Regional cooperation in the Balkans during the transition: Bulgaria’s role then, today and in the future


Situation in the Western Balkans

A key element of the European Union’s (EU) conditionality in the Western Balkans for accession is regional cooperation. The aspiring countries must cooperate with each other by, for example, reducing trade barriers and improving intra-regional infrastructure. This analysis will review the development (or lack thereof) of regional cooperation in the entire Balkan peninsula and focus on how Bulgaria today can contribute to improving the socio-economic situation in the region.

Despite not being grouped together with the rest of the Balkans by the EU, Bulgaria’s role in the region is key, because it is that has enjoyed the benefits of EU membership for over ten years, which it can utilise in its relations with its former Yugoslav neighbours. One the one hand, Bulgaria is undoubtedly part of the cultural ‘Balkan identity’ that is discussed in the academic literature. It shares a similar language, lifestyle and common historical experiences, mainly regarding the Ottoman Empire, which, according to Todorova, bequeathed to the region a cultural cohesiveness reflected most notably in a common popular culture (Todorova, 1997). On the other hand, Bulgaria did not experience the brutalities of the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, which were largely ethno-nationalist in nature. Bulgaria is, too, ethnically heterogenous, but this has not led to any separatist movements: the country has, arguably, been blessed with comparatively better inter-ethnic relations, despite obvious socio-economic problems experienced regarding the Roma/gypsy community.

These positive factors, however, have not made Bulgaria an economic hegemon in the region, but it does give the country the opportunity to set examples for greater cooperation in regional infrastructure, digitalising the economy and, thus, improving diplomatic relations within the region. Bulgaria’s recent Presidency of the Council of the European Union took advantage of the opportunity to boost the (albeit troublesome) integration of the Western Balkans into the EU and produced some hopeful results: the region is at least back on the EU’s agenda, Macedonia and Greece managed to reach a preliminary deal regarding the name dispute and the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans was launched. The Presidency kept the carrot in front of the EU hopefuls, whilst reminding them of the stick at the Sofia summit in May: sufficient reforms are still needed, in particular regarding the rule of law, corruption, organised crime and the independence of the judiciary.

Anastasakis and Bojičić-Dželilović refer to ‘regional’ (or ‘sub-regional’) cooperation as “a broad process which allows many and different actors to engage in building networks of interdependence and common action” in their 2002 Report (Anastasakis and Bojičić-Dželilović, 2002). In addition, issues that are considered ‘regional’ in nature are understood as those which require collective and multilateral action by some or all the states in the region in order to achieve benefits which cannot be attained by individual states acting in isolation (East West Institute, 2001). The post-Cold War international climate has caused the re-emergence of regionalism and regional cooperation, defined by scholars as ‘new regionalism’, manifested in the establishment of new regional European groupings like the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), the Central European Initiative (CEI), the Central European Free Trade Area (CEFTA), the Adriatic-Ionian Initiative (AII) or the Danube Commission.

The main obstacles to regional cooperation during the transition period have been economic and political in nature. While the political obstacles are mainly ethno-nationalist in nature, emanating from the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, the economic obstacles provide a more profound understanding of why regional cooperation is limited or altogether neglected. The Balkans is an apparent example of a “lack of economic cohesiveness” (Anastasakis and Bojičić-Dželilović, 2002), both during the Cold War and in the transition period after it. During the Cold War, only 6% of total Balkan trade was intra-regional and was mainly in the form of barter. Yugoslavia was relatively integrated, but the rest of the region had weak mutual trade links (Uvalić, 2000). The immediate post-Cold War period saw a slight increase: according to World Bank estimates for 1999, only 12% to 14% of total Balkan trade was intra-regional (World Bank, 2000), whereas trade with the EU typically accounts for more than 50% of Balkan countries’ exports. The transition period saw unreformed customs services or poor and underdeveloped infrastructure (World Bank, 2000), due to which intra-regional trade liberalisation was far from complete. In addition, trade with the Balkans in the post-Cold War period was characterised primarily with bilateral trade agreements, which had little to no effect on intra-regional, multilateral trade and economic cooperation. There are clear reasons for this lack of intra-regional trade: Balkan countries have very similar economic structures, they produce similar products. Therefore, an expansion of inter-industry trade (trade between different products) has limited potential.

Bulgaria and regional cooperation in the South Eastern Europe

An important initiative for reviving regional cooperation in the Balkans was the South East Europe Cooperation Process (SEECP), launched by Bulgaria in 1996. What makes the SEECP even more worthy of attention is the fact that it launched on the initiative of the countries in the regions themselves, and not of some international organisation or other external actors. In addition, although it considers itself complementary to the EU-initiated Stability Pact, Southeast European Cooperative Initiative and the Stabilisation and Association Process, it focuses much less on integration with the EU or any other such exogenous stimulus for regional cooperation, instead emphasising the importance of domestic ownership of the cooperation process:

“…the principle of ‘regional ownership’ has been playing a major role. According to it, the participating countries have to initiate regional co-operation projects based on specific needs and priority areas of the region.”

Quote from SEECP’s official website: (see Regional Secretariat for Parliamentary Cooperation in South-Eastern Europe)

The SEECP was not the only time Bulgaria has been heavily involved in initiating regional cooperation through the establishment of such multilateral fora: the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) was officially launched at the meeting of the foreign affairs ministers of SEECP in February 2008 in Sofia, as the successor of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe. The difference is that it focuses more on the EU and NATO, with a key aim being “promoting and advancing the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of the region” (Regional Cooperation Council, n.d.). This highlights the overarching presence of the EU as a stimulant of Balkan regional cooperation, as all the countries in the region can unite around the common goal of joining the EU (although, arguably, not NATO). In addition, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation initiative was seen by Bulgarian elites in the transition period as a more important framework for cooperation than the Stability Pact because it concentrates on specific projects unlike the Stability Pact, which is vague and static (Anastasakis and Bojičić-Dželilović, 2002)

However, the 2002 Report published by Anastasakis and Bojičić-Dželilović finds that the Bulgarian political elite are were not always keen to associate themselves with their Balkan neighbours in the transition period, let alone continue actively promoting regional cooperation:

Bulgaria is eager to reassert its distinctiveness in the region, having successfully handled the issue of ethnic minorities and its own difficult economic and political transition. It also considers itself more advanced in terms of economic and democratic reforms. Therefore, it finds it inappropriate to be grouped with the countries of the Western Balkans and is determined not to allow to be drawn into a “pool of regional indistinctiveness”

(Anastasakis and Bojičić-Dželilović, 2002)

There are two main reasons for Bulgarian apathy towards integrating with the rest of the region. Firstly, there is instability in the immediate neighbourhood, namely the armed conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and the security forces of the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in 2001 and the more profound insecurity in Kosovo. Secondly, regional cooperation is mainly seen by the Bulgarian elite during the transition period merely as an accompaniment to eventual accession to the EU and not a long-term process that will derive benefits for itself and the entire region.

In addition to the aforementioned positive role Bulgaria has played in Balkan regional cooperation, the country has also assisted Macedonia in negotiating its Stabilisation and Association Agreement (Anastasakis and Bojičić-Dželilović, 2002) and has taken part in numerous cross-border initiatives with Serbia, too. Now that Bulgaria has secured its EU membership, it should not be afraid to more actively involve itself in institutional arrangements that promote regional cooperation. A promising example is the agreement signed by Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia at the Digital Assembly in Sofia earlier this year to develop an experimental 5G cross-border corridor that will test driverless vehicles. In addition, the European Commission launched the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans under the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU. The Agenda aims to support the transition of the region into a digital economy and bring it the benefits of the digital transformation, such as faster economic growth, more jobs, and better services. Bulgarian politician and European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, played a key role in this particular initiative, which is aimed at further improving regional cooperation in South Eastern Europe.

The transition period has shown us that regional cooperation is vital for socio-economic prosperity, and Bulgaria, together with the entire Balkan region, has a lot to gain from it.

Author: Yoan Stanev
2018 Millennium Club Bulgaria


  • Anastasakis, O. and Bojičić-Dželilović, V. (2002). Balkan Regional Cooperation & European Integration. [online] London, United Kingdom: The Hellenic Observatory; The European Institute; The London School of Economics and Political Science. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2018].
  • East West Institute (2001). Democracy, Security and the Future of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe. [online] Berlin, Germany: East West Institute. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2018].
  • Regional Cooperation Council. (n.d.). Regional Cooperation Council | About Us. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2018].
  • Regional Secretariat for Parliamentary Cooperation in South-Eastern Europe. (n.d.). [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2018].
  • Todorova, M. (1997) Imagining the Balkans. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Uvalić, M. (2000) Regional Cooperation in SEE, ESRC Working Paper 17/01. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2018].
  • World Bank, (2000) The Road to Stability and Prosperity in SEE: A Regional Strategy Paper. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2018].

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