarch Neophyte said the visit was a "great honor for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, a true spiritual celebration and yet another evidence of the firm relations between the two peoples."
As Slavic countries, Bulgaria, which is a NATO and EU member, and Russia, have deep historical and cultural ties, and Sofia has long walked a tightrope between Moscow and the West. Surveys show a significant percentage of Bulgarians, especially older generation, having nostalgia for the 'fraternal' relationship with Russia.
"The relationship with Russia however will remain complicated, shaped by misinterpreted history, Communist legacy and nostalgia among part of the older generation. All that is also fuelled by the relentless pressure by the Russian hybrid army. Recently Russian media for instance said that the Bulgarian government will raise the question about ending the sanctions against Russia during its EU Presidency. Many commentators were outraged. The government flatly denied such intention, nobody noticed," observed Mr. Julian Popov, a former Minister of Environment of Bulgaria, in an article entitled 'Misunderstand Bulgaria', published on January 8, 2018 in the Huffington Post, which was republished by bulgarianpresidency.eu portal.
In the meantime such events as the latest attack on a monument to the Soviet army in the north-eastern city of Silistra, which was daubed with red paint to depict the soldiers as having bloody hands, mar Russian image in Bulgaria. Monuments in Bulgaria to the Soviet army commemorate the invasion of the country in September 1944, which led to several decades of communist rule. Some of these monuments have been frequent targets, notably the Monument to the Soviet Army in capital Sofia and the Alyosha statue on a hill in second city Plovdiv.
Bulgaria's Substantial Progress
Bulgaria has made substantial progress on both political and economic fields since its accession to the EU in 2007. So experts say that the country technically meets all of the criteria to join the Eurozone and clearly it has Juncker's support for its candidacy, but it should be noted that it is also by far the poorest EU member with a GDP per capita that is just 47 percent of Club's average. The World Bank notes "productivity will need to grow by at least 4 percent per year over the next 25 years for Bulgaria to catch up with average EU income levels", according to euobserver.com on January 26, 2018. On the other hand, Bulgaria is ranked 75th of 176 on the Transparency International corruption perceptions index and 109th of 180 on the World Press Freedom index.
Bulgaria boasts of the fact that unemployment has marked a record drop never seen at such a low level for a decade. "The share of unemployed people is 7.2% of those in active age, or some 200,000 people. At the same time 300,000 able-bodied Bulgarians don't work, don't look for a job and don't study. Business complains about the lack of manpower, while at the same time the economy scores a 4% of annual GDP growth, with an upward trend," according to a report of Radio Bulgaria on March 4, 2018.
Ms. Olga Chugunska from the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry was quoted on January 5 this year by novinite.comas saying that over the past 12 months there was a revival of the economy and companies are employing more and more people. "That is how the number of unemployed people is decreasing," she said. In 2017 inflation, measured as the year-on-year growth in the harmonised index of consumer prices was 1.2 per cent, within the 1.5 percentage point margin from the lowest three rates.
On January 11, Vladislav Goranov, the finance minister, announced that within six months Bulgaria would probably apply to join the exchange-rate mechanism (ERM II), the preliminary stage before entry to the euro zone. Bulgaria has maintained a currency-board arrangement since 1997 with the lev tied initially to the Deutsche Mark and then to the Euro. In the meantime, in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt on February 20, Ekaterina Zaharieva, the minister of foreign affairs, said the Bulgarian government expected to begin the process of joining the border-free Schengen area by the end of the year.
Bulgaria's EU Presidency Gets Praise
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has described the so far results of Bulgaria's rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU as "very good". Mr. Juncker hinted that the media was failing to take awareness of that, the Sofia Globe underlined in its report on EC top official's visit. Sofia will host an EU-Western Balkans summit in May 2018 whose main theme would be migration issues and the economic situation of the region. Juncker expressed his expectation that the Western Balkans summit in Sofia would see clarity on the work that would be done so that a region, so important for Europe, would improve its connectivity.
"Bulgaria's presidency could ultimately demonstrate its commitment to progress and constructive European consensus - but we should not underestimate the hurdles it will need to surmount in getting there," said Mr. Nicolas Tenzer, chairman of the Paris-based Centre for Study and Research for Political Decision (Cerap), and editor of the journal Le Banquet.
Ms. Adela Pashkova, Charge d'affaires a.i. of the Bulgarian Embassy in Tirana, at the outset of the presentation of the Presidency program of her country in Tirana on January 15, 2018 admitted that the Presidency of the Council of the European Union was a privilege for Bulgaria, but it was also a great responsibility. But the Bulgarian diplomat hastened to note that official Sofia had taken into consideration everything.
"We are prepared for this, we realize it will not be easy, but we know what we want to achieve and we can do it. Our goal is to respond to the real needs of European citizens and turn challenges into opportunities," Ms. Pashkova said as quoted by Albanian Daily News.
In her resume of the priorities Ms. Pashkova pointed out that during the first six months of 2018 Bulgaria will try to achieve a balance between the specific priorities of the EU member countries and the strategic partnerships of the block for the achievement of significant results with regards to the European issues through active dialogue with citizens and in response to their expectations for more security, sustainable economic growth and stronger presence of EU on the international scene.
"It is not accidental that we chose "United We Stand Strong" for our slogan. This is the motto of our National Assembly and of the Coat of Arms of the Republic of Bulgaria. This will be the slogan of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU 2018, which our country will follow in each action as rotational President. We will work for unity between the member states, as well as between the European institutions," she quoted the Bulgarian Presidency program as emphasizing.
In a special reference on the Western Balkans, Ms. Pashkova revealed that Bulgaria would work actively with the Council of Europe on framing the ambitious document on the region. "This strategic message will also be proclaimed in the Summit of the leaders of the Western Balkans," she said. In addition she noted that Bulgaria would work hard to prepare the concrete roadmaps towards the EU of each Western Balkans country which will show the achievements, the challenges and ways how to overcome them.
In the meantime Albanian-Bulgarian relations have a friendly traditional background being considered by both sides as 'excellent'.
"The excellent relations between Albania and Bulgaria are based on historical, cultural and human connections," Speaker of Albanian Parliament Gramoz Ruci said at a meeting with Mrs. Jotova, who paid a visit to Tirana in mid-November last year. Expressing the gratitude for the support of Bulgaria in the frame of Albania's integration processes, Mr. Ruci noted that "it is the moment to assess the Bulgarian presidency of the European Union during 2018 as a chance to advance the enlargement policy in respect of Albania and all Western Balkan region."
Looking back in time on its 140th anniversary of the National Day, today Bulgaria has placed itself in the function of the EU presidency and its people have the right to be proud of that achievement. But even the Western Balkan countries, which aspire to join the Club, can see in Bulgaria an added advantage in their bid due to the fact that being a regional country it knows and understands very well the situation and the current problems of the WB 6. The pledge to be as special advocator and promoter of them has turned Bulgaria into a more important player in the efforts to find common solutions for regional sustainable stability, peace and cooperation having the EU as the final destination of all the Western Balkan countries not in a faraway future.