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December 5, 2012 |  Print  Your Opinion  

The First European to Meet Obama after his Reelection

Georgi Ivanov: Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov visited President Obama on Monday and brought also the ministers of foreign affairs, defence and interior to Washington. Bulgaria is located at the crossroads of three continents and transit country for two strategic natural gas pipeline projects. Relations with the US are perhaps the best in their 110-year history.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov was in Washington on Monday for a visit with Barack Obama. He was the first European leader to see the president since his successful re-election, and the delegation included the ministers of foreign affairs, defence and interior. This meeting between the two heads of state came 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 were 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 were not on the official agenda, but were likely on its undercurrent. 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 ISAF 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 exercises that may yet become relevant if conflicts in the Arab world escalate.

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 likely came 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, they're still under no illusions that they remain competitors. Relations between Bulgaria and Russia go back a millennium, 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 Sofia's foreign policy conundrum for the better part of the last 134 years.  

One practical example to wrap things up: missile defence. The historical baggage of Eastern European countries, having the unfortunate historical role as a geopolitical buffer between East and West, generally applied a pro-Western foreign policy line in the last two decades, to Russia's chagrin, in favour of installing missile defence 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 Prime Minister Borisov had the chance to influence a direction of peace and negotiation, or simply, trust-building between the big powers.

The public aspect of the meeting observed the standard diplomatic etiquette, but put security at the top of the agenda, as both leaders highlighted the good relationship between Bulgaria and the United States. For the outcome of the private meeting itself, we'll have to wait for future events to unfold, along with any potential remarks on the matter from Borisov and Obama in the coming days and weeks.

Georgi Ivanov is a graduate student in political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He was among the organizers of the 2012 Model NATO Youth Summit. For more information on the summit, click here.

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