Boyko Borisov: Why the Bulgarian PM is the First European Leader to Meet Obama Since Reelection

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is in Washington Monday for a visit with Barack Obama. He will be the first European leader to see the president since his successful re-election, and the delegation includes the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, and the interior. This meeting between the two heads of state comes at a time when bilateral relations have been perhaps the best in their 110-year history, as NATO allies and Western partners. The biggest significance of this meeting is that it is symbolic of the continued vitality of the transatlantic relationship between America and Europe.  

As a small, open economy, Bulgaria is not necessarily a noticeable factor in a global perspective. However, its locale at the crossroads of three continents makes it one of most strategically important countries in a regional plan. The main topics of the meeting are expected to include the terrorist attacks in Burgas this past July, whose perpetrators still are at large, energy issues, and international security challenges.

From the energy point of view, energy diversification and shale gas are going to be on the agenda. Bulgaria is a transit country for two strategic natural gas pipeline projects: the recently approved Gazprom South Stream project and the still contentious Nabucco pipeline. Shale gas exploration projects have also happened, but a moratorium has been placed on production, citing environmental reasons. This meeting, therefore, should be an invaluable confidence-building measure for American companies seeking to continue shale gas exploration in Bulgaria in a safe and sustainable manner. Economic cooperation would also serve to expand bilateral trade.

On the security front, things are more complicated. As part of its NATO commitments, Bulgaria has contributed approximately 600 soldiers to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and the mission’s end by 2014 is to be followed by NATO’s long-term commitment to the country in acting indirectly for improving national security and political stability. Such realities can be one of the strongest avenues of future bilateral cooperation in international security, however.

Chronic insecurity in the Middle East is also a stone’s throw away from Bulgaria. Illegal immigration from Syria and Afghanistan is a regular feature on Bulgaria’s southern borders and Turkey is in constant turmoil with its unresolved Kurdish question. Not in the least important here is that the Bulgarian and American militaries conduct annual military exercises that may yet become relevant if Arab Spring 2.0 ever come along.

The EU has ambitions to be an important international actor, and it’s a centripetal force to which Bulgaria is geopolitically oriented. This is another factor that will likely come up in Borisov’s discussion with Obama, on how to balance European and NATO commitments, even if the two already overlap in so many ways.

There is always the question of Russian influence; while Washington and Moscow are on friendlier terms, there are still no illusions that they remain competitors. Relations between Bulgaria and Russia go back a millennia, and we can assume that Russian influence will be a factor at all times. The question, rather, is how to best manage it in lieu of other influences at play in Bulgaria – and that has been the capital's foreign policy conundrum for the better part of the last 134 years.  

One practical example to wrap things up: missile defense. Eastern European countries, having the unfortunate historical role as a geopolitical buffer between East and West, generally applied a pro-West foreign policy line in the last two decades, to Russia’s chagrin, and are in favor of installing missile defense components on their territories. The official reasons cite Iran and North Korea, but in reality – the Cold War just became more incognito, despite the friendlier tone. The ultimate outcome of what happens to this system will obviously not be up to Bulgaria, but Borisov has the ability to influence a direction of peace and negotiation, or simply, trust building between the big powers.

The overall picture is of a messy foreign policy agenda. Nothing will be decided on this meeting, but there will indeed be lots to talk about.