Three Seas Initiative
Bulgaria’s Perspective on the Three-Seas-Initiative
Bulgaria had shown some initial hesitance towards the Three-Seas-Initiative, as Bulgaria was afraid of its politicization, especially vis-à-vis Russia. However, nowadays, Bulgaria is an active participant in the European project. It regards the initiative as a valuable tool to accelerate its national economic growth, to strengthen its cooperation with other European countries and to subsequently foster European cohesion. As the host of this year’s Three-Seas-Initiative summit in Sofia, Bulgaria not only declared its wish to incorporate investments in research and education in the initiative, but to welcome Greece as yet another member. The current Bulgarian government aspires greater integration into Europe and the European Union in particular.
Extending cooperation to other fields
At the very start, the Three-Seas-Initiative’s stance towards Russia and the dominant role of Poland in the initiative fueled some skepticism in Bulgaria. Fearing the initiative was too politicized, the country was consequently hesitant to join. However, Bulgaria’s initial hesitance towards the Three-Seas-Initiative has transformed into enthusiasm for the European project. Today, it regards the initiative as a useful institution to foster regional infrastructure and boost economic growth in the region. Bulgaria repeatedly reaffirmed its support for the project and demonstrated its commitment to the initiative by hosting the 2021 summit. On that occasion, Bulgaria announced to incorporate the Bulgarian private sector much more, especially in the field of high technology and communications.
It appears that Bulgaria eventually acknowledged the immense potential and importance of the Three-Seas-Initiative for its own economic development. As Bulgaria’s infrastructure would profit from modernization, the initiative’s commercially driven fund is particularly interesting for the country. To further promote the fund and incorporate the Bulgarian private sector, Bulgaria also held the business forum next to the main Three-Seas-Initiative summit of 2021. The business forum and the importance that Bulgaria attributes to the investment fund demonstrate that the country’s main interest lies in the commercial and economic benefits of the initiative. However, Bulgaria hopes that these economic gains will eventually translate into political gains as well, such as greater European cohesion.
At the 2021 summit, Bulgaria also advocated the extension of cooperation among member states to other fields, such as research and sciences. According to Bulgaria, increased cooperation in these two areas would be particularly valuable, since some of the initiative’s economic gains can only be realized if the conditions for research, education and innovation are improved. The host country expects improvements in these fields to make the initiative’s member states more attractive for investments and to young people, on which future economic growth depends.
Torn between two poles
However, while the majority of Bulgaria’s fellow members regards the Three-Seas-Initiative as an opportunity to advance independence from Russian gas and strengthen resilience vis-à-vis Russia, Bulgaria is torn between the European and the Russian pole. While Bulgaria has not yet found an alternative to its dependence on Russia for both its energy security and maintenance of military equipment, the country also aspires to become more closely connected to Europe and strengthen cooperation with its European neighbors. Maneuvering between these two opposing forces, the Balkan country distances itself from the Three-Seas-Initiative’s anti-Russian sentiment but still participates in the initiative’s infrastructure projects, in order to advance its integration in Europe (Górka, 2018). It could be concluded that as long as the initiative does not become politicized but remains a solely economic cooperation project, Bulgaria will remain its eager supporter.
Interview with Yordan Bozhilov
One of the underlying goals of the Three-Seas-Initiative is to create more independence from Russian gas. How does the initiative affect the relationship between Bulgaria and Russia?
Bulgaria's initial reaction after the announcement of the Three Seas Initiative was hesitant. This was because its geographical scope very reminded the Polish Trimarium initiative of the 1920s, whose main idea was to contain the Soviet Union. These views in Bulgaria are nurtured by the fact that the initiative was launched by Poland / together with Croatia /, and by the fact that the United States first had a key role in its initiation and second providestrong support for the project in the present. It is known that Bulgarian people have positive attitude towards Russia, mostly because of historical factors. On the other hand, the creation of the initiative was perceived as an attempt of Poland to play a leading role in the region. After Germany became a partner of the initiative / despite the initial negative attitude of Poland /, and considering positive attitude of the EU, the opinion about the Three seas in Bulgaria is undergoing a serious rethinking. Moreover, it become clear that the main focus of the Initiative will be in the economic sphere. It is already seen mainly as an opportunity for economic development of the region between the three Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas, covering 12 countries. I don't see the Bulgarian-Russian relations as a problem in the Bulgarian participation. Bulgaria already stated its goal to diversify the supplies of Natural gas. Unfortunately, not much has been done in this regard yet. The interconnector with Greece, which provides a real diversification of sources of natural gas, is under construction for many years. At the same time, Bulgaria built with its own resources the continuation of the Turkish stream through its territory. This is not a diversification as the pipelines will transport the same Russian gas.
The Three-Seas-Initiative aims to foster regional infrastructure, boost economic development, push for European cohesion and strengthen transatlantic ties. In what way does Bulgaria profit from the initiative? What aspect of the initiative is the most beneficial for Bulgaria?
Since the establishment of the initiative in 2016, it has undergone serious development. First, in addition to the United States, Germany and the EU became partners as well, plus Bulgaria proposed to include also Greece in 2021. Second, an Investment Fund has been set up, with 2 billion euros already pledged. Poland has the biggest share in the Fund with 750 million. For example the share of Bulgaria is just 20 million EUR. The United States has already invested $ 300 million, promising at least 1 billion USD. Countries such as UK, Japan, South Korea, Qatar and others have expressed interest in investing through the Fund and support particular projects.
The initiative has no structure, no special bodies other than the Investment Fund, and is rather an informal link between countries with the aim to coordinate development policies.
There are geostrategic implications of the initiative, but they can be seen through the prism of economic development and connectivity. By supporting transport, energy and digital connectivity, the region can be more independent from countries like Russia and China. The main benefit for the region is that through 3SI and through the attracted resources, additional potential for the regional development is created. In this regard, countries would reduce energy dependency on Russia, as well as digital dependency on China, especially in areas such as 5G networks.
Strengthening democracy and reducing corruption in the countries in the region, thus diminishing external influence, is of utmost importance for the United States. President Biden in his video-address to Sofia Summit of the Initiative expressed strong US support for the development of the 3SI and noted its potential to strengthen the security and prosperity of the region through connectivity, energy diversification and development.
All participating countries, including Bulgaria, see the initiative as an opportunity to attract investments, develop the region economically and increase connectivity in all sectors - transport, energy, education etc.
A large number of projects have already been proposed for funding through the 3SI Investment Fund. For now, these proposals are worth more than 1 trillion EUR, which means that much more finances for the fund have to be raised. The Fund will finance projects on a business basis, with no political influence. Only viable projects with economic benefits and returns will be financed. It is believed that the projects financed through the fund will receive state support and will be more attractive for potential investors.
What is Bulgaria’s position in the initiative? What role does the country play?
Initially, Bulgaria proposed huge infrastructure projects for which there are no funds in the national budget. That is why the projects proposed by Bulgaria should be reviewed and only feasible projects should be proposed. In general, in Sofia, the funds provided through the initiative are seen as an additional opportunity to implement large infrastructure projects. Bulgaria, as a country which holds the Chairmanship, has an active role in the development of the initiative. Bulgaria proposed to invite Greece to become part of the initiative and proposed to work on the connectivity in the spheres of science, education and technologies.
Górka, M. (2018). The Three Seas Initiative as a political challenge for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Politics in Central Europe, 14(3), 55-73.
About the author
Valerie Kornis completed an internship at the Central Europe and Baltic States Project Office. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University in The Netherlands and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po in Paris.
Yordan Bozhilov is defense and security expert. He is founder and president of Sofia Security Forum, a Bulgarian NGO working in the spheres of defense, security, international relations and leadership. His professional experience includes 20 years of work at different positions in the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense and 5 years as a researcher in the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.