Capital Sofia
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 359
Mobile Codes 91,92,95,98,99
ccTLD .bg
Currency Lev (1EUR = 1.95BGN)
Land Area 110,993 sq km
Population 7.5 million
Language Bulgarian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

From England, Local Perceptions of the Balkans and the Brexit Vote editor’s note: while the migration crisis has focused European public discourse on the threat or perceived threat of migrants from Muslim countries, the perception of migrants from non-Muslim countries has been largely overlooked. However, in at least one important referendum on public opinion – the June 23, 2016 Brexit vote – antipathy to ‘Eastern Europe’ made an appearance that came as a surprise to many outsiders. Some interesting opinions on the issue are found in the following brief local assessment from Leicester.

By Antonio Scancariello

Eastern European citizens living in the United Kingdom are facing an uncertain future after June’s referendum, with which Britain decided to leave the EU. The decision, also known as ‘Brexit,’ triggered debates over the rights EU citizens will have to live in the UK and is a source of worries for Romanians and Bulgarians, too.

In an informal survey designed to take the pulse of the locals in Leicester, England, asked British citizens what their views on the issue of immigration are, and where they stand when it comes to EU enlargement policies.

A barman working in one of Leicester’s pubs said: “The whole thing was quite bad, really. There will be no major changes soon, but maybe in two years time there will be more work for them to get their visas. It’s a big loss for the free movement of people, I intended to travel Europe myself.”

Commenting on having immigrants working in the UK, he said: “I don’t have any issues, we have employed Europeans here. I think the Brits who voted ‘Leave’ were the ones too lazy to get a job.”

Another respondent, a PhD student voiced this concern and said, “many people will question if they want to [come in the UK] because after the vote they feel they are not wanted. They may because they have no choice and feel like they cannot survive at home. A solution for them could be to go somewhere closer, like Germany or France.

It will take time to find a solution that can please everyone. I am not opposed to EU enlargement but it needs some reforms and needs stricter criteria,” noted this respondent.”

After the ‘Leave’ victory in the referendum held on June 23, a spate of hate speeches affected British society, which in the most serious cases resulted in the spreading of leaflets asking Polish people to go back to their countries, and act of vandalism to European shops, as the BBC reported in an article titled “Anti-Polish cards in Huntingdon after EU referendum.”

Nevertheless, since then “the hate speech that followed the referendum has died out, it was a campaign of fear,” a sales assistant said. “I can’t see sudden changes, and now it’s up to the new Tory government. As long as our economy is a strong one, we need people who can work, and there are lots of low-paid jobs to be filled.”

When he was asked what ‘Brexit’ could mean for people from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, this respondent said, “when it comes to finally leave the EU in two years time it will be hard for people to come here. But I don’t think there will be problems for the ones who are here now.”

Bulgarians and Romanians in the UK

There are 170,000 Romanians and 65,000 Bulgarians living in the UK, according to 2015 data quoted by Balkan Insight in March. Also, the UK is the fifth-largest destination for Romanian exports, accounting for slightly more than 4 percent of overall exports, evaluated at some 2.3 billion euros per year, according to the article. It notes that “social benefits are not the main drive luring Eastern Europeans to the UK, but jobs and higher wages, however.”

This motivation differs from the one frequently stated regarding MENA migrants, who have often been portrayed in European media as specifically seeking social benefits in generous countries like Sweden and Germany.

The future of both EU and non-EU citizens living in Britain is yet to be determined. Theresa May, who became prime minister after David Cameron’s resignation on June 24, put forward a new policy which would require non-EU citizens to match a £35,000 salary threshold to live in the UK, reported the Independent.

However, these are still early days and general proposals are not a substitute for final policies. Britain may have voted for Brexit, but it does not seem to be in a hurry to make the final divorce final. Nevertheless, persons who could be affected – even from EU countries like Bulgaria and Romania – will be watching events carefully in the upcoming period.

Exclusive: Secret Documents Confirm a Spiritual Cold War between the Vatican and the OSCE editor’s note: this comprehensive and unprecedented study, which draws on leaked internal Vatican documents, official speeches and interviews, reveals the uneasy relationship between two secretive institutions forced to act diplomatically- despite their own diametrically opposed understandings of human morality, freedom and the ideal role of religion in daily life. This analysis complements the comprehensive research contained in our book, The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans: Bolstering the Catholic Church in 2015 and beyond.

By Chris Deliso

Although it has never been reported, the Vatican has, unsuccessfully, attempted to relay its stance on the gay agenda, contraception, abortion and secular education via the OSCE’s annual ‘hate crimes’ reports. The latter’s decision to ignore Vatican concerns on such matters is occurring at a moment when the Holy See is far from alone in lamenting the international community’s total failure to protect Christians from genocidal terrorist groups like ISIS.

Ironically, the cold war between the two monolithic organizations in the past decade represents a total reversal of the warm relations they shared in the early 1970’s, when the Holy See played an instrumental role in organizing the OSCE’s direct descendant, the CSCE- a time when religious freedom was very much on the agenda for all.

According to a secret questionnaire obtained from the Holy See’s nunciature in Sofia, Bulgaria, the above-stated issues were just some of those discussed in the wider debate on religious freedom- the politicization of which is clear, especially during Pope Francis’ present visit to the United States, where different interest groups are trying to make their voices heard on social issues affecting the Catholic Church and its relationship with the modern world.

The fact that the Vatican has offered such questionnaires to the OSCE – which nevertheless refuses to cite much of their findings – speaks to the tense relations between these two organizations- which, despite totally divergent ideologies, share certain practices and methods.

However, the total failure of both the Holy See and OSCE/ODIHR to comment for this article reaffirms that both understand they are bound to preserve diplomatic relations, despite a sort of cold war between the two. It may also indicate a certain incompetence at OSCE headquarters in Vienna and Warsaw, where staff appear ill-prepared to respond to issues that are not commonly raised, but that are nevertheless very much in their professional purview.

Some Fundamental Differences: The Vatican and the OSCE

The Holy See is an independent state, based in Vatican City, and its leader, Pope Francis, is the recognized head of the Catholic Church internationally. As a state, the Holy See has its own embassies (nunciatures), memberships in international bodies, agreed treaties and other essential trappings of statehood. It also has an established bureaucracy and the equivalent of government ministries and security bodies. There is a high level of job security (barring misconduct) for Vatican employees, and the cardinals, from whose ranks each new pope is drawn, serve lifetime appointments. Finally, there are clear and traceable institutional structures of the Catholic Church in most countries, radiating down from the Holy See to the smallest parish church. The Church of Rome has existed for roughly 2,000 years.

The OSCE, on the other hand, is quite a different animal. It came into existence formally only 20 years ago. And rather than state or even institutional legitimacy, it is merely a constantly evolving political agreement and thus susceptible to all manner of manipulation, from both within and without. Its staffs’ visible roles in conflict zones have led to numerous charges of espionage and double-dealing as different powers vie for influence over world events.

The OSCE also was born out of a different historical context: it derives ultimately from a 1973 conference, which served as a sort of Cold War-era avenue for communications between the rival power blocs. But, like NATO, it has outlived its original mandate and transformed its orientation. For whereas the CSCE was originally considered an initiative for outreach and common ground between two well-established and distinct world power blocs during the Cold War, it is today a liberal-globalist organization that claims to, but does not, represent the majority of its vast and variegated populations comprising 57 member states. Instead, it represents an ideological view shared only by a small, cross-national liberal elite.

At present, the OSCE plays a role in all manner of causes, from election-monitoring to human rights commenting and ‘conflict management.’ Its 2015 budget is over 140 million euros- a sign of how its ambition and reach have increased since 1991, when the budget of its precursor group was just the equivalent of 12 million euros. The high point was reached in 2000, in the wake of the Kosovo bombing, when the budget topped 202 million euros. However, as the budget heads towards gradual retraction, or at least stasis, career-hungry bureaucrats and political opportunists keep coming up with new and improved uses for the negotiated body- as ever, a political work in progress without permanent mandate, institutional grounding or accountability.

Prehistory: the Vatican’s Ostpolitik and the CSCE

The initiative that would ultimately lead to the creation of the OSCE – the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) – opened in Finland in 1973. The Soviet Union, NATO countries and neutral parties all saw advantages of their own in whatever security forum might derive from the talks. The Vatican was no exception.

The so-called Helsinki Process talks opened in the Finnish capital on July 3, 1973, and were attended by 35 states. The conference’s opening address was delivered by Vatican diplomat Agostino Casaroli, who would become a cardinal and then Secretary of State under Pope John Paul II in 1979. Casaroli had a long and distinguished career of dealing with Socialist countries like Yugoslavia and Hungary- a fact, incidentally that made him a favorite target of KGB bugging. (Indeed, Hungary was the Eastern Bloc state specifically tasked with anti-Vatican espionage, as we discuss in our book).

Speaking at the 1973 conference, Casaroli warned that human rights violations would lead “sooner or later, somewhere in Europe, to grave internal disturbances.” In the charged context of the 1970’s, the Vatican considered the West a sort of ally against Communist repression of religion. It is both striking and odd that, in its public rhetoric towards Christianity in Europe (such as the pope’s trip to Albania last year), the Vatican continues to concentrate on the dark days of communism, when in the contemporary setting it is actually post-Christian Western Europe and the ideals it claims to represent that are antithetical to the Vatican’s values. Perhaps it would simply be awkward to point this out too often to European audiences. At the same time, dwelling on past enemies is not going to help the Vatican face any of its present and future threats.

The evolution of the CSCE continued with a main working group phase, held in Geneva until July 1975. The Helsinki Final Act, which resulted from this, was signed by the 35 participating states during the third stage of the Helsinki Process- a three-day event beginning on July 30, 1975. This final session was opened by Msgr. Casaroli, chairman of the conference. Freedom of conscience, thought, belief and religion were agreed as being among 10 principles of inter-state relations. However, “this merely repeated in cursory language commitments made under previous treaties,” noted Jonathan Luxmoore and Jolanta Babiuch in The Vatican and the Red Flag.

“While these had treaty status, furthermore, the final act was ‘politically binding’ only,” the authors continued. Vatican conservatives were disappointed, thinking that the Soviet bloc had gotten off easy. But the real importance of this for the future, structurally speaking, was that it created a nebulous, non-institutional and diplomatically illegitimate area in which the CSCE (and future OSCE) could operate, with neither responsibility nor accountability- at the same time however increasing its leverage, funding and influence over real-world political, social and crisis events.

Similarly, owing to the geopolitical realities of 1973, the whole CSCE infrastructure and interface were made equally elusive. An annual rotating presidency (in 2015, being held by Serbia) would give individual states some sense of participation, but it also further decentralized responsibility and diffused records.

Meanwhile, the rules for consensus on decision-making were deliberately weak: negotiators took a negative approach. Quoting from the formative Blue Book of the negotiations, author Jan Sizoo recalled in 1984’s CSCE Decision-Making: the Madrid Experience what those present agreed: that in theory “consensus shall be understood to mean the absence of any objection… to the taking of the decision.”

This meant that silence by itself simply meant agreement, institutionalizing abstention and thus making it much easier for weak member countries to defer to the wishes of strong ones without having to risk political consequences. However, some parties were more resolute: “the Vatican representative during the Helsinki Consultations made the principled statement that his silence was not to be interpreted as agreement but rather as an effort not to stand in the way of the consensus.”

This sort of weak decision-making structure in an organization that only enjoyed legitimacy through simple political agreement laid very unstable foundations for the future OSCE. Just as bad, a tendency toward bureaucratic obfuscation that has similarly been inherited was also noted even from the beginning. For example, Sizoo added, “the official publications of the Final Act and subsequent concluding documents do not extend to reservations and interpretative statements made so that only specialized CSCE know anything about them.” The author also noted how difficult it was to find much of the original documentation, that at that time was of fairly recent provenance.

Although the creation of a permanent secretariat since then (and the development of the internet) have to some extent improves access to documentation, good luck getting anything meaningful from OSCE officials: theirs remains a notoriously secretive organization. Investigating its inner workings is an almost impossible task, partially because of the fear and paranoia the organization instills in its own employees- a condition which, somewhat ironically, would be more appropriate to some communist dictatorship of yesteryear. This, however, is a story for another time.

The Vatican’s Approach to the CSCE as Representative of its Overall Diplomatic Tactics

As we shall soon see in the troubled modern history of Holy See-OSCE relations, the former has tended to view the latter as a necessary evil- a body with significant cachet that must be dealt with, but one that has become far less friendly than it could have been since those optimistic early days.

The fact that the Holy See picked someone of Casaroli’s caliber in 1973, and that it would use its considerable diplomatic capital to have him chair the conference of the nascent CSCE, also reaffirms the value that the Vatican has historically placed on being involved in multilateral treaties and diplomatic processes. It has done this in part to make up for its small size and to preserve its sense of equality as a state actor under international law. For its voice to be heard more often on the world stage, groups like the OSCE play a useful role for the Vatican’s diplomatic projection.

Indeed, even if no one really could say what tangible results might come of the Helsinki Process in the 1970s, the Vatican’s keen instincts for taking a leading role in international diplomacy were evident at a time when it was gearing up to select a pope who would help take down communism. (The fear that if elected, Krakow Archbishop Karol Wojtyla would act aggressively against the Soviet Union was accurately predicted by Hungarian intelligence, several years before his papal election- as we discuss in our book).

Cardinal Casaroli was less of a hardliner than the Polish pope’s other advisors, and his ostpolitik outreach was thus mistrusted by some churchmen who favored blocking relations with the communist world as a sort of general protest against repression of religious freedom. Nevertheless, Casaroli’s policy prevailed, and he would play an instrumental diplomatic role in dealing with the declining Soviet empire.

The Post-Soviet Transformation of the CSCE/OSCE: The Power Grab

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Holy See went into high gear in the Balkans, marshalling support in European countries for the independence of Catholic Slovenia and Croatia, while moving quickly to revive its former fortunes in long-atheist Albania, and gradually to play a tacit role in the Kosovo negotiations.

The new European situation also meant that the CSCE, which had played a genuinely multilateral role previously, would be re-oriented towards a decisively liberal, pro-Western ideology. This is extremely important to note because it is not at all clear how this ideology – one that does not nearly represent the majority view of the citizens of the OSCE’s current 57 member states – was institutionalized. Precisely because of the enormous influence that the OSCE still retains over things like approval of election results, this is a question that should be raised, but never is.

The CSCE was renamed the OSCE on January 1, 1995, following a conference held the year before in Budapest. It was the conclusion of a post-Cold War initiative, the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, signed in November 1990. The OSCE, though it was neither a state nor subject of international law, was institutionalized according to consensus and given a bureaucratic structure; this would consist of a formal secretariat, senior council, parliamentary assembly, conflict prevention center, and office for free elections (which would later become the so-called Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR). While the OSCE leadership was based in Vienna, the latter was based in Warsaw.

This was followed by the December 1996 Lisbon Declaration on a Common and Comprehensive Security Model for Europe for the Twenty-First Century (official document available here). Referencing both the Final Act of 1975 and the recent Paris agreement, this was where the organization made its definitive power grab, assigning to itself superhuman capabilities, the effects of which we are still suffering from today. (Not coincidentally, this was also the period in which gangster capitalism and Yeltsin’s weak rule brought Russian bargaining power to its lowest ebb).

For example, Article 4 notes that “respect for human rights remains fundamental to our concept of democracy and to the democratization process enshrined in the Charter of Paris. We are determined to consolidate the democratic gains that have occurred since 1989 and peacefully manage their further development in the OSCE region.” That is not ambiguous.

The next clause, number 5, really raises eyebrows: “the OSCE has a key role to play in fostering security and stability in all their dimensions.” This is quite a statement for a quasi-institution lacking any real status, in which consensus can be achieved simply by abstention. The clause urges the OSCE “to continue our efforts and further enhance its efficiency as a primary instrument for early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management, and post-conflict rehabilitation capabilities.”

In article 9, the OSCE further gave itself the mandate to enforce the social orientation of all member states, “with respect to human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The aim was “to anchor the common values of a free and democratic society in all participating states,” and to address alleged human-rights violations such as “involuntary migration, and the lack of full democratization, threats to independent media, electoral fraud, manifestations of aggressive nationalism, racism, chauvinism and anti-Semitism.”

The lack of a specific mention of anti-Christian attacks, and the need to protect Christians, in this clause would irritate the Vatican and in part help fuel the latter’s tenacious drive in subsequent years to have more attention paid to this issue. However, the backwards-looking nature of both the entire OSCE process and the church, which built their agendas out of an obsession with Communism, was ill-suited to a future reality when social values, technology, terrorism and the weather would become the most significant new features of political and social discourse. Lack of legitimacy aside, the nascent OSCE was therefore from the beginning ill-suited to tackling the emerging threats to world security.

In the 11th article, the group mandated itself the task of creating a position of an “OSCE representative for freedom of the media,” as part of its self-appointed mission to handle this burning issue, again within the backwards-looking context of communist oppression. In the 12th, the group expanded its powers widely and vaguely to include “security-related economic, social and environmental issues.” Numerous subsequent motions in the document regarding the Balkans and Caucasus indicate the degree to which the OSCE as a body developed its inherent institutional memory from the challenges of the years in which it first developed. This helps to explain the OSCE’s continued obsession and sense of entitlement in the Balkans today, in much different times.

The Great Legitimization: NATO Recognition of OSCE Power

Crucially, the OSCE was given further legitimacy by NATO the following year in the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation. Here the OSCE is credited as “the only pan-European security organisation,” one which “has a key role in European peace and stability.” It is thus highly significant to note that, again, the institutionalization and practical canonization of the OSCE occurred at the nadir of Russian strength under Yeltsin, and at a time when UN peacekeeping bodies (the ostensibly legitimate security actors) were being widely criticized for failures in different parts of the world. The document continued by adding that “in strengthening the OSCE, NATO and Russia will cooperate to prevent any possibility of returning to a Europe of division and confrontation, or the isolation of any state.”

In consideration of the OSCE’s work on a Common and Comprehensive Security Model for Europe for the Twenty-First Century, and the Lisbon Summit’s Charter on European security, NATO and Russia pledged to “seek the widest possible cooperation among participating States of the OSCE with the aim of creating in Europe a common space of security and stability, without dividing lines or spheres of influence limiting the sovereignty of any state.”

However, at the OSCE’s Istanbul summit two years later, the demand for a political settlement to the Chechnya crisis confirmed Russian concerns that the OSCE was in fact a tool of the West. Yet rather than exit the quasi-institution, Moscow decided to take advantage of its participation within it wherever it could, which is the same policy all other members have followed, to the extent to which they can- essentially reduplicating the same differences and animosities the whole enterprise was ideally meant to minimize in the first place.

This is the short version of how the outcome of a Cold War negotiation process eventually turned into a de facto institution wielding influence far beyond that of many states, while nevertheless not even existing as such. However, despite internal diplomatic and intelligence operations that would be expected within such a large and divergent body, the OSCE’s neo-liberal and ‘progressive’ worldview has remained stubbornly entrenched. And this is a large part of how the OSCE came into confrontation with the Vatican.

Vatican Concern over the OSCE’s Perceived Deviation from its Original Mandate: the 2008 Frontiero Intervention

While the Holy See has a clear hierarchy and, except for the odd exception, keeps discipline with the Catholic ranks, the OSCE is remarkable in that the liberal ideology it lives by is not even shared by all of its own employees, let alone the grand ‘international community’ it claims to represent. Some magical, invisible force seems to keep the organization’s public utterances pristine and political correct, however.

This comes into focus in terms of issues that are important for the Vatican (as well as other religious institutions). For example, while the OSCE is very active on the gay-rights agenda, only about a third of member states allow gay marriage, several have constitutional bans against it, and some large countries (such as Russia) have laws against ‘gay propaganda.’ And even in the United States, which seems inevitably headed for universal gay marriage, a large and vocal opposition continues to be mounted by Christian and other opponents.

The OSCE’s contemporary reorientation towards the championing of groups and causes not envisioned in its founding documents of 1973 has caused great consternation in the Holy See in recent years, but hardly only due to the ‘culture wars’ aspects of it. Rather, the OSCE is seen by the Curia as upholding moral relativism socially, while also impotently watching the wholesale destruction of Christianity in the Middle East from the sidelines.

Even before the final coming of Islamic State, this has been a point which the Vatican has tried, more or less unsuccessfully, to put higher on the OSCE agenda. For example, Msgr. Anthony Frontiero of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace made an impassioned speech in an October 2008 working group on ‘Combating Hate Crimes against Christians and Members of Other Religions’ with ODIHR in Warsaw. “The issue of religious freedom, of course, and the right to believe in God and to practice that belief, is a fundamental human right, one that is very much a part of the OSCE commitments,” affirmed the Vatican delegate.

In order to better understand the current situation and archival documents presented, it is worth citing Msgr. Frontiero’s 2008 argument in detail:

“The Holy See has expressed its deep concern over these situations in a concrete way through its active participation in the meetings of the National Points of Contact on combating hate crime organized by the ODIHR, and by joining in the comprehensive consultation process on this issue with governments and civil society alike. While the Holy See appreciates the efforts of the OSCE and ODIHR in combating hate crimes, it is increasingly concerned that the ODIHR is moving away from its strong commitment to combating hate crimes against Christians and members of other religions, and shifting its focus instead, and without the consensus of participating States, to other concerns. Hate crimes, intolerance and discrimination against Christians and members of other religions continue all too frequently and yet the ODIHR is increasingly downplaying these incidents and promoting other agendas that do not find a mandate in the OSCE commitments.

This is abundantly clear from the 2007 Annual Report on Hate Crimes in the OSCE Region—Incidents and Responses, and it is cause for alarm for the Delegation of the Holy See, which has repeatedly asked the ODIHR to refrain from putting the incidents of Christians and members of other religions on the back burner, and to remain appropriately focused on this OSCE agreed commitments. This said, the Holy See reiterates its call for a more balanced and transparent approach on the part of the ODIHR, in accordance with Ministerial Decisions and existing commitments.”

Although the words ‘gay rights’ are not mentioned, it is clear that the monsignor’s complaints have to do with the championing of issues such as these, that were not anticipated in 1973 and that have crept up into the OSCE mandate more or less as a result of changing cultural norms in the Western world. As a result, the Holy See (and Christianity in general) is in the present moment perceiving external hostility not only from those who set out to violently attack Christians, but the many more who discredit its tenets and beliefs.

The Arab Spring and the Evolution of Vatican Policy towards the OSCE under Benedict XVI

The Holy See’s concerns voiced in 2008 and earlier intensified as the predictably destructive Arab Spring got underway in early 2011. The Vatican was working on a policy developed under Pope Benedict XVI, long known as particularly sensitive to the issue of Christian survival in intolerant conditions. Practically coinciding with the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a roundtable was held at the Alcide De Gasperi Centre in Rome to discuss the issues. Entitled Preventing and Responding to Hate and Crimes against Christians, it was held under the then-Lithuanian chairmanship of the OSCE on September 12, 2011.

According to the official transcript, then-Secretary for Relations between States Msgr. Dominique Mamberti reminded attendees that “the Holy See is a participating State of OSCE since its inception in 1975 and seeks to contribute vigorously to OSCE activities and projects both through direct participation and through its Permanent Mission in Vienna.”

The Holy See’s strategy and pressure for further engagement, developed since 2007, further had born fruit in May 2011 when, Msgr. Mamberti added, “the three Personal Representatives of the Chairman-in-Office for combating intolerance and discrimination conducted their first visit to the Vatican, an event which further highlighted the continuous cooperation between OSCE and the Holy See.”

The State Secretary further noted the historical and legal view of OSCE responsibilities, which again confirms the strategic view of the Catholic Church towards continued participation in the group. “A main reason for this Round Table Discussion is the fact that the guarantee of religious freedom has always been, and still is, at the core of OSCE activities,” he said.

“Ever since it was enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, and reaffirmed in no uncertain terms in subsequent documents, among which the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document and the 1990 Document of the Copenhagen Meeting on the Human Dimension of the then CSCE, the safeguarding of religious liberty has continued to occupy a central place in the comprehensive approach of OSCE to security issues.”
Regarding hate crimes against Christians, Mamberti referred to Pope Benedict’s 2011 Message for the World Day of Peace, in which the former pontiff said that “at present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith. Many Christians experience daily affronts and often live in fear because of their pursuit of truth, their faith in Jesus Christ and their heartfelt plea for respect for religious freedom. This situation is unacceptable, since it represents an insult to God and to human dignity; furthermore, it is a threat to security and peace, and an obstacle to the achievement of authentic and integral human development.”

While Mamberti conceded that the majority of hate crimes against Christians happen outside the OSCE area, he stated that there are “warning signs even within that area.” He cited the ODIHR’s annual hate crime report as providing “irrefutable proof of a growing intolerance against Christians,” and that to ignore this “sends a negative signal” to non-member states as well.

Further, in articulating that “a renewed awareness of the problem be raised everywhere,” Mamberti referenced the Resolution of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly “adopted this year in Belgrade as an important step towards “initiat[ing] a public debate on intolerance and discrimination against Christians, as stated in the document. Hopefully, concrete measures will be developed to combat intolerance against Christians as a follow-up of this Conference.”

What did the Vatican see as the solution? Mamberti again referenced comments from Benedict XVI regarding how best “to promote and consolidate religious liberty, the concept of which must be clear from the outset.”

“In his address of January 10, 2011, to the members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, the Holy Father argued that religious liberty is ‘the first of human rights, not only because it was historically the first to be recognized but also because it touches the constitutive dimension of man, his relation with his Creator.’

Mamberti also quoted Benedict as having said religious freedom worldwide is “often called into question or violated” and that “society, its leaders and public opinion are becoming more and more aware, even if not always in a clear way, of this grave attack on the dignity and freedom of homo religiosus.”

Theological and Real-World Implications of Pope Benedict’s Stance: the Church Vs. Moral Relativism and Radical Secularism

Pope Benedict XVI was and is known as a theologian first and foremost, and his careful consideration of the wider definition of religious freedom – which informs the sort of hate crimes ostensibly covered by the OSCE – is part of what made a train wreck between the two institutions inevitable.

This is made obvious from the remainder of Mamberti’s 2011 lecture to the assembled OSCE audience. The argument presented seeks a much wider definition for hate crimes and anti-religious activities- an attitude revealed in the leaked Vatican documents we make available below. “It follows that religious freedom cannot be restricted to the simple freedom of worship,” the cleric said, “although the latter is obviously an important part of it.” Rather, he continued, “religious freedom includes, among others, the right to preach, educate, convert, contribute to the political discourse and participate fully in public activities.”

If the idea of Christianity appearing in public policy formulation were not enough to make OSCE liberal bureaucrats squirm in their chairs, the State Secretary’s further contentions certainly were. “Nor is true religious liberty synonymous with relativism or with the post-modern idea that religion is a marginal component of public life,” he challenged the audience. “Pope Benedict XVI has often underscored the danger of a radical secularism that relegates, a priori, all kinds of religious manifestations to the private sphere.”

Further, Mamberti added, “relativism and secularism deny two fundamental aspects of the religious phenomenon, and hence of the right to religious freedom, that call for respect: the transcendental and the social dimensions of religion in which the human person seeks to be related, according to the dictates of his conscience, to the reality, so to say, above and around him. Religion is more than just a private opinion or Weltanschauung. It always has an impact on society and its moral principles.”

He further expressed the Holy See’s gratitude to the OSCE for denouncing the kind of ‘hard’ persecution suffered by Christians (attacks, murder, etc.). However, he added, that is only one part of the full hate-crimes portfolio: “if it is true that the risk of hate crimes is connected to the denial of religious liberty, we should not forget that there are serious problems even in areas of the world where fortunately there is no violent persecution of Christians. Sadly, acts motivated by bias against Christians are fast becoming a reality also in those countries where they constitute a majority.”

Mamberti again referred to Pope Benedict’s same speech to the Diplomatic Corps, in which the uncompromising pope singled out the moral relativists of the West: “turning our gaze from East to West, we find ourselves faced with other kinds of threats to the full exercise of religious freedom. I think in the first place of countries which accord great importance to pluralism and tolerance, but where religion is increasingly being marginalized. There is a tendency to consider religion, all religion, as something insignificant, alien or even destabilizing to modern society, and to attempt by different means to prevent it from having any influence on the life of society.”

What the Vatican policy was getting at, therefore, was to instrumentalize an untrustworthy but necessary commodity – the ultra-liberal, unavoidable and influential OSCE – to transmit its theological views of an expanded ‘hate crimes’ definition, ideally, with real-world examples.

Indeed, Mamberti hoped, the 2011 conference would “help to shed light on the incidence of hate crimes against Christians even in regions where international public opinion would not normally expect them to happen. For hate crimes almost invariably feed on an environment where religious freedom is not fully respected and religion is discriminated against.”

In case there was still any misunderstanding about the Vatican’s venture, Mamberti added that “it is important that we continue our conversation on the substance of religious liberty, on its fundamental connection with the idea of truth, and on the difference between religious freedom and relativism that merely tolerates religion while considering it with some degree of hostility.”

Whether or not the latter reference was a veiled reference to the OSCE, it is indisputable, as we will see, that the OSCE’s own structure of hate crimes would definitely put it in that category, as far as the Vatican is concerned.

To appreciate the complexity of the Benedictine theological approach to the issue (which assuredly goes way over the heads of OSCE bureaucrats, who are in any case not interested in the subject), it is worth quoting in detail Mamberti’s citation of the pope’s 2011 Message for the World Day of Peace. In it, the Vatican diplomat notes:

“Religious freedom – the Holy Father said – should be understood, then, not merely as immunity from coercion, but even more fundamentally as an ability to order one’s own choices in accordance with truth. […] A freedom which is hostile or indifferent to God becomes self-negating and does not guarantee full respect for others.

A will which believes itself radically incapable of seeking truth and goodness has no objective reasons or motives for acting save those imposed by its fleeting and contingent interests; it does not have an ‘identity’ to safeguard and build up through truly free and conscious decisions. As a result, it cannot demand respect from other ‘wills’, which are themselves detached from their own deepest being and thus capable of imposing other ‘reasons’ or, for that matter, no ‘reason’ at all.

The illusion that moral relativism provides the key for peaceful coexistence is actually the origin of divisions and the denial of the dignity of human beings.”

From this definition, Mamberti concluded that “precisely this vision which identifies freedom with relativism or militant agnosticism, and which casts doubt on the possibility of ever knowing the truth, could be an underlying factor in the increased occurrence of those hate incidents and crimes which will be the object of our debate today.”

An Unwelcome Reorientation of OSCE Values

If there really was a debate on that day in 2011, then the Vatican does not seem to have won over anyone in OSCE-land, as a careful review of their hate crimes reports shows no entries of any violations having to do with justifications arising from Benedict’s expansive theology. Rather, the hate crimes noted are merely the usual, garden-variety acts of vandalism and harassment. Yet this still does not answer the question of whether such data was collected by the Vatican and deliberately excluded by the OSCE due to ideological differences, or simply was never collected or presented by the Vatican at all. Since neither side would comment for this article, it will probably remain a mystery for the ages.

Whatever the case may be, the OSCE does seem to have an institutional anti-Christian bias, or at least negligence, in its priorities and emphasis. Of great significance in Msgr. Frontiero’s 2008 speech was the very fact that he was specifically talking about violations against ‘Christians and members of other religions.’

This is not just a question of random wording. Rather, it follows the exact category structure of victim groups on the OSCE website, which distinguishes hate crimes according to the following ‘bias motivators’: racism and xenophobia; bias against Roma and Sinti; Anti-Semitism; bias against Muslims; bias against Christians and members of other religions; bias against other groups, and bias against LGBT people.

Adding insult to injury for the Vatican, whereas Christians – the majority population in the OSCE region – are lumped in with ‘members of other religions,’ Muslims receive generous special treatment. They even get their own focus groups and government trainings by the OSCE, as well as special assistance documents: one is entitled, ‘How Can We Address Hate Crimes against Muslims?’ Another is called ‘Guidelines for Educators on Countering Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims: Addressing Islamophobia through Education.’ The latter text is available in six languages and comprises consultations from around 40 experts, including academics and representatives of UNESCO, various NGOs and other ‘stakeholders.’ It must have been fairly expensive to produce. There are zero documents of comparable depth or importance on the relevant OSCE page regarding Christianity.

2015: A Partial Result for the Holy See

Years of lobbying, combined with the increasingly obvious existential crisis for Christians in the Middle East, led the OSCE to again entertain the Vatican’s request for a conference, on May 18, 2015, devoted to discrimination against Christians. An official summary discussed the proceedings. Delegations from various OSCE member states and NGO’s working on intolerance and discrimination against Christians spoke in three sessions “about the importance of enhancing efforts to prevent and combat intolerance and discrimination against Christians in the OSCE region, focusing on hate crimes, exclusion, marginalization and denial of rights.”

The Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE), which covers 45 countries, was represented at the 2015 OSCE conference by Fr. Michel Remery, CCEE Vice-Secretary General, and Miss Raffaella Di Noia, an up-and-coming young Italian scholar with experience dealing with UN institutions for the Holy See in Geneva. Fr. Remery is notable as being the Holy See’s National Point of Contact for hate crimes against Christians. As such he was part of the Holy See’s official delegation, led by Msgr. Janusz Urbańczyk, Permanent Representative of the Holy See at the OSCE and other international organizations based in Vienna.

Msgr. Urbańczyk had previously been Vatican emissary to the UN in New York. A Polish priest ordained in 1992, he was nominated by Pope Francis on January 12, 2015 to the sensitive posting in Vienna, where he now has to deal with the often prickly and self-important OSCE administrative personalities on a regular basis. However, Urbańczyk’s remit also involves diplomacy with other, serious international bodies: these include the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.

The May 2015 Conference as Confirmation of Vatican Policy Continuity on Religious Freedom

While researching this subject over the past year or so, we have had to ask an important question: whether some of the policy areas outlined in the 2011 Vatican questionnaire could have been uniquely commissioned by the more conservative Benedict XVI, according to his theological arguments of that year already quoted at length, and that they therefore may have been excluded from subsequent years’ questionnaires by the more liberal-minded pontiff in Pope Francis.

While this question is an important one, it will have to remain unanswered due to the unavailability of other more recent questionnaires and non-cooperation of Vatican officials. Nevertheless, any theological or policy deviation seems highly unlikely, judging by the tone and statements of the May 2015 conference. Even in the time of the supposedly more liberal Francis, these positions indicate a continued concern with issues regarding religious freedom specific to Christianity articulated in 2011 (and at all times earlier). There is thus no reason to suspect any doctrinal change in the past four years.

For example, in the conference the Holt See stated that “it is well documented that year after year Christians are the religious group most persecuted and discriminated against on the global level. In certain regions, including those at the doorstep of the OSCE region, one could even speak of genocidal tendencies in these persecutions. Thankfully, the Christians living in the OSCE region are spared such atrocities.”

More significantly, the Vatican participants also noted that “particularly worrisome is the fact that across the OSCE region a sharp dividing line has been drawn between religious belief and religious practice, so that Christians are frequently reminded in public discourse or even in the courts, that they can believe whatever they like in private, and worship as they wish in their own churches, but they simply cannot act on those beliefs in public.” This indicates that Benedict’s affirmation of Christian freedom to participate in public policy has not been altered by the current pontiff.

As we will see from the official Vatican documentation below, this remains a very sensitive spot which the OSCE refuses to consider in its reportage, straining relations with the Holy See still further as the cold war between the two drags on. That the two parties remain fundamentally at odds was confirmed by this striking conference statement:

“Tolerance towards one view should not lead to intolerance towards others. Intolerance in the name of ‘tolerance’ must be named for what it is and publicly condemned. To deny religiously informed moral arguments a place in the public square is intolerant, anti-democratic and anti-religious.”

These are strong words and no doubt greatly irritated the liberal OSCE representatives forced to be in attendance. In a cruel irony, the organization that the Vatican was quick to get behind in 1973 for the sake of religious freedom has turned out to be one of its gravest adversaries on the same issue, in a socially and politically distinct era.

However, despite their awareness that priorities in the OSCE have changed considerably in today’s post-Christian Europe, the Vatican remains true to its policy of using membership in international organizations such as this to make a case for its foreign policy and moral argument. Rather than censure the organization or even leave it, the Vatican seems to be retaining a patient but persistent policy of advocacy. It is better to make the best of a bad situation, it reasons, than to be excluded and have no voice at all. The Holy See thus concluded with the following invocation:

“We call upon the participating States to act clearly against such hate crimes and to protect the Christians in their territories. Furthermore, we encourage them to report these incidents and seriously engage in ensuring that all their citizens, including Christians, can live peacefully, freely professing and practising their faith.”

‘Hate Crimes’ Defined, Preferential Treatment and OSCE/ODIHR Operational Methodology

Like everything else about this quasi-institution, the OSCE’s definition of ‘hate crimes’ is somewhat opaque. According to the OSCE:

Hate crimes are criminal acts motivated by bias or prejudice towards particular groups of people. To be considered a hate crime, the offence must meet two criteria: First, the act must constitute an offence under criminal law; second, the act must have been motivated by bias.

Bias motivations can be broadly defined as preconceived negative opinions, stereotypical assumptions, intolerance or hatred directed to a particular group that shares a common characteristic, such as race, ethnicity, language, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender or any other fundamental characteristic. People with disabilities may also be victims of hate crimes.”

Essentially, what the OSCE (through its ODIHR office in Warsaw) has done since 2004 is to collect, confirm and publish reports of hate crimes in the above categories, drawing on information gained from National Points of Contact in each OSCE member state. Such persons are entrusted with being the liaison and guaranteeing a smooth and accurate flow of data. The OSCE claims to work with religious organizations and NGOs, but to confirm the findings through getting official feedback from law enforcement officials in each country. Although some OSCE-member governments keep official logs of ‘hate crimes,’ many others do not. Thus, the final reports are uneven, and do note some cases in which a nominated hate crime cannot be confirmed by the authorities.

For a categorical example, according to the OSCE, “the Holy See has no hate crime laws and does not provide official data on hate crime to ODIHR. The Holy See reports on hate incidents related to bias against Christians in other participating States.” In fact, reading through numerous ODIHR reports indicates that the Vatican is one of the most active contributors of hate-crime information in numerous countries, though ODIHR often fails to confirm the Vatican’s assertion of bias.

ODIHR’s annual hate crime reporting cycle includes a multi-stage approach, which culminates with publication on November 18th, the so-called ‘Tolerance Day’:

“First, the Office issues a call for submissions to OSCE participating States, civil society organizations and its partner intergovernmental organizations. Second, ODIHR analyses reported data and information, and assesses whether it can be included in the report. Third, the Office releases data for consultation with participating States and other contributors. Lastly, ODIHR reviews suggested amendments to the report, updates to include late submissions, and prepares the information for final presentation.”

While this might all sound well and good, a careful reading of multiple ODIHR reports indicates that the structure, in which states are called upon to verify the charges made by claimants, is rigged against the Holy See. More often than not, the counter-confirmation of the ‘reporting country’ is given the benefit of the doubt, when denying that a particular offense was in fact religiously-motivated. On the other hand, NGOs reporting on more liberal-friendly causes like gay rights tend to be given the benefit of the doubt when claiming that an offense was committed due to bias. (We also know of cases in which Balkan NGOs, but not Christian ones, have literally and covertly attacked their own premises in the hopes of getting more sympathy and thus more grants money).

At the same time, the ODIHR assessors seem to give the benefit of the doubt much more frequently to reporting bodies (religious and NGOs) alleging ‘Islamophobic’ or ‘homophobic’ attacks. OSCE advocacy even goes as far as a full booklet entitled Guidelines for Educators on Countering Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims: Addressing Islamophobia through Education.

There are thus several questionable aspects regarding the structure of OSCE/ODIHR hate crimes reporting, over a sustained period of time. Victim group preferences and strident political correctness are clearly visible. This can safely be considered a chosen policy, though who particularly chose it remains unclear.

Finally, regarding methodology it must be noted that NPCs in participating states “are given individual access to a web-based questionnaire,” which covers five main areas. The first is data collection methods (identifying which authorities collect data, what types of crimes and bias motivations are noted, etc). The second regards existing and proposed hate crime legislation. The third incorporates reported hate crime data, in the (relatively few) countries where hate crimes are specifically identified.

Fourth, the questionnaire considers policies and initiatives (including trainings, victim-support programmes, government and NGO activity and so on). Finally, the NPCs are asked to identify notable cases “that merited a specific response from police and other criminal justice agencies.”

The OSCE/ODIHR Hate Crime Report Methodology and the Vatican’s Turn to Creative Phrasing

The foregoing gives a good context for a deeper understanding of the leaked Vatican documents obtained by in the present report. Although they date from the year 2012, and refer to the year 2011, they confirm several important details about the relationship between the Holy See and the OSCE/ODIHR, not to mention the Vatican’s relationship with Balkan states and its own self-perceived role as a defender of Christian rights and values.

Considering the organized nature of the OSCE’s online questionnaires for NPCs, it is quite striking to note from the internal documents that the Vatican aims to circumvent this structure with its own format; nevertheless, for all its efforts, the Vatican’s uniquely-phrased questions have zero chance of appearing in any report published by a liberal organization like the OSCE.

Nevertheless, the precise and legalistic formulations of these questions is remarkable, no matter how unlikely they are to elicit a response that could be accepted by the OSCE under its own specific understanding of ‘hate crimes.’

To illustrate the yawning, irreconcilable gulf between the value systems of the Holy See and the OSCE, we can simply reproduce a few of the former’s entries on the 2011 hate crimes questionnaire. It is very likely that the Vatican also uses the questions on this questionnaire as a template for other of its questionnaires circulated around the world. The below questionnaire is thus probably not unique to the Balkans, despite having been circulated there.

One provocative question asks: “is it legally possible in your country for a pharmacist to decline the sale of abortifacients (the morning after pill, RU486) for ethical, conscientious or religious reasons?

Also regarding abortion, another question asks: “are there legal provisions that prohibit or otherwise limit the ability of Christians to demonstrate peacefully in public in front of clinics or other ‘health institutions’ that provide services contrary to human life?”

Another question sure to make any ODIHR liberal spontaneously combust would be the third one: “are there legal provisions that prohibit or otherwise limit the ability of Christians to publically express the immorality of homosexual acts, even while respecting the inherent dignity of homosexual people?”

As we have not seen any completed form, but only the empty one provided by the Holy See’s nunciature in Sofia, Bulgaria, it is impossible to know whether any local authorities even bothered to answer these questions. Certainly, Church diplomats already known well that even if they were supported by voluminous evidence, such topics would have no chance of being acceptable to the ODIHR evaluators. Still, the Holy See is duty-bound to try, as was made clear by Pope Benedict’s theological argument for religious freedoms, and thus, the perceived violations of them.

The Holy See’s Liaison with Intelligence Services as a Precautionary Measure to Expected OSCE Resistance

At the same time, the Holy See is well aware that the OSCE’s verification process sets the bar higher for Christian complainers than for others. From the point of view of the security community, this is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the whole operation. The Vatican’s field representatives’ decision to have questionnaires passed through secret channels to police and intelligence officials is due to an awareness that state bodies are, under the OSCE’s process, obliged to confirm or deny the anti-Christian character of any particular violation.

Therefore, the Holy See reasons it has a better chance of getting a sympathetic confirmation from the authorities – which would bolster its case in the final OSCE reportage – if it has advance knowledge that the state in question will support its specific claims. The need for this is quite obvious; a careful examination of OSCE reports in recent years shows that the reporting states generally have not confirmed many specific anti-Christian biases in attacks against churches and other violations, ones which the Holy See has specifically pointed to as being examples of Christian persecution. For both those persons charged with collecting the data and the curia, this must be a deeply frustrating lack of result.

It should be noted that the OSCE’s process here is not a secret. The organization’s website states that “the Holy See also collects information on hate incidents based on bias against Christians through its network of regional representatives. This information is submitted by ODIHR to authorities in the respective participating States for verification and information on the status of investigation and of hate motive.”

Aware that this practice will occur and may endanger the inclusion of a reported hate crime, the nuncio’s offices are tasked with liaising indirectly with the intelligence services of the countries in which they operate and hope to cover. While there is no evidence that the Vatican tries to exert pressure to get ‘a result’ through this practice, it is also clear that strategically the church wishes to gain an advantage over a hostile OSCE by previewing potential complaints with security services; however, the latter do not seem to have put any kind of priority on this mission, however. Instead, in some countries the practice has just served to cultivate internal suspicions over the scale of Vatican ambitions.

However, the Holy See does not have to rely merely on official connections. This (attempted) liaison activity is meant to complement the Catholic Church’s formidable intelligence-gathering apparatus, which includes church structures, charities, prominent individuals, and collaborators like the Knights of Malta, which has an official envoy in Sofia as well as other Balkan countries.

Vatican spying activity in Bulgaria “is not too problematic,” says one nonchalant Bulgarian security official for “We are aware of it, and we keep it under control.” Nevertheless, might the fact that the current documents were leaked from that country be understood as a sort of message? “I don’t know,” replied the officer. “Maybe it bothers the [Bulgarian Orthodox] Church more than us. Or politicians. Ask them.”

Vatican Nuncio Activities in Bulgaria, and the Uruguay Connection

There could be other reasons for discontent, however. As we chronicle in The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans, there have been issues between the two in recent years. First, in 2012, the Holy See rejected the Bulgarian government’s appointment of ambassadorial candidate Kyril Marichkov, the grandson of another Kyril Marichkov, who had held the same position at the Holy See in the ‘warm years’ after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1993-1997). Officially, the Vatican had criticized the younger Marichkov’s lack of professional experience. The Holy See also argued that the young man did not meet the requirement for diplomatic delegates in Rome, since he was living in Italy already. However, the real reason for rejecting Marichkov, many in Italy believed, was because he had written a novel about a Bulgarian émigré in Italy- a book which contained homosexual scenes.

More recently, Msgr. Anselmo Guido Pecorari, the Vatican nuncio in Sofia since April 2014 and a 35-year veteran of papal diplomatic service, has been occasionally involved with discussing domestic politics. On 23 July 2014, when Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski suddenly resigned (the second prime minister to have done so in less than one year, Msgr. Pecorari stated that “Bulgaria does not need troublemakers now, but builders of bridges between different communities,” reported SIR (Servizio Informazione Religiosa) on 4 August 2014. SIR also clarified that the nuncio’s focus “will be above all directed towards the local Catholic Church, and will involve a dialogue with Orthodox and Muslim brothers.”

An equally distinguished a personality was Msgr. Pecorari’s predecessor, Archbishop Janusz Bolonek, who retired in 2013 having served his final five years as Nuncio to Bulgaria (and, for the final three, as Nuncio to Macedonia too). Bolonek had had a long and distinguished career serving in difficult assignments in Ivory Coast, Niger and Burkina Faso (from 1989-1995). It was Msgr. Bolonek himself, in fact, who in January 2012 commissioned and signed the hate crimes questionnaire request that we bring to light for the first time below.

The activities of the two no-nonsense nuncios were by then already intertwined, however, in an area that would make some of the questionnaire’s subjects particularly significant.

Before his 2014 Bulgaria-Macedonia appointment, Msgr. Pecorari had served (from 2008) as nuncio to Uruguay. Immediately preceding him in Uruguay (from May 1999 to 2008) was Msgr. Bolonek, who in this peculiar game of musical chairs would go on from there to Bulgaria.

In Uruguay, Msgr. Bolonek had taken an activist role against abuses of office in a scandal that both he and Msgr. Pecorari had to handle with extreme discretion. This case underscores the tendency for Balkan nuncios to have prior experience dealing with sensitive situations.

At some point after arriving in 1999, Msgr. Bolonek learned of a scandal involving Msgr. Battista Ricca, a Vatican diplomat in Uruguay who had reportedly engaged in an illicit gay affair with a young Swiss Guardsman. Considering the affair improper at best and harmful to the Church’s image at worst (it had become an open secret in Uruguayan society), Msgr. Bolonek repeatedly demanded Msgr. Ricca be removed. However, as later Italian media investigations revealed, close colleagues in the so-called Vatican ‘Gay Lobby’ assisted Ricca by quieting the scandal, and actually helped elevate Ricca, until he eventually became the director of the papal residence, Casa Santa Martha.

The scandal, which shook Rome in July 2013, was particularly sensitive because Msgr. Ricca had actually recently been nominated to head the Vatican Bank (formally, the Institute for the Works of Religion) by Pope Francis, who had reportedly been kept in the dark about the whole affair. In his July 2013 report, l’Espresso’s Sandro Magister chronicled the long history of internal cover-ups that abetted Ricca’s discreet promotions. During his Uruguay nunciature, Msgr. Pecorari had thus been sitting on a ticking time bomb, and his handling of the sensitive affair indicated to the pope his ability to deal with complex situations; certainly, there are enough complexities involved with his current Balkan posting to indicate the appropriateness of the posting.

This highly unusual shared experience of two consecutive nuncios in the same two countries is worth mentioning, as the Ricca affair would have been an issue of quiet concern affecting for both men at the time in which the present questionnaire, with its comments about gay issues, was being written up- quite possibly and ironically, to be handed back to the so-called ‘gay lobby’ in Vatican City attested by Italian media. As the saying goes, you could not make this stuff up.

Conclusion: The OSCE/ODIHR Reports Indicate a Lack of Result for the Holy See

In the OSCE report on Christian violations, none of the above-cited concerns are reported. Again, it cannot be confirmed whether this is because no such incidents occurred, or whether there were simply no reported incidents during the period in question. Depending on how zealous one was in investigating, he could however find examples of violations, even on the most controversial questions, in Macedonia and Bulgaria. However, the actual existence of any Vatican questionnaire on hate crimes almost unknown publicly, due to the obsessive secrecy of the Holy See- which, paradoxically, limits its ability to collect data from local Christians.

Thus, successive ODIHR hate crime reports have not gone into great depth in researching hate crimes against Christians. They have tended to specify crimes like graffiti and vandalism against places of worship, the desecration of cemeteries and arson attacks against churches as the most common types of crimes motivated by bias against ‘Christians and members of other religions.’

However, and not surprisingly, the OSCE has categorically avoided any of the other, more controversial issues that the Holy See regards as intrinsic to its view of religious freedom. These include high-profile issues mentioned above like contraception, abortion and homosexuality. Both the OSCE and the Vatican have their own philosophies and definitions for human freedom, religious rights and morality, which are generally antithetical and mutually exclusive.

Thus, in the absence of a more open and honest discussion, it is likely that the OSCE will continue to grumpily tolerate (and ignore) the Vatican’s morally-based complaints, while the latter will continue to futilely make its case regardless, seeking to exploit the OSCE’s perceived influence in world affairs. And so, it looks like, the cold war will continue.



Vatican OSCE letter Balkanalysis 1

Document 1. The first page of the letter sent from Sofia by former Nuncio Bolonek, dated January 13, 2012. Addressed to Macedonian Catholic Archbishop Kiro Stojanov, the letter asks for assistance in compiling data regarding hate crimes against Christians in Macedonia during 2011. The letter, written in Italian, bears the official insignia of the Sofia nunciature.


Vatican OSCE letter Balkanalysis 2

Document 2. The second and final page of Msgr. Bolonek’s letter expands on the kinds of hate crimes for which the Vatican seeks data. The letter requests that the reply be sent back by January 26- a tall order, being barely two weeks from the commissioning date. The letter is signed by the nuncio himself.


Vatican OSCE letter Balkanalysis 3

Document 3. The title page of the Vatican questionnaire, with the hand-written words ‘Allegato No. 1’ and ‘Macedonia’ scrawled across it by an unknown cleric. The document, specifically titled as being from the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, asks for information on 11 kinds of anti-Christian hate crimes for the questionnaire. Interestingly, under the category ‘abduction,’ a general example is given: “November 7, 2009, Turkey.”


Vatican OSCE letter Balkanalysis 4

Document 4. The first specific questions page, again topped by the handwritten words, ‘Allegato No. 2.’ This page raises the most explosive (by modern standards) questions regarding contraception, abortion, gay issues, laws against Christian beliefs on these issues and so on.


Vatican OSCE letter Balkanalysis 5

Document 5. The third page of the questionnaire asks further questions about whether Christian groups are prevented from receiving public funding based on their beliefs, and asks if laws prohibit home schooling and religious education classes in public and private schools.


Vatican OSCE letter Balkanalysis 6

Document 6. The final page of the Vatican questionnaire asks for the number of hate crimes perpetrated in the year and, most importantly, for the identities of the state security bodies consulted for confirmation of these incidents. It also asks the respondent to sign it.

It is not known if this questionnaire was ever completed as directed by Msgr. Bolonek, and whether any possible non-cooperation has influenced the Sofia nunciature’s outreach, or lack thereof, since 2012.

Document Analysis Reveals Bulgarian Perception of Mid-Term Security Threats

By Chris Deliso

Bulgaria is a country in a unique situation, with one eye historically on the western Balkans, and the other on eastern issues, such as Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. Like Romania to its north, it was hustled into NATO and the EU due to this fortunate geography, despite failing to have really fulfilled all the mandated reforms.

The country’s national security policy in the post-Communist age of democracy has expanded on this vision of itself as perfectly suited to providing useful services to the Western alliance- especially when it can benefit in other ways.

For example, though it is not widely known, Bulgarian intelligence has been one of the key sources of NATO intelligence on goings-on in Damascus, as its previous good relations during Communism with Arab states (and current ground activities) have sustained an advantageous position that Bulgaria has exploited as leverage for the achievement of otherwise unrelated policy goals. The value NATO saw in Bulgaria was also evidenced in its proposed role in training the new Libyan army in November 2013, as discussed on this official US military press release. This has not turned out as planned, though the situation in Libya is certainly not Bulgaria’s fault.

The present document analysis discusses the policies that were officially agreed by the National Security Council and government in a text published on September 4, 2014. The publication of this text, two weeks before the NATO Summit in Cardiff, Wales was not coincidental.

The strategy describes the national security threats to Bulgaria and the steps needed to address them. It is stressed that Bulgaria alone cannot manage these threats, and invites the EU and NATO to do their part.

The major threats outlined include: Russia, militarily and in terms of energy control; cyberwar; separatist movements and instability in the Western Balkans, as well as immigration and Islamic terrorism. In late 2014 (and still today) these themes resonate with most members of the NATO alliance.

This assessment concludes by noting the prioritization and perception by the Bulgarian security establishment, and what this means for related political and diplomatic policies, in order to better understand their thinking. This in turn helps our understanding of Bulgarian policy and intended involvement in the region during the ‘enlargement freeze’ period.

Document Facts

The text, which comes to 43 pages in Bulgarian, is entitled Visiya: Bulgariya v NATO i v Evropeiskata Otbrana 2020 (Vision: Bulgaria in NATO and European Defense 2020). It is available on official Bulgarian government websites (including here, .PDF). Note that quotes below come from a private official draft, which is so mewhat shorter but which contains nearly identical text.

According to the draft document, the strategy was developed after parliament’s adoption of a White Paper on Defense and Armed Forces (from 28 October 2010), “taking into account the changes in the security environment, the implementation of the Development Plan of the Armed Forces and in connection with the expiration of the period of the plan’s mandate at end 2014.”

According to the document, the strategy was developed by an interdepartmental working group led by the ministers of foreign affairs and defense, which also included the deputy minister for defense policy, the Council on Defense, other experts and finally the Security Council to the Council of Ministers, which approved the document at a meeting on September 1, 2014. As mentioned, the full strategy document was published three days later.


The draft document had been finalized two weeks before its publication date, with a clear view towards the NATO Cardiff Summit. The Bulgarians were the only ones there to present such a strategy beforehand, one Bulgarian military official tells us, and clearly took advantage of expected requirements to gain an advantage in preparedness.

The Bulgarian delegation knew they would have an edge on their ‘allied competition’ by being prepared to step forward with a plan, and indeed this turned out to be the case, increasing the public perception of Bulgaria as a forward-thinking and active member on the Alliance’s strategic Black Sea periphery.

It might be said that another reason why post-Cold War Bulgaria has sought to step forward and be counted is because of lingering (and sometimes justified) concerns that it is still relatively easy for Russia’s intelligence services to penetrate Bulgaria, creating a critical vulnerability in the overall NATO architecture. But the Bulgarians know that the West thinks this, and subtly uses it as another justification for NATO to be more involved with the country.

Bulgaria was the first allied country ready to answer the Cardiff Summit’s concluding request for each country to come up with its own national security strategy that could be integrated into the overarching NATO vision. This helps explain why the document is entitled ‘Vision 2020’ and indicates a clever awareness of the ‘mood’ within the alliance.

NATO Bases and Operations in Bulgaria in the Context of a Perceived Russian Threat

From the wording and subjects discussed, it becomes clear that another strategic goal of the government was to, if not sensationalize, at least exaggerate somewhat the perceived threat from Russia, so as to maintain and ideally increase the existing foreign military presence in Bulgaria.

The long-sought US military presence had already been achieved, with the 2006 Defense Cooperation Agreement (official .PDF text here) between the two countries. It established the Joint Task Force East, with command (and more bases) in Romania, a structure ultimately under command of USEUCOM. (Not incidentally, our sources have identified Bucharest as the central focus of regional activity for Russia’s GRU).

The Joint-use US-Bulgarian military bases established according to the agreement included Bezmer Air Base (Yambol area), Aitos Logistics Center (Burgas area, near the Black Sea) and inland at Graf Ignatievo Air Base (Plovdiv area). Finally, the small east-central city of Sliven (where American and British servicemen out for a beer at night dramatically outnumber tourists) hosts the Novo Selo Range.

The last base was where, in April 2014, a week-long multinational military training exercise known as ‘Saber Guardian’ was held (the year before it had been held in Romania). According to an official US Army summary, the operation comprised “a week of scenario-driven, computer-based operations… designed to strengthen international agency and military partnering, and to foster trust while improving interoperability between NATO and partner nations involved in foreign humanitarian assistance operations with U.S. forces.”

The US Army in Europe’s Deputy Commanding General, Maj. Gen. Richard C. Longo, who led the exercise, characterized it as “an incredibly complex exercise. This is the most complex exercise the United States Army in Europe has participated in, in many years.”

Significantly, the countries involved were largely from the Russian periphery (Bulgaria, Romania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Poland and Ukraine) as well as Turkey and the ambivalent Serbia. (The Belgians offered a token presence too).

The September 2014 Bulgarian security vision document must thus be assessed within this recent context. It is also worth noting that the Bulgarian strategy focuses on the year 2020.

This has been a stipulated date for everything from regional energy projects to investment targets, and it has become infamous as the minimal period of non-EU expansion as decreed by new European Commissioner Juncker. The last decision has raised fears widely that we are entering a dangerous vacuum period in which various actors will attempt to increase their influence due to Brussels’ waning appetite for new members.

Strategic Justifications for Increased Military Spending

The draft document further notes that “NATO and individual Member States have already carried out a strategic review of the decisively changed security environment and identified concrete measures, including adequate investment in the defense sector, and plan to increase preparedness.” The recommendation is made that Bulgaria should do the same- qualifying that this vision reflected the position of caretaker government in power at the time. However, we can expect any Bulgarian government to have broadly the same view.

The Bulgarians’ assessment of the “external security environment” was provided as justification for increased defense spending (and ideally, donations) in accordance with expected NATO requirements. The alliance (and particularly, the US) has long complained that European states largely do not invest enough of their budgets in defense, so Bulgaria’s security sector have hinted at this alleged shortcoming in requesting a bigger budget. The full Vision 2020 document goes into detail about the sub-sectors and some of the equipment categories involved.

The cumulative program anticipates specific projects at a budget of over 100mn leva (about $500mn). According to the strategy, “all projects will seek the maximum use of mechanisms common, joint and multinational funding in addition to the national and cooperation with agencies of the EU and NATO to achieve interoperability at minimal cost and with the possibility of integration of the defense industry and research sector in Euro-Atlantic space.”

This indicates that we can expect a larger role for US and European defense contractors in Bulgaria, and possibly an increase in the domestic sector itself. The Western obsession with the Russian threat, which is (at least militarily) irrelevant to Bulgaria, will thus have primary benefit for arms dealers and the militaries involved- and the politicians and lobbyists involved from the various sides.

Perceived Threats to Bulgarian National Security, as Presented

The strategy document goes on to list perceived national security threats, as characterized by a current environment of “dynamic, diverse challenges and changes.” These threats are “difficult to predict,” but include “asymmetric risks,” in one of “the areas with the highest concentration of risks and threats in the Euro-Atlantic community. Their development tendencies are negative in the medium, and in many cases, in the long term.”

The source of “significant” national security risks are stated as including “instability of regions located near the borders of our country.” These include “conflict confrontation in the Black Sea and Caucasus region,” as well as the “illegal annexation of the Crimea by Russia and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.”

In this context, the document lists a concept that has become fashionable in the Western media (‘hybrid war’), even if it is defined variously in different sources. This reference clearly indicates an awareness of, and desire to play into, the developed media discourse associated with Russia’s perceived method of operations today. Ironically, the definition provided (“techniques of guerrilla warfare, covert support to separatist groups, cyberattacks and propaganda, economic pressure and acts contrary to international law”) could just as well describe the modus operundi of NATO countries since the end of WWII and the creation of NATO’s ‘stay-behind armies’ and similar programs.

The reality of an economic effect of Russian sanctions on the Bulgarian economy is also mentioned, as are frozen conflicts and energy: “Bulgaria is highly dependent on a single supplier of energy resources. In this sense, is a key need for diversification of energy sources for Bulgaria and enhanced cooperation within the EU to reduce the negative economic consequences of the crisis to the east of us.”

This observation is also in line with existing NATO and EU priorities on the issue of creating a regional gas hub similar to Vienna’s. This is something that both Bulgaria and Greece might like to host. Of course, the political turbulence in Bulgaria over the decisions to build or not build South Stream is understood, though not specified.

The chronic Middle East and North Africa crises are also mentioned in the document. Conflicts specified include Syria, Iraq, Libya and, interestingly Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sinai and the Palestinian Territories. Although it is not completely specified exactly how, it is affirmed these conflicts “are a source of potential and actual risks and threats to Bulgaria and other member states of NATO and the EU.”

For good measure, the text adds that “Iranian ambitions to develop nuclear and missile programs also continue to be a risk factor for stability on the regional and global scale.”

This last talking point chimes with Bulgaria’s increasingly close relationship with Israel, though as we have seen, the recent re-election of the controversial Benjamin Netanyahu – who is not on the best of terms with the Obama Administration – puts Bulgaria in an interesting position, in terms of its policies regarding all actors.

Analysts might thus consider what position Bulgaria would take (and what would result from it) in the case of a nuclear deal being reached between the US and Iran, in the case that the deal would also be unpopular with Israeli leaders.

Perceived Balkan Threats to Bulgarian National Security

Most interestingly in the Balkan context is the draft paper’s specification of “existing potential risks associated with the Western Balkans.” These are said to include “political and economic instability, trends towards separatism [that would] delay their integration into NATO and EU, challenges to progress in the development of democratic processes and the risk of losing a clear Euro-Atlantic direction.”

Further, the document claims, the region “continues to generate risks to stability, including to Bulgaria, stemming from ethnic and religious intolerance, as well as deep-rooted nationalist ideologies.”

It is not precisely clear to what the authors are directly referring, but it is safe to assume that (on the military level) they include Albanian-Serbian grievances and unrest in Kosovo, Albanian separatism elsewhere in the region, and (on the political level) perceived nationalism in Macedonia, which is seen as negative for Bulgaria’s historic pretensions there. The talking points regarding ‘democratic processes’ and a lack of Euro-Atlantic prospects also align perfectly with the Euro-Federalist pressure projection shared by entities like the OSCE and UN in the region on Balkan countries. This strategy is effectively to put Bulgaria into the ‘first tier’ of EU countries that are entitled to judge, rather than be judged.

Bulgaria has in the past decade used its EU membership privileges as leverage to punish Balkan states, particularly Macedonia, at some times outdoing even Greece in this regard. Greek-Bulgarian shared obstructionist tactics have progressively increased over time. It is interesting to note for analytical purposes that Bulgarian national security doctrine seeks to overtly present a political policy used by successive foreign ministries as a fact somehow distinct from, and unaffected by, its own interventions into regional politics.

International Islamic terrorism, and particularly the role of foreign fighters as returning threats to European countries, is also mentioned. “The migration flow is a challenge to the system of border protection and integration capabilities,” the document notes, and this phenomenon has indeed been indicated, as recent police activities and media reports have shown. It is postulated that “the refugee influx in Bulgaria” could include the penetration of “other risk categories of persons involved in terrorism or other criminal activity. Increased immigration is a challenge to the existing legal framework in such crises.”

Regarding all of these risks to its security, the report states that “Bulgaria is not able to cope alone with them, and the only real way to meet them effectively is to use the opportunities that membership in NATO and the EU provide. Allied solidarity does not mean that we can not stop investing in our national security. On the contrary, solidarity requires long-term political, economic and financial commitment on the part of Bulgaria.”

Conclusion: the Intersection of Security Doctrine and Political Ambition in Bulgaria’s ‘Vision 2020’

In other words, Bulgarian national security doctrine until 2020 involves not only an increase in hard power designed to deter a military invasion. It also includes an invitation to wide participation of Western allies in Bulgaria’s entire political and foreign policy project.

This is an extremely important point to note, considering that Bulgarian political instability in recent years has been rampant, with the various governments not tending to survive long and coming under extreme pressure from outside influencers. Nevertheless, despite continued political turbulence, this strategy document indicates that the country’s leaders are in agreement at a state level over a national security doctrine that also has political aspects.

This fact differentiates Bulgaria from most other states in the region, which have not articulated (or which cannot sustain) a unified national security doctrine; in these cases, it is very uncertain that the reason for this failure is non-membership of NATO as a unifying and motivating force. It is thus not necessarily true that NATO membership will automatically create the conditions for a unified national security policy in complex and divided states. Concerted political pressure from NATO on the local governments, however, ignores this fact while continuing with the forceful sales pitch.

What the Bulgarian security doctrine does indicate – and this is also due to reasons not involving NATO per se – is that it is most similar regionally, on a structural level with Greece, which also has a core set of national security interests that have remained intact, despite chronic instability on the political level.

Indeed, the SYRIZA government has made no signs of changes to the existing Samaras policy, and campaign rhetoric regarding American bases and the need for NATO have diminished in public discourse. The Americans were so concerned in autumn 2014 that they called in a top SYRIZA leadership team to get a promise over the status quo not changing in future. They got their guarantee.

This is because Greece is not stupid. Like Bulgaria, Greece has historically invited NATO and the EU to help strengthen its own military and diplomatic project in the near-abroad. Since Greece does not face any serious potential military threat (except theoretically from fellow NATO ally, Turkey), this influence projection is inevitably mostly wielded on the policy and diplomacy front, such as blocking Macedonian NATO and EU accession indefinitely.

Indeed, it might be this shared structural similarity – not the actual specific policies – that best explains the increased level of coziness between Bulgaria and Greece, and the similarity of their approaches, despite other factors that would seem to differentiate their goals and objectives.

In the final analysis, Bulgaria’s ‘vision’ of its national security through 2020 indicates that the country will cleverly continue to highlight its strategic geography to gain special privileges, to exploit its institutional memberships for diplomatic and political purposes, and to entice foreign military contractors as a further stabilizing (and lobbying) force. All of this behavior, and especially the concentration on leveraging its value on the ‘Black Sea’ front, will support the country’s desire to continue playing an outsized role in the Balkans.

This indicates that Bulgarian decision-making on the security front will continue to be influenced by a historic and political perception of its own regional importance.

This analysis becomes especially compelling considering that Bulgaria is completely insulated from any military or political threat that could arise on its western flank. There is no scenario in which Bulgaria faces any direct military threat from any country and (with the exception of an immigration- or terrorism-related threat, which are extra-regional) there is no dramatic security event that could adversely affect the country.

While cyber-war, energy and the effect of economic sanctions on Russia are all deleterious to the country, these threats are all related to Bulgaria’s east- not west. Nevertheless, by bundling in these ‘popular’ security issues in with the less credible Balkan-related issues, the country’s security architects will continue to get tacit approval for national political and diplomatic activities in the Balkans, activities which can have destabilizing effects for other states.

Israeli Security Concerns and the Balkans

By Chris Deliso

Heading into April 2013, Israel is confronted with a complexity of issues in the greater Middle East. These include: chronic political disagreements at home; the Syrian conflict next door, with its possibility to affect Lebanon; volatile unrest in Egypt; the precarious condition of Cyprus and the effect of this on possible future joint energy projects; an intensified threat from Iran and Hezbollah, and strategizing how to handle Turkish diplomatic moves following the (US-brokered) rapprochement. These moves may include an emotive emphasis on the Palestinian issue, which would increase existing anti-Israeli prejudices in the larger Muslim world.

Space for the Balkans?

Given these distractions, nurturing the strategic relationships Israel has forged in the Balkans since the Turkish alliance deteriorated in 2010 would not seem a high priority for the new coalition. However, we do expect that Israel will continue to work with Balkan governments to monitor security vulnerabilities and threats (as it does elsewhere in the world), and possibly on a higher level than in the past. This will be due to both local developments and security issues on a more global level.

Even before the May 2010 Gaza Flotilla, Israel had enjoyed good relations with Balkan countries in diplomatic, economic and security cooperation. In some cases, these friendly ties went back to the early 1990s. However, in the aftermath of the Flotilla incident, the Turkish-Israeli falling out was so high-profile that many foreign media simply interpreted Israel’s expanding diplomatic relations in the Balkans as implicative of reactive diplomacy, an after-effect of the suspended alliance with Turkey.

Yet while Israeli officials did certainly have to acknowledge a unique new situation unfolding then, it is also clear that Israel’s growing regional presence had already been in development over many years, independent of any temporary problems with Turkey.

Nevertheless analysts will still want to follow how the revived Israel-Turkey relationship plays out, and also how both states’ approaches to the Balkans on the bilateral and regional levels will be affected by it. has monitored the fluctuations in Israeli-Turkish relations since the beginning; readers might thus enjoy, for some now historical context, our previous report from Israel, published in February 2011, when Egypt was on the edge of its turbulent transformation and Syria was still just a hazy conflict on the horizon.

A lot has happened since then. The following analytical survey draws upon interviews with numerous sources interviewed in recent weeks, including diplomats, high-level intelligence and military officials of regional states, informed journalists and other experts, as well as general field knowledge and secondary sources. It discusses current security issues for Israel in the Balkans and its relations with regional countries, in the larger context of the Iranian threat and the emerging rapprochement with Turkey.

Renewed, But Not Rethought, Interest in Terrorism in the Balkans

The 18 July 2012 Burgas terrorist attack that killed five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian national was unfortunate proof that terrorist attacks can indeed occur in the Balkans. This possibility had previously been considered doubtful by experts who view the Balkans as specifically a safe haven/logistics base for extremists- and as something altogether impossible by partisan supporters of local Muslim populations.

However, since the spectacle of an armed Islamist standoff at the US Embassy in Sarajevo on 28 October 2011, US security officials have started to take greater interest, though this has not resulted in overt policy changes (consonant with what predicted at the time).

Since then, however, we have encountered greater interest in the topic from local and international security officials seeking insight, while media supported by the US government have started to frame terrorism as a regional security concern- striking, considering that they have historically tended to just ignore the subject altogether.

Yet while the Burgas attack and the Sarajevo embassy showdown did bring regional terrorism concerns back into the public spotlight, media assessment of these events failed to change the conventional wisdom. The prevailing media and political discourse that has shaped public opinion on terrorism in the Balkans has largely failed to discuss the issue, even hypothetically. This is because it tends to discount the possibility of terrorist attacks (usually, for partisan reasons), arguing for example that Iran cannot have influence over Sunni populations, that Muslims in the Balkans are somehow ‘different’ than those in conflict regions, that ethnic affiliation is more important than the religious one, and so on.

What these presuppositions ignore is that (as in Burgas) it takes very few people to execute a successful terrorist attack, and that the influence needed to execute such an attack is, as opposed to generational, long-term sectarian influence acquisition, an easily obtainable commodity that merely requires financial or in-kind incentives. They also ignore that the prevailing conditions on the ground make the region a ‘soft target’ for terrorists or insurgents.

In the following sections we will discuss breaking developments and provide brief threat assessments and vulnerabilities by country, to get a better understanding of how the Israeli security estimate may develop in years ahead concerning the region.

The Burgas Bombing and the Political Issue of Hezbollah in Europe

While the Burgas bombing targeted Israeli tourists and as such was a concern first and foremost for Israel, the event has since become a ‘European issue’ for international leaders. For example, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird referenced the attack on March 4, 2013 in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, stating that “when terrorist incidents can happen right inside the European Union by Hezbollah, that compels civilized people everywhere to act.” Baird said this while calling on the EU to declare the Lebanese group a terrorist entity.

More pressure for EU leaders to do this is expected to come now after the trial in Cyprus of a professed Hezbollah member believed to have been planning a near-simultaneous attack on Israeli tourists there when he was arrested last July, two weeks before the Burgas bombing. The conclusion of the trial on 28 March resulted in a guilty verdict and four-year sentence for Hossem Taleb Yaacoub. This Swedish-Lebanese citizen, who had also used France and the Netherlands as a base for his activities, had been tasked by a handler known to him only as ‘Ayman’ with conducting surveillance on Israeli tourist targets in Cyprus.

Benjamin Weinthal, the Jerusalem Post’s Berlin correspondent and a research fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, notes that this successful prosecution of a Hezbollah member – the first in an EU country – may put new pressure on the bloc to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist entity. The case takes on more weight too since the internationally-researched official Bulgarian report stated that Hezbollah was indeed behind the Burgas bombing.

“Until now, Germany has said there is not enough legal evidence to blacklist Hezbollah,” says Weinthal for “Germany and France particularly are also concerned that their diplomatic relations with Lebanon would be damaged by such an action.” Currently, Holland has designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization in full, while Britain considers its military wing to be a terrorist entity.

The diplomatic ramifications of the Bulgaria terrorist attack provide insight into the intricacies of Israeli-Balkan relations. The lack of EU consensus regarding Hezbollah put member state Bulgaria in a difficult diplomatic position, and it has said that it will “not initiate” the technical process required for the designation, emphasizing the need for EU unity on the subject. However, when it concluded the case in early February, the Bulgarian government did announce that Hezbollah had been responsible- as Israel had suspected from the beginning.

Many, including from the US side, had not expected Bulgaria to take such a robust stand. There was reported pressure on authorities not to do so, and when they did, the domestic political opposition argued that the government had put the country at greater risk from Hezbollah and Iran. (Both have denied any involvement). An insightful analysis of Bulgarian diplomatic decision-making and influences on it in this case was written last month by Dimitar Bechev of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The Balkans: An Attractive Target, Increasing Israeli Countermeasures

The Balkans has long had its share of dangerous groups: from organized crime rackets, extremist right-wingers, leftists and anarchists, volatile nationalistic protesters and varieties of sometimes violent Islamic causes. While the Israelis are of course concerned by the occasional manifestations of neo-Nazism, they are currently focusing on Hezbollah (and behind it, Iran) as the main potential threat to their own interests. Israeli diplomats, tourists and local Jewish populations are all regarded as potential targets. In contrast to the case with Balkan Sunni extremists, however, relatively little research has been published on Hezbollah in the Balkans today.

Nevertheless with its porous borders, rampant corruption, underdeveloped regions and relatively lax security, the Balkans can be compared to other parts of the world in which Hezbollah and Iran are already known to be expanding their operations. And, as Israel continues to increase its diplomatic, commercial and tourism presence in the region, more potential targets are coming into existence as well. The civilian nature of most of these targets makes them very difficult, if not impossible to secure. Even a cursory infrastructure analysis exposes numerous ways in which a dedicated and professional adversary could exploit security vulnerabilities and inflict damage.

Dr. Ely Karmon, senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel spoke recently with to discuss the tactics and strategy of Hezbollah and Iran, and where he sees potential trouble spots in the region, in the context of greater global trends. Worldwide, he points to a spike in Hezbollah plots in the past year. In 2012, “Hezbollah was responsible for 20 plots- all foiled except for the one in Burgas,” he notes. A map illustrating these plots provided by Haaretz indicates that they were all planned for places as far apart as Georgia, Kenya, Turkey, Cyprus, India, Singapore and Thailand. This kind of global reach requires extended logistical and intelligence networks, and of course plenty of funds and supporters.

Iranian activities in the developing world indicate patterns that might be applicable to the Balkan theater. Dr. Karmon’s vital analyses of Hezbollah and Iranian growth in Africa and in Latin America detail the pattern of how Iran has gained a foothold in numerous countries there, using them for sectarian purposes, terrorism logistics, and trade in illicit goods (as well as legitimate commerce and infrastructure projects). The general conclusion is that Iranian diplomatic expansion today is part of a strategy to “balance the pressure of the international community on its nuclear project and prepare the ground for subversive and terrorist responses in case of crippling sanctions or a military strike at its nuclear facilities.” A key part of this strategy includes developing economic and political influence among Muslim states and others hostile to US and Western interests.

Dr Karmon tells that “there is a clear pattern. Iran begins [in small countries] with diplomatic relations, investment promises and cultural relations. But all Iranian diplomatic and cultural activities carried out are under the control of their intelligence services.”

“For Iran, the Balkans is a good platform for two reasons,” he adds. “First, countries like Bosnia have already been long penetrated. Second, the local security and law enforcement are not sufficiently prepared for an adversary like Iran.” He points out that the plotters in Burgas and Cyprus were traveling with passports from Western European countries, making it much more difficult for local countries to detect anything suspicious.

Further, even though the Balkan Muslim populations are primarily Sunni, this is not necessarily an impediment to Iran. Dr. Karmon points out several cases, such as in Argentina, where “Iran actively converted individuals to Shia Islam and has carried out activities against Israeli and Jewish targets.” In parts of Africa, Iran has also worked on converting Sunni Muslims to their own sect. Dr. Karmon also points out numerous cases of Hezbollah plots in which Sunni Muslims in places like Southeast Asia and North Africa were radicalized and took part in plots. If it happened there it could happen in the Balkans, we can conclude. “They adapt their operations to the situation on the ground,” Dr. Karmon affirms.

Another Israeli expert, Yossi Melman, recently provided some significant commentary for A veteran journalist specializing in intelligence matters, Melman is the co-author (with CBS News’ Dan Raviv) of several critically-acclaimed contemporary studies, the most recent being Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israeli’s Secret Wars.

“Israeli agencies know that Iran’s MOIS and the al Qods force have established sleeper cells of agents and helpers in various key countries in regions all over the world, from South America and Central America to Southeast Asia and East and West Africa, and they try to locate weak links in the European chain… one such a weak link is the Balkans,” notes the Israel journalist. “They operated there during the wars of the 1990’s (mainly, in Bosnia and Kosovo) and they are trying to establish some sort of presence in Macedonia.”

The same local conditions that make the Balkans an attractive target for Hezbollah and Iran are also obliging Israeli security services to increase their focus. According to Melman, “the decision to expand the Israeli diplomatic presence [in the Balkans] is a byproduct of budgetary reasons, economic potential and yes, also the desire to challenge and stand up to Iran and Hezbollah terrorism.”

A key question emerges: what would Iran do if, as has been speculated for years, Israel and/or the US decide to attack it?

“Iran will respond and retaliate where it will have the operational capabilities, as we have seen in Bulgaria,” attests Melman. “Iran’s operations are based on, and are a result of, the following considerations: its capabilities, targets (whether there are easy and soft to attack) and above all not to leave its fingerprint, where they believe they would get away with murder- even if their agents are caught red-handed.”

“Having said that, this does not mean necessarily that the Mossad will open ‘stations,’” Melman continues. “Embassies provide a good logistic cover for intelligence operations but you can also have ‘jumpers’- liaison intelligence officers and officials who operate from HQ and ‘jump’ to countries were they are needed.”

However, he adds that while Israel enjoys “excellent cooperation” with local Balkan services, the latter in some cases “lack technological capacities and are weak in analysis, and certainly in monitoring outside elements like Iran- here enter the CIA and the Mossad to help them. The Burgas inquiry is a good example of such an international cooperation, combining local and international knowledge and understanding.”

Intelligence cooperation between Israel and the Balkan countries, whether Christian- or Muslim-majority, has increased in the past three years. Dr. Karmon reiterates that “Israel is working in cooperation with local security services, and much of the relevant intelligence obtained by Israel in the Middle East is then passed on to the [Balkan] services… it is an ongoing cooperation for them, not only with Israel, but with the US, UK and other partners.”

Bearing in mind the developing trends of involvement in the Balkan countries from both Israel and its adversaries, the previously-seen or potential threats in each, and the possibility of a direct confrontation with Iran, we can make the following brief estimates for nine regional states. This list excludes Turkey, which would require a longer study, and Croatia and Montenegro, regarding which interesting information exists but has still to be confirmed.

Bulgaria: Repeat Attacks Less Likely

The Bulgarian announcement blaming Hezbollah for the Burgas bombing followed a lengthy investigation involving the Bulgarian intelligence and police, Mossad, Shin Bet, the CIA, MI6, Interpol and others. Reportedly, Israeli intelligence had noticed a significant increase in telephone traffic between known groups in Lebanon and unknown parties in Burgas in the period before the attack- one of many clues indicating a Hezbollah connection.

Some who have blamed the Burgas bombing on Hezbollah depict it as ultimately an Iranian-sanctioned operation. In the aftermath of the attack, an unnamed US security official told the New York Times that it was “tit for tat” retaliation for suspected Israeli assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. However, other experts read it differently and restrict responsibility to the Lebanese organization. “Since Hezbollah’s ‘operational leader,’ Imad Mughniyah, was assassinated in Damascus in 2008, the organization has attempted numerous times to avenge his death by launching terrorist attacks against Israeli targets,” says Sigurd Neubauer for

According to Neubauer, a foreign affairs specialist who works for a northern Virginia-based defense and aerospace consulting firm, “the Burgas attack should not be seen as an ‘isolated’ incident, but rather as the latest in a series of attempts to avenge Mughniyah’s death.”

On a larger level, adds Dr. Karmon, “I see in [the Burgas attack] not only avenging deaths, but as trying to push Israel into conflict with Lebanon, to take international attention away from the Iranian nuclear program. And, in the last six months Iran has also become much more active in the Syrian war with arms shipments to Assad.”

In July 2012 former Bulgarian intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Kircho Kirov disclosed for the New York Times that his service had information in 2011 on planned attacks against Israelis in Bulgaria, indicating that the Burgas attack was not an unexpected aberration. In fact, Israel provided key intelligence that foiled a suspected Hezbollah attack on Israeli ski tourists going from Turkey to Bulgaria in January 2012. The fact that this had occurred irked some Israeli officials later, as they considered the January plot as a clear warning that should have led to the disruption of the Burgas plot.

In the months after the Burgas bombing, it was reported that Israel and Bulgarian police were cooperating to protect Israelis and Jewish sites in Bulgaria ahead of the Jewish holidays. Kirov had in October 2010 spoken publicly regarding a threat from Asbat al-Ansar, a group reportedly based in a Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon. The group’s threat had been made in an interview for Bulgarian media, claiming that Bulgaria’s military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq made it a ‘legitimate’ target. According to the 2010 report, Asbat al-Ansar was involved in recruiting mujahedin to fight Western troops in those countries.

The failed plot in January 2012 and the successful one in July of that year brought unprecedented international attention and foreign intelligence cooperation to Bulgaria, making it now a rather ‘hot’ place for terrorists. Further, Bulgaria’s foreign intelligence service has long been known for its offensive capabilities, which can only have been heightened during the past eight months of foreign cooperation. The only hiccup in this regard has been a pattern of oblique comments between Bulgarian and Romanian services, which can be read as a matter of pride (this will be discussed in the relevant section below).

It is thus our assessment that even though Bulgaria remains porous and difficult to secure in general, Hezbollah will be less likely to try and execute a repeat operation here than it will be elsewhere in the region.

Albania: Logistics Possibilities

“As NATO members, Albania and Croatia are [in addition to Bulgaria] countries where the Iranians focus in the region,” one high-ranking Balkan security official told recently. Multiple informed sources, including Israeli diplomats and local officials, have told that the opening of an Israeli embassy in Albania in August 2012 was partially motivated by future security concerns.

While Sunni terrorist groups and states, not Iran, have historically been more active in Albania, the Israeli-Albanian diplomatic alliance could provoke new interest from Tehran. Albania’s shrewd Prime Minister Sali Berisha has attempted to ingratiate himself among the Israeli leadership by echoing their position on Iran in public statements. Berisha colorfully dubbed Iran and its leader the “new Nazis” in November 2011, winning him plaudits in the Israeli media. Perhaps not coincidentally, Albanian leaders in 2011 were actively promoting foreign investment opportunities, such as energy (as reported by in February 2012) that have attracted interest from foreign companies, including an Israeli one.

As with Bulgaria and the politicization of Hezbollah among EU allies, tricky diplomatic issues exist for Albania in its relations with Israel and other allies. Albania abstained from the 2012 Palestinian UN vote, reportedly infuriating Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan- a public embarrassment for the informal leader of the Muslim world, making him appear unable to exert sufficient leverage over Europe’s only OIC member state. A number of complicated issues were involved here, including Palestine’s non-recognition of Kosovo, and Albania’s relations with the US.

However, a veteran Israeli diplomat noted for that Berisha seems more investment-oriented in his general approach. “After all, he had his country join the OIC years ago because of the Islamic states’ investment promises,” said the official. “Yes. Mr. Berisha is a charismatic speaker, but not necessarily pro-Israeli out of ideals alone.” Given the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement, it will be interesting to see how Albanian policymakers adapt in order to remain relevant to both allies. (A spokeswoman for Mr. Berisha did not immediately reply to our request for clarification on where he stands regarding Erdoğan’s recent controversial comments equating Zionism with a ‘crime against humanity,’ for an example of potentially divisive issues).

For his part, Dr. Ely Karmon places Albania after Bosnia as a danger for Iranian infiltration and logistics in the region. While acknowledging that “here, political attitudes to Iran are far less positive to Iranians than in Bosnia,” he adds that “pro-Iranian elements can support financial activities” on behalf of the Islamic Republic.

In our estimate, Albania remains opaque. The legacy of (Sunni) terrorist infiltration back in the 1990’s, subsequent construction works in Tirana linked to al Qaeda supporters, and today’s vocal Islamist groups indicate potentially fertile soil. Further, the local economy has been affected by the economic downturn in Greece and Italy, from where Albanian diaspora workers have traditionally sent regular remittances. Distraction from local economic issues seems to be coming increasingly in the form of ultra-nationalism of an ethnic (not religious) inspiration, and Albania remains a strong US partner. However, the operative conditions for using the country as a rear logistics or even a platform for an attack do exist and as such the situation will be worth watching in the future.

Macedonia: Early Stages

Another investment-hungry Balkan country, Macedonia, recently came onto the radar when it welcomed its first resident Iranian ambassador, Saeed Sadegh Mohammadi, on 8 February 2013. There is currently an interesting analytical disagreement between certain local and foreign experts regarding whether this poses a security threat.

Israeli experts like Dr. Karmon believe that this new diplomatic presence “will be a platform for economic, cultural and even religious activities,” fitting the pattern of Iranian activity in developing countries.

Macedonian officials downplay the threat. “The Iranian government knows their diplomats will be monitored 24 hours a day- there is nothing they can do,” said one senior security official in the country for, noting that it would be tactically difficult for a short-staffed diplomatic facility in a small country to stay off the radar. Rather, the upgrading of Iran’s diplomatic ties is being considered as “merely symbolic” by Macedonian intelligence, and as a response to Israel’s own strengthened relations with Macedonia; this has included the long-awaited opening in March 2011 of the Holocaust Memorial Center– one of only four in the world.

“It is a game for image. Iran feels it needs to respond wherever Israel makes its own presence,” the official maintains. “So after the [Holocaust Center] was opened, this was what they decided to do. Of course we will monitor it, but we do not see this as a major security threat now.”

However, other observers feel the ‘game’ could escalate in dangerous ways. A retired American diplomat with knowledge of the situation tells that “this upgrading to ambassador status was definitely initiated by the Iranian side. They came in and said, ‘we want to expand our trade and cultural relations.’ The Macedonians frankly were afraid- do you have any idea what a highly-trained and experienced Hezbollah team could do here?”

“We tried to get [the Macedonians] to stop or at least delay it. They can do this by dragging out the process bureaucratically to keep Iran from starting to send diplomatic pouches, which they have used in the past to transport explosives and equipment,” says this American source. “But it could take only a year for Iran to get the staff and set-up for operations.”

At the same time, other deep background information obtained by indicates that regardless of any potentially nefarious Iranian intentions, the US is confident in the capabilities of the Macedonian counter-intelligence and police forces, which are per capita more robust than in most other regional states. It is also the case for the last few years that Israel has supplied the Macedonian side with high-tech electronics useful for intelligence gathering activities.

Whether or not any Iranian-linked security problems emerge in Macedonia, the game is set to continue, with Israel probably making the next move: diplomatic sources have hinted that Israel’s next full embassy in the region will be opened in Skopje, though the timetable is not clear. Currently, the Israeli Embassy in Croatia has jurisdiction over Israeli interests in Macedonia.

Nevertheless, as was the case with the Tirana embassy decision, what we are hearing from diplomatic sources is that security concerns (as well as flourishing trade and cultural ties) partly explain why an embassy will be built in Skopje. Indeed, recent minor vandalism of the Holocaust Memorial Center by Albanian nationalist/Sunni Islamist protesters was an unsettling development. Since the Jewish structure was not the focus of the protesters’ anger or activities, there should have been no reason for attacking it. The incident served to remind that Macedonia continues to hosts a small but problematic Islamist underground. In this light, it is also interesting to remember that when the provocative Turkish blockbuster Valley of the Wolves: Palestine came to theaters in Macedonia, the ‘sponsors’ of local showings specified on posters were all Muslim and Albanian companies, including a security company with ties to local Wahhabi groups.

At present, we can conclude that while Iran may wish to establish a presence for possible trouble-making here, it is still at a very basic level and a proactive approach from local authorities will probably restrict this possibility. However, the very fact of fresh Iranian interest and the continued displays of anti-Semitism from some local Muslims will keep Israeli intelligence focused on the general situation.

Greece and Cyprus: Significant Vulnerabilities

The situation in maritime Greece and especially in the divided island of Cyprus to its southeast has a different flavor to it than the Balkans. In Greece, government rhetoric during the 1970’s and 1980’s fostered sympathies for the Palestinian and other Muslim causes, creating international relations for far-left and even student groups, some of which continue to this day. In Cyprus – until very recently one hub of the no-questions-asked global financial system – the geographical proximity to the Middle East has benefited terrorist groups and intermediaries (among many others) for decades.

Indeed, the usefulness of Cyprus as a logistics and financial base made it somewhat of a surprise that Hezbollah would be willing to risk this safe haven.

Nevertheless, as the recent terrorism conviction there indicates, Hezbollah in 2012 had an organized strategy involving surveillance of a hotel popular with Israelis, and was willing to risk its position on the island. Perhaps, as Haaretz defense correspondent Amir Oren suggested in February 2012, in the context of a multiplicity of botched attacks in Asia, the “most worrying” aspect of those plots “was the evident drive to commit them even though they hadn’t been properly prepared.” With increasing focus on Lebanon and the Syria conflict, “the people available to carry out the attacks in India, Georgia and Thailand were probably not the star graduates of [Iran’s] sabotage courses.” The testimony of the amateurish 24 year-old Hezbollah operative in the Cyprus trial indicates that this might have been the case there as well.

As with Greece and Bulgaria, Cyprus is a popular holiday destination that benefited from the downturn in Israeli-Turkish relations after May 2010. All three countries have recorded a strong increase in Israeli tourists since then, which unfortunately also makes them more tempting targets for Hezbollah. A former CIA officer who visited Greece to assess tourist infrastructure security for a private consulting company tells that “the large majority of the sites, be they the historical ones or the hotels, are not secured and cannot be, including the large and expensive resorts.”

“Even were they to install a kind of police state, which they won’t, the varied terrain and maritime nature of the country would make it almost impossible to stop a serious [terrorist] outfit hell-bent on causing trouble, unless the intel is very precise and timely,” stated this source. “Add to that the large and impoverished illegal immigrant population, many of them Muslim, and you have a definite vulnerability that can be exploited.”

According to Research Coordinator in Greece Ioannis Michaletos, Greek security services are on constant alert regarding possible attacks against Israelis. “The authorities are keen to stop any possible attacks on Israeli targets in Greece, thus even when low-ranking Israeli officials visit the country, security measures are beefed up,” he says. “One of the reasons of course is Hezbollah, along with other Islamist groups that may decide to strike.”

One high-profile case was the Greek arrests in February 2011 of two “Lebanese of Palestinian descent.” According to the IsraelDefense website “their assignment was to infiltrate terrorists from another organization by using fake passports.” Then, almost two months thereafter, the Israeli Counter-Terrorism Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office “published a chilling warning to Israelis traveling abroad to be especially vigilant in ‘Mediterranean Basin States’ such as Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and Malta.” Although an attack did not occur, the Israeli security establishment would not have made such an announcement unless there was ample reason for suspicion.

In regards to Hezbollah specifically, Michaletos notes a sort of ‘disappearing act’ trend that reflects on both heightened Greek-Israeli security cooperation and on the group’s more urgent needs elsewhere. “Their biggest exposure was back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but from 2001 to 2006 they significantly reduced their presence, while they have spread across the globe… and have increasingly redirected resources to Syria.”

Further, adds the Greek analyst, since 2010 and “the convergence of Athens and Tel Aviv,” the Greek security services have “started to pay close attention to the activities of all Lebanese individuals in the country, so they themselves are keeping a very low profile.” This has led to some successes; for example, a cigarette-smuggling Hezbollah cell active in the country was dismantled in 2009. Still, as Michaletos reminds, “Hezbollah works through intermediaries and has local allies as well. Back in January 2007, when the American embassy suffered a rocket attack by the leftist Revolutionary Struggle, the group’s proclamation of responsibility ended with ‘support to Hezbollah,’ indicating again a nexus between Greek leftist terrorists and the Lebanese group.”

Further, he adds, “Hezbollah has on various occasions sold weapons to Europe via Greek smugglers in Crete, though there have been no arrests… and surplus ammunition from Iraq found its way to Greece via Lebanese channels after 2003.”

However, organized crime in Greece is a much larger phenomenon in which the major players are Balkan, Nigerian and Pakistani groups in areas including human and narcotics trafficking, document forgery, counterfeiting and racketeering.

Such groups are not direct threats to Israel, which (along with the US) is much more concerned with the influence and activities of Iran in a country severely affected by financial crisis. The US recently sanctioned a Greek businessmen allegedly involved in sanctions-busting ship-to-ship transfers of Iranian oil. On 14 March, the Greek government announced a probe into a foreign company for its “involvement in an alleged covert shipping network operated on behalf of the Iranian government.” Israeli security experts have noted past cases of Iranian retributions for economic setbacks such as contracts cancelled under Western pressure, so it would not be without precedent for this to happen again here.

In general, however, our estimate is that Greece and Cyprus are not at the top of list of regional countries for Iranian-sanctioned or Hezbollah activity. Like Bulgaria, Cyprus has attracted greater international security attention due to its recent Hezbollah case, so it is likely that any plots here would be deferred for now. In Greece, a much larger country with a plethora of vulnerable targets, opportunity certainly exists but Iran probably realizes that any attack on Greek soil would endanger (licit and illicit) oil export to the cash-strapped country.

Bosnia: A Deep Involvement

Rather, we expect Israel to remain most focused on Bosnia as a possible site for Iranian and Hezbollah activity. Unlike other Balkan countries, Tehran has an actual footprint here, going back to its deep involvement during the wars of the 1990’s (as is described in detail in former NSA officer John Schindler’s excellent book, Unholy Terror). While Bosniaks are Sunni Muslims owing to the Ottoman occupation, they also have a diminished sense of ethnic nationality compared to Albanian Muslims, who tend to use religion as a nationalizing tool in areas where it suits their interests, such as southwestern Macedonia. So in comparing populations, a non-Sunni actor such as Iran would have greater success in Bosnia than in Kosovo or Albania. There is also greater inter-cultural activity on a regular basis between Iran and Bosnia, as for example with the January 2013 visit to Sarajevo of Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini.

According to Dr. Karmon, Bosnia is the most dangerous Balkan country in terms of Iranian influence. The late Alija Izetbegovic welcomed Iranian military trainers during the 1990s’ war, and cultivated strong ties with the Islamic Republic. While the Israeli expert acknowledges that the Iranian ‘penetration’ in Bosnia was largely diminished following the 1995 Dayton Accords, he maintains that “there remain pro-Iranian elements in the government, and Iran is active through the embassy in Sarajevo and charities.”

Israel has however attempted to forge new corrective diplomatic alliances in Bosnia due to the country’s singular political structure. Thanks to the pro-Israeli, Orthodox Christian Republika Srpska entity, the Sarajevo government’s hope of supporting the 2012 Palestinian resolution at the UN was foiled. (The country abstained). This added to pre-existing anti-Serbian sentiment among local Muslims, which have led to rumors that also tend to take on anti-Israeli sentiments. Indeed, one prominent local Muslim in Skopje complained to us that “the Serbs always support Israel” and that “[former Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman owns four villas in Banja Luka, that city where [Israeli leaders] spend a lot of time!” The trickle-down effect of such negative speculation and rumor will fuel existing anti-Israeli sentiment among Muslims in the region.

At present, it is difficult to say whether Bosnia could be the launching-pad for Iranian or Hezbollah terrorism, but there is unquestionable Iranian influence in the country. In fact, the major competition for control is being waged now between the Saudis, Turkey and Iran. The latter has the least chance of prevailing for the ‘hearts and minds’ of Bosniaks, but this does not preclude the possibility that it could organize terrorist activities via its established logistical infrastructure in Bosnia. The country’s proximity and Muslim diaspora connections to Austria, a country singled out by Israeli, American and Balkan security officials for being especially soft on terrorists is another worrying indicator. It is well known that Vienna is a hub not only for Iranian intelligence activity, but also a nerve center for radical Islamists with Balkan origins and great influence among radical circles in the region.

Serbia and Kosovo: A Truly Complicated Situation

The most complex diplomatic situation in the Balkans today remains that of Serbia and Kosovo. This has unsurprisingly led to a knotty situation for the international relations of Israel, Iran and these Balkan states.

While archrivals Israel and Iran can’t seem to agree on anything, they have so far both agreed on not recognizing Kosovo as an independent state. After Prishtina’s February 2008 unilateral declaration of independence, the Israeli government was concerned that the Palestinians could use this as a precedent, and chose not to recognize Kosovo, though they did realize the importance of fostering good relations. Humorously enough, in January 2009 the task of nation-branding Kosovo to win more international recognitions was awarded to Saatchi & Saatchi, the Israeli subsidiary of France’s Publicis.

For their part, the Iranians perceived the Kosovo independence process as a US-backed project, which it certainly was, and as such remain happy to oppose it. Thus Tehran’s own sectarian archrival, Saudi Arabia, is along with Qatar and Turkey in a much stronger position among Muslim countries when it comes to Kosovo. Iran’s support for Serbia was also a legacy from the days of Yugoslav leadership in the non-aligned movement under Tito. In fact, Tito cut off diplomatic relations with Israel when the Six-Day War of 1967 occurred; they would only be renewed on January 31, 1992, when Milosevic was in charge in Belgrade and the other republics were breaking away in the various wars. Israel understood then that its Iranian rivals were supporting the Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs.

Since both Israel and Iran do not recognize Kosovo, it has been difficult for either to advance institutional relationships in key areas, though both nations are believed to have key ‘agents of influence’ among the local business and political elite. The other major power interested in Serbia is Russia (that sometimes ally of both Iran and Israel), which of course brings the US and NATO states into the game as well.

Considering that both Serbian and Kosovar authorities claim to want EU membership, all of these competing interests makes the situation very complex. Serbia has somehow managed to fairly successfully balance its relations with all parties, inviting Iranian investment and even allowing Iran Air flights to refuel in Belgrade between March and June 2011, until alleged US pressure forced it stop. At the same time,  Belgrade and Israel are trying to develop deeper diplomatic and economic relations, and the number of Serbian tourists to Israel continues to rise year-on-year. The sheer complexity of Serbia’s balancing of interests makes for a situation that is both very interesting and very difficult to read.

We can reasonably assume that Iran will not risk its entrenched interests in Serbia by trying to conduct any operations on its territory. And while we have obtained reliable intelligence on the presence of at least 120 (Sunni) Muslims from Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro among Syria’s rebel ranks, these fighters are opposing the Iranian-supported Syrian government. So, even if they are deeply anti-Israeli, they are in some way on the ‘Israeli side’ in this very complex and constantly-shifting conflict. The real question for the future is how Israeli and Iranian approaches to Serbia and Kosovo will shift in the long term, after the latter two come to some sort of eventual compromise.

Romania: An Established Presence

An interesting and potentially important theater of activity for Iran and Hezbollah is Romania where, like Serbia, economic cooperation with Iran and other Islamic states originally owed to the politics of former communist times. A survey of Romanian security services discusses the domestic intelligence service, the SRI, and its foreign intelligence counterpart, the SIE, a developed agency with offensive capabilities and strong US ties.

Nevertheless, the country is large, underdeveloped in some regions and has a very significant and well-documented Iranian economic presence, making it a potential area for Iranian-sanctioned operations. It is therefore reasonable to expect Israel to also be active in monitoring the country with its local partners.

While they were long aware of the general problem, the Burgas bombing put the Romanian services on a state of heightened alert. In August 2012, following a request from the SRI, Romanian public prosecutors asked the Bucharest Court of Appeals to declare eight Middle Eastern resident persona non grata for 15 years. According to Ziare, “they were accused of having strong connections with Hezbollah and Hamas, of having intended to organize a group on Romanian territory to support illegal immigration from the Middle East to be used by Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists. Two of the eight had diplomatic status.”

The Romanian media had already taken an interest in terrorism back in April 2011. Citing Wikileaks cables, Jurnalul reported that some 90 persons and 40 firms in Romania were actively financing terrorist organizations in late 2004. Another cable from July 2005 revealed concerns over a suspected Lebanese Hezbollah member involved in drug dealing. In 2005, his request for permanent residency in Romania was declined.

Then, in July 2011, Romania Libera reported on a DEA undercover investigation, which led to the extradition to the US of Iranian citizen Siavosh Henareh and Turkish citizen Cetin Aksu. US authorities had accused the two of intending to procure arms for Hezbollah, through using economic cover- the method noted by Israeli experts elsewhere. Henareh, a Romanian resident, had been a partner with Romanian businessmen in a baking company and owned a holding company.

How extensive is the Iranian economic presence in Romania? In November 2011, published a comprehensive study on this issue. It revealed that Iranians have capital in over 2,600 Romanian companies across a variety of sectors, and also provided a variety of relevant statistics and information on recent governmental visits and bilateral parliamentary friendship groups. This extensive degree of economic and diplomatic cover would allow Iran the opportunity that Israeli experts have found in other similar states where Iran or Hezbollah has operated against Israeli and Jewish interests.

Iran is, however, far from the largest investor in Romania. The Arab Muslim world, however, is well represented and it seems that this partly has to do with a reaction against Iran. Official statements from President Basescu made at the February 2012 Romania-Lebanon Business Forum noted that Lebanon was the leading Arab state investor in Romania, with total investments of over 2 billion euros.  More recent data on bilateral accords was made available in a December 2012 report (.PDF) released by the Romanian Ministry of Economy, Department of Foreign Trade and International Relations.

At the business forum, it also emerged that the Romanian-Lebanese partnership extends as far as military training for Lebanese troops, and weaponry donations for their army. The leaders also discussed the situations in Syria and Egypt, plus the Iranian nuclear program. Such discussions and initiatives to strengthen Lebanese military capacities against possible threats from Syria or Hezbollah conceivably indicate Israeli or American influence at work in Romania.

One interesting result of the Burgas investigation has been a low-key disagreement between Romanian and Bulgarian services. This should not affect cooperation, but it has taken on unusually public dimensions. This was fuelled by initial speculation that the Hezbollah plotters used Romania either as a logistics base for planning the attack or as an escape route after it. This has led the Romanian security establishment to conduct an internal investigation.

On 6 February 2013, then-Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetanov declared that two of the surviving suspects fled through Romania, and from there flew to Lebanon. According to him, they had also entered Bulgaria from Romania, on foot. If true, this would somewhat embarrass the Romanian security services- or, it could just be a case of Bulgaria passing the buck.

Either way, the announcement did have an effect. In a press release noted by Mediafax on 19 February, the SRI specified that ‘up to now’ no evidence exists to support the claim that the plot ‘had been prepared’ or ‘supported’ from Romania. The SRI press release added that “during the verification and common evaluation one person suspected of being involved in the terrorist action in Bulgaria was identified. Up to now, there are no elements or clues that the identified persons would have realized activities of preparing or supporting’ the attack in Burgas.” The SRI did also mention that the investigation is ongoing.

According to’s Elena Dragomir in Romania, “the somewhat vague SRI communiqué of 19 February seems to be the official Romanian response to the declarations of the Bulgarian minister, an apparent matter of prestige for the SRI.”

Adds Dragomir, “the SRI has announced a series of ‘specific measures’ to be taken, which include collaboration with the Bulgarian authorities and other international partners. But the security agency also points out that Romania cannot prevent such actions and cannot intervene if the people transiting Romania are not on any international list of terrorism suspects- a clear allusion to the Burgas case.”

For now, we can estimate concerning Romania that due to the deeply embedded Iranian economic presence, and the ‘soft target’ nature of the country, that Israel will take a greater interest in goings-on here. While this attention may not be on the same level as Bosnia or even Albania, it will still be significant. At the same time, the Israelis will also feel more confident in the abilities of their local partners here than in those Balkan states with Muslim majorities or less robust services.

IDF Cooperation in the Balkans: a Valuable Asset

In addition to indirect influence via discreet intelligence cooperation, Israel has taken an active and direct presence in the Balkans through its military. The IDF and IAF have stepped up cooperation with several Balkan states. And this partnership does have specific technical benefits for Israel, not only for the host countries.

According to Sigurd Neubauer, “for the IAF, a critical component for strengthening ties with the Balkans is its ability to steadily improve its capabilities by conducting complex exercises beyond Israel’s small and familiar terrain.”

This expert recounts some important examples of Israeli Air Force activity since the 2010 Gaza Flotilla incident interrupted the previous cooperation with Turkey. Since then, “the IAF has conducted two joint exercises with the Hellenic Air Force (HAF). The first exercise, carried out in mid-October the same year, apparently included four IAF Apaches helicopters on the Greek island of Crete. The second half of that drill was carried out the Peloponnesian peninsula in which four Black Hawks were used.”’s Ioannis Michaletos also points to the general increase in military cooperation between Israel and Greece in recent years- a trend continuing now. “In the first two months of 2013, four high-level Israeli delegations came to the Greek ministry of defense, which is more in absolute terms than other EU countries such as the UK or France,” he notes.

Elsewhere in the region, Neubauer points out similar IAF training exercises in the central Romanian Carpathian Mountains, specifying that in 2011 the IAF carried out “two exercises with Greece and one with Romania.” Further, “following Netanyahu’s visit to Sofia, the Bulgarian cabinet approved a bilateral military cooperation agreement. The agreement in question included, among other things, the IAF training its Bulgarian counterparts and utilizing Bulgarian airspace for military exercises.”

At the same time, the IAF maintains specialized cooperation with smaller Balkan countries like Macedonia, where airspace is basically as limited as it is in Israel. Here they have simply adapted by using other craft. Currently, therefore, an Israeli firm and the IAF are involved in helicopter pilot training activity for professionalizing the Macedonian military, police and firefighters.

Interestingly, despite Muslim perceptions of an Israeli ‘Serb favoritism,’ one senior ranking military official in Belgrade does not see significant results from actual joint efforts, despite last summer’s bilateral military cooperation agreement. “I can estimate that we have ‘average’ cooperation, which means it is not so much as it could be,” said this official for “Our military cooperation mostly regards counter-terrorism units and signal equipment- [the Israelis] don’t even have a defense attaché in Belgrade, instead the attaché from Rome is charged with interacting with us.” Adding the possibility that the Israeli embassy is more active with cooperation, this Serbian military official concluded, “this would not be in the military area… probably we are guilty for [the lack], not being so clever diplomatically.”

Turkey and Israel: Alliances New and Old

One obvious aspect of the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement (and the US involvement in brokering it) is the US desire to get both countries united on Syria. The groundwork for the now famous phone call, diplomatic sources indicate, was laid out a few weeks earlier during Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Ankara in February. However, Erdoğan is seeking to maximize what is perceived as a new advantage, and has recently made guarded comments about the speed and extent to which ties will be normalized, while also stating his plan to visit Gaza in April. If past experience is anything to go by, the Turkish leader will use his platform there to give a sort of victory declaration concerning the Gaza flotilla, and further enhance his standing in the ‘Muslim street.’

Still, even before the Gaza Flotilla incident, Israel had already begun a strategic process of developing its diplomatic, economic and cultural relationships in the Balkans. Both before and after May 2010 this approach has unnerved some in the Turkish policy community, and left Bosnian and other local Muslim leaders uneasy as well.

Thus, the key question that will have to be asked going forward is (as discussed previously in the case of Albania) how the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement will affect the relations of both powers with specific Balkan states and interests, especially when it comes to bilateral military cooperation plans. Israel is aware of this concern, as was indicated by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent reassurances to Greece that Turkish rapprochement would not affect Israeli-Greek cooperation.

Until recently, almost all of the feedback and discussion among Israeli experts and media over this issue had not been raised, as their views were predicated on the assumption that ties with Turkey would not resume, and could not resume, so long as Erdoğan remained in power. The fact that the impossible seems to have happened says more about US influence and desire for clarity on Syria than about any innate Israeli-Turkish trust. It is also possible that blocked deliveries of Israeli-produced military components and intelligence technology for Turkey were starting to become problematic for the latter, increasing internal pressure on Turkish leaders to act.

Whether or not it was really Turkey or Israel who ‘needed it more,’ cooperation has been restored and the next step for both sides is how to ‘sell’ the rapprochement before domestic supporters and rivals. This is much more challenging for Erdoğan than for Netanyahu, as the former’s aspirations are far greater and more diverse: to change the Turkish constitution in his favor, to make peace with the Kurds, to redirect an ambitious foreign policy centering on several fronts, and to remain the most influential politician in the Muslim world. This is why the Turkish prime minister’s public handling of the rapprochement is bound to be ‘predictably unpredictable’- something that will irritate Israel and the US, but that will not be a surprise to longtime observers.

The Tenor of the Revived Israeli-Turkish Relationship and Effects on the Balkan Alliances

Despite any further controversial comments to come from politicians, it does appear that bilateral relations will eventually improve, even if these once and future partners will stay more wary of each other in future.

Shimon Hefetz is a retired Brigadier General, and former Aide-de-Camp to former Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin and past Presidents Ezer Weitzman and Moshe Katzav. Regarding the tenor of the renewed relationship with Turkey, Mr Hefetz tells that he believes “it will certainly start out as a more cautious relationship… not what it was some 11 years ago.”

On a similar note, Dr. Ely Karmon recently wrote in Haaretz that “although the diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and Turkey could be reestablished quite quickly, the sensitive military and strategic cooperation is much more difficult to achieve, in view of the deep changes in the ranks of the Turkish military and intelligence echelons and of mutual mistrust – which will not disappear overnight.”

Analysts believe that the resumption of ties will also benefit Israel, as the new Balkan alliances are limited. “It is not clear whether an alliance with Cyprus and the Balkan states can fully substitute for Israel’s former strategic military partnership with Turkey,” says Sigurd Neubauer. “Given Greece’ significant financial problems and Israel’s own budgetary restraints, it also remains doubtful whether either of the two countries can ‘afford’ prolonged military tensions presented by an [potentially] adversarial-inclined Turkey.”

A similar analysis had been made just over a year earlier by Dr. Josef Olmert, who raised the question of whether a Balkan alliance could replace the previous one with Turkey: “It is premature to pass a definitive judgment, but the odds are that the answer is negative,” Olmert wrote in the Huffington Post. “Turkey is by far the strongest country in this neighborhood, economically, militarily and politically. The closure of the Turkish market for the Israeli military industries is significant, and it is inconceivable, that a bankrupt nation like Greece, impoverished states like Albania or small nations like Cyprus can make up the difference.” Interestingly, Olmert’s view that Erdoğan would not ‘change course’ and restore relations with Israel was shared by many Israeli experts right up until Netanyahu’s apology was made.

At the present moment, Neubauer believes that the resurrected Turkish-Israeli relationship will primarily focus on events in their immediate neighborhood. This would mean that the current reduced cooperation in the Balkans should continue in the medium-term. “Even if Turkey and Israel are able to overcome their differences and jointly focus on Syria policy,” he says, “it is doubtful whether the two countries will be able to muster enough trust to take on issues related to combating terrorism in the Balkans… at the present stage, both Turkey and Israel are arguably focusing their attention towards the Levant as opposed to the Balkans.”

However, concludes Neubauer, Israel may “continue to assist various Balkan countries with the following areas of cooperation: anti-terror training, homeland security technologies, airport and seaport security, and assistance on transnational counter-narcotics operations.”

It has been a long time since the glory days of Israeli-Turkish relations in the late 1990s, when cooperation was so high that Israel reportedly provided intelligence leading to the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan (the degree and character of Israeli involvement, denied wholesale by the government at the time, have been intensely debated, with wildly differing tales told). The great irony here is that Ocalan, held in a Turkish island prison ever since, is now a sort of trump card vital for Erdoğan in his outreach campaign to win a peace with the Kurds.

A certain trend in Turkish media visible since the Mavi Marmaris incident has revealed a concern, or attempts to create concern that Israel and Turkey could in some way become competitors in the Balkans. However, according to Yossi Melman, “Israel does not see Turkey as a competitor, certainly not in the Balkans. Israel wishes to restore its old intelligence and military ties with Turkey… the civil war in Syria provides a common ground for Israeli-American, and Turkish interests to end the war and stabilize Syria.”

Indeed, while Turkish (and generally pro-Muslim) supporters in the media have shown some concern about Israeli expansion in the Balkans, these fears are overblown. “Israel with its limited size, capabilities and financial means is not a player in this game,” contends Melman.

“Israel via its intelligence and security is concerned almost solely about its immediate national interests: Iran’s nuclear desire, Iran’s support of terrorist groups, the developments in Syria,  terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and to a lesser degree al Qaida (only in a direct regard to Israel, like the growing fear of Islamists in Syria),” he continues. Still, “Israel is taking part in exchanging information with friendly services so occasionally if Israel will come across information which is valid to other nations it will provide it to the interested parties.”

From the purely entrepreneurial side of things, it is also interesting to note that while the three-year rift with Turkey had an effect, it did represent a helpful challenge in some ways. During the long suspension of activities, businessmen from both countries had to find alternate connecting points, which actually increased the value of countries like Macedonia, Albania and Romania. So regardless of the diplomatic impasse, says an informed local businessman, “Turkish businessmen have considered the Balkans to be a good place to meet Israeli counterparts… despite politics, business always finds a way.” There are currently plans for several joint private ventures in the region, for example in the health care and high-tech sectors.

Turkey and Israel, beyond the Balkans: the Caucasus and Africa

Reaching out to mutual allies – the most obvious and most extensively involved of course being the US – has also helped both Israel and Turkey sustain relations during the three-year impasse. US diplomatic sources reveal that despite the apparent lack of progress since May 2010, it was not due to lack of trying; in addition to the official visits, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made several secret trips to Ankara to try and get some traction from a stubborn Turkish leadership.

There are other mutual, but sometimes overlooked allies too, which play a key role in Israel’s containment of Iran but which are never mentioned in the context of wider bilateral Israel-Turkey relations in other areas like the Balkans. In this light, Azerbaijan is a vital ally to both Israel and Turkey, borders on Iran, and thus becomes potentially important in a number of ways. Is it possible that the country has facilitated or could facilitate information-sharing between Turkey and Israel more discreetly during periods of public political discord?

Veteran Canadian war reporter Scott Taylor, who has traveled in and written extensively on Turkey and Azerbaijan, notes for that “intelligence agencies work on entirely different circuits than that of the diplomatic corps- policy differences would not preclude the necessity to share information on common threats, if necessary.”

Interestingly, as with Albania under Berisha, Baku has shown a bit of independence from its ethnic kin in Turkey. This owes less to nationalism (as is the case with Albania) and more to a new confidence and prominence as its wealth and geostrategic value have increased. A senior Azerbaijani diplomat addressed the question for thus: “I cannot comment on the matter of intelligence cooperation in particular, but in general terms our relations with Israel is strong and multifaceted, and we don’t look for the approval of this relationship from a third state, for example, Turkey.”

“The only common approach between Azerbaijan and Turkey towards Israel (or more precisely Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is that we are both for the two-state solution and we are supporting the independence of Palestine,” the diplomat continued. “Azerbaijan’s stance on this matter sits ok with Israel, and does not hinder Azerbaijan-Israel bilateral cooperation. There are a number of other issues (the Holocaust, anti-Semitism) where our position is also clear, and appreciated by Israel.”

Something that was particularly appreciated by Israel (as stated by President Shimon Peres) last January was Azerbaijan’s disruption of a terrorist plot involving Iranian and Azerbaijani citizens. Authorities in Baku stated that terrorists had planned to attack Jewish schools and to bomb the Israeli embassy, “to avenge the death” of Hezbollah’s Imad Muganiyah (a possible similar motive behind the Burgas bombing mentioned above). Just a few weeks after, the London Times published a feature in which an unnamed Israeli operative spoke of Baku as being “ground zero for intelligence work,” and discussing the presence of Iranian, American and Israeli intelligence in this Caucasus country bordering Iran.

These comments and the general context become even more interesting in light of recent publications on the Israeli-Azerbaijani strategic alliance. A comprehensive article by Mahir Khalifa-Zadeh for the IDC Herzliya’s GLORIA Center discusses the intricacies of Israeli-Azerbaijani relations and active regional players Iran, Russia and Armenia. The author also discusses Baku’s proactive role during the breakdown in Israeli-Turkish relations.

“Azerbaijan has attempted to play the mediator between the two countries following tensions and disagreements that emerged as a result of the Mavi Marmara incident,” he writes. “Undoubtedly, this type of mediation can expand Baku’s role in Middle Eastern affairs and strengthen Azerbaijan’s international standing.”

Another region in which the future relationship between Israel and Turkey is going to be significant is Africa. The extent of Iranian and Hezbollah involvement across approximately 40 states here was assessed in the above-cited analysis by the IDC Herzliya’s Dr. Ely Karmon. In this case, Turkey has cleverly taken steps to expand its diplomatic and commercial presence- thus making it a vital ally for the US and Israel in the region, both in terms of mediating local intra-religious disputes and providing intelligence on Iranian moves. Although the foreign media has only become aware of Turkey’s tilt towards Africa in the last few months, devoted attention to it over two years ago in this interview.

The present article cannot go into detail concerning the complexities of the evolving Israeli-Turkish relationship and how both North and Sub-Saharan Africa will affect it. However, it can reasonably be assumed that Turkey’s developed presence on the emerging continent will place it in a strong position for its dealings with both Israel and the US. The leverage that Turkey has due to its established economic presence, and particularly in terms of its shared Islamic faith in African countries with Muslim populations, may well be exerted in ways favorable to Ankara, not only here but in other regions as well. However, indicators of such diplomacy in action will probably not be immediately visible or relatable except in a small number of individual cases.

Nevertheless, if Israel does eventually decide to limit its Balkan activities, it may not be because of simple budgetary reasons: rather, if it perceives Turkey as being essential to eliminating any Iranian threats emanating from Africa, Israel would probably choose to become less prominent in Turkey’s European backyard, if the latter demands it.

Considering the politicians involved, this is not as unlikely as occasional observers might think. Knowing what factors motivate Turkish decision-making politically, emotionally, and strategically is necessary for deducing the likelihood of future ‘compromises’ to come in the Balkans.

In the end, it will be up to the Israeli leadership to game-plan for all of the possible outcomes and to convince their Balkan partners (as they recently attempted with the Greek government) that they really are ‘here to stay.’ With American interest waning and the European Union mired in its own financial and other problems, it is a good moment for any outside aspirants to gain influence in the Balkans. The issue, for all concerned, is to what extent their potential involvement will be guaranteed, compared to other possible compromises with interested parties in other areas or other spheres of interest.

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Bulgaria Upgrades its Regional Energy Role

By Ioannis Michaletos

For the better part of 2012, Bulgaria has been upgrading its role in regional energy developments, engaging in a multilayer policy regarding multiple projects that will potentially elevate its role in the geo-economic sphere in the mid- and long-term.

Bulgarian-Russian Engagements

Presently, Bulgaria imports around 3 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year from Gazprom, which covers its total domestic consumption.

The envisioned South Stream project is probably the single largest proposed natural gas pipeline project in Southeastern Europe. Designed and directed by Gazprom and Italy’s ENI, it has also attracted collaboration interest from French and German companies. Bulgaria features in two onshore pipeline routes: the first is to Austria (via Serbia, Slovenia and Hungary), the second to Italy (via Greece).

In that case, Sofia has already enacted a plan for acquiring extra benefits, and thus to win as many concessions as possible. First of all, Bulgaria will not finance the construction of the portion of pipeline passing through its territory, leaving all expenses to Gazprom and its consortium partners.

In parallel, Bulgarian Energy Minister Dobrev has recently stated to the local press that by 15 November 2012, new contracts for the supply of Russian gas are going to be signed with Gazprom that stipulate an 11% reduction in import prices. A first agreement was signed in April 2012 and will continue to be enforced during 2013 as well.

In the oil sector, Lukoil has announced that its refinery in Bulgaria will receive a 1.5 billion euro Russian investment for the construction of a hydrocracking plant. It is estimated that 3,000 jobs are to be created and, most importantly, that after this the oil refinery products exports of Bulgaria will be boosted (mostly to Eastern European markets), of course also providing a source of additional revenue for state coffers.

Hydrocracking is a chemical process for converting petroleum crude oils into products such as gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, and diesel oil. The Southeast European region, including Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean, may experience a lack of these types of fuel (and especially diesel) in the coming decade, thus opening a market for oil refineries such as Lukoil’s.

In a recent international energy conference in Thessaloniki, organized by the Institute of Energy of South East Europe (IENE), it was cited by specialized working groups of energy experts, that there is great potential for hydrocracking units, and for the time being only the Greek refineries and the Bulgarian one will be capable of reaping substantial benefits due to the coming shortfall of diesel in the nearby markets.

Regional Engagements

Bulgaria has also upgraded its regional cooperation with Romania by inaugurating recently a 25km natural gas interconnector, commissioned by Bulgartransgaz EAD and Transgas SA. The total cost was around 24 million euros, out of which 9 million euros were provided by EU structural funds, under the purpose of energy security and diversification of the Balkans- a catch-phrase for reducing local markets’ dependence on Gazprom.

Thus, at the same time that Bulgaria is getting closer to Gazprom’s policies, it is also playing in the opposite direction, following a clear model of keeping a balance between the three major players in the region, namely, the USA/Germany and Russia. In times of crisis, such as the infamous Russo-Ukrainian ‘gas wars,’ Bulgaria would be able to use the interconnector to supply certain amounts of gas, so as to keep the local electricity market going without major interruptions.

Moreover, Bulgaria and Greece are boosting their interoperability on an energy level with the 170km-long IGB interconnector. Connecting the Thracian towns of Stara Zagora in Bulgaria with Komotini in Greece, this will be complete by the end of 2013 and will be fully operational in the beginning of the following year.

The engineer contractor for this project is PensPen, a British company specializing in natural gas infrastructure. The company has subcontracted a gents in Greece and Bulgaria, and is in the process of executing the environmental studies needed to implement the IGB.

The total cost is estimated at 150 million euros, out of which 45 million euros will be awarded by the European Union. The EU strongly supports IGB as an implementation of the bloc’s natural gas diversification strategy in the Southeast European region.

On August 11, 2011, when the contract for the Front End Engineering Design and Environmental Impact Assessment was signed in Sofia, PensPen announced that “the interconnector IGB is a project of the utmost strategic importance for Greece and Bulgaria, since it reinforces the security and provides diversification of supply in Southeastern Europe, adding that “Penspen’s local partner C&M Engineering S.A is considered one of the most experienced consultancy & engineering firms in Greece, specialised in the energy sector, due to its portfolio of large, complex energy projects.”

The shareholders of the Athens-based venture will be the Poseidon consortium, in which DEPA and the Italian company Edison are involved. From the Bulgarian side, the partner here will be Bulgarian Energy Holding (BEH).

The importance of the IGB, as the press release cited above indicated, lies mostly in the diversification policies as implemented by the EU; this directly correlates with Azerbaijan’s final decisions regarding which project will be selected as the so-called ‘Southern Corridor’ one. For the moment, Nabucco West and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) are the main competitors for the contract to deliver significant amounts of gas from the Shah Deniz field to Europe, either through the eastern Balkans (Nabucco) or through Greece-Albania (TAP).

Bulgaria is also preparing to construct an interconnector with Serbia, to have a capacity of 4.9 million cm/day, to be completed in 2015. This capacity might go up to 13.6 million cm per day eventually, according to technical studies conducted.

Domestic Culminations

Bulgaria also strives to become an oil producer and in July 2012 awarded licenses for offshore oil explorations to French energy giant Total, in the location 1-21 Khan Asparouh. Two other companies, the Spanish Repsol and the Austrian OMV, will also be included as partners and will together research a region of 14,000 sq km, around 50 miles off the coast of Varna. The duration of the license is five years.

According to estimates made by Bulgarian scientists, 85 billion cubic meters of recoverable reserves could lie beneath these waters, along with significant amounts of oil. The total investments needed for deep-sea drilling may well exceed 1 billion euros over the next five years. A large part of that would be subcontracted to local industrial and maritime companies.

Meanwhile, in August 2012 Sofia awarded a license for oil exploration in the Block 1-19 St. Athanasius. This is located south of the block where quantities sufficient for 10-15% of domestic gas consumption are currently being extracted. The company involved, Scotland’s Melrose Resources, merged with the Irish Petroceltic International PLC on October 10, 2012.

Lastly Block 1-22 Teres, close to the maritime border with Turkey is estimated to have some amounts of hydrocarbons. On 11 October 2012, the Bulgarian government announced it would proceed here, announcing a public tender for interested companies wishing to explore that part as well.

In short, should all these explorations prove to be fruitful, Bulgaria may well be secured in energy terms in less than a decade, while it will also participate in all major energy networks between the West and the East.


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Book Review: Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831

Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831 (Brill, 2011)

By Panos Sophoulis

Reviewed by Chris Deliso

Byzantium’s chronically turbulent relationship with the Turkic Bulgar khanate in the late eighth and early ninth centuries is the subject of this groundbreaking new synthetic political study. In Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831 specialist scholars and general Balkan-interest readers alike are treated to the first modern English-language monograph on this relatively obscure but crucial period in the evolution of both states.

This timely work replaces outdated studies (most, from the early twentieth century), and takes into account a wealth of new evidence gleaned from recent archaeological excavations. Measured analysis of this material record provides a useful supplement to the well-known Byzantine historiographical and hagiographical sources (as well as Syriac, Arabic, Armenian and Frankish texts). These key sources all receive a fresh and thorough critical re-evaluation from the author, University of Athens Lecturer in History Panos Sophoulis, who developed the book out of doctoral thesis research conducted at Oxford University.

While the structure of the book thus generally follows the thrust of Sophoulis’ thesis, two of the most important chapters are completely new; these are chapter three (about Bulgaria’s northern, western and eastern borders and neighbors from the seventh to the ninth century) and the eighth and final chapter, which discusses the reign of Khan Omurtag (815-831), a ruler who oversaw growth, prosperity and a new centralisation of power, all leading to the expansion of the Bulgar khanate.

Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831 begins with a thorough overview of the contemporary written sources dealing with Byzantium and Bulgaria during the period. The author takes care to point out the relative strengths and shortcomings of each, the factors that influenced their composition, points of divergence and so on. This mastery of the sources not only allows for the most comprehensive and detailed narrative yet of political and military affairs during the period, but also helps readers appreciate the various prejudices under which Byzantine writers laboured (for example, an iconophile chronicler attributing an emperor’s defeat at the hands of the Bulgars to his iconoclastic impiety, decidedly displeasing to God).

The monograph’s long second chapter, perhaps the one that is most interesting to the general reader, discusses Bulgaria’s strategic geography, new archaeological evidence, and the structures, institutions and cultural life of the Bulgars. The survey of the terrain informs the reader as to where the options lay for the Byzantines and Bulgars- whether for settlements, points of attack or trade and communications routes. Sophoulis also makes several important, but not immediately apparent points: for example, the relatively small size of available pasturage (in comparison to the Mongols or Central Asian Turks, with their vast steppes) limited the capabilities of this semi-nomadic equestrian society to develop a large cavalry, and thus its ability to impact its neighbors.

Regarding archaeology, the author makes full use of the new wealth of evidence gathered from recent excavation programmes in Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Greece and Turkey. This new data sheds considerable light on social and economic conditions, defensive structures, commercial centers and specific sites (such as recent work done at the Bulgar capital of Pliska, which gets a detailed discussion).

The author’s critical assessment of factors shaping scholarly use of the material record is just as insightful as is his commentary on the written one. For example, he notes the “conflicting presuppositions” of Romanian and Bulgarian archaeologists, with the former tending to look for continuity from a ‘proto-Romanian’ civilization in assessing digs from the period, and the latter’s tendency to conversely ignore or minimise evidence of a pre-existing society with sub-Roman and Christian elements. Since decisions taken (or not taken) in this light can colour our understanding of history by restricting what may actually be a more complete record, it is to the author’s credit that he is sensitive to such factors and points them out.

Sophoulis also notes types of dwellings and burial practices in coming to understandings of the Bulgar culture and differences with other neighbouring ones, such as the Slavs. Later in the chapter the author gives an extraordinary view into the pagan Bulgars’ view of the afterlife and religion. Like other Turkic steppe nomads, they seem to have understood religion in terms of ritual rather than dogma-as evidenced by correspondence between the Bulgar khan and the Pope after the eventual conversion to Christianity in 866. The khan’s questions reveal the fear of typical pagan steppe nomads- that great harm could befall “neophyte practitioners” if rituals were performed incorrectly, thus angering the new god.

Just as marvelous a concern was the Bulgars’ hesitancy about having to give up their tradition of ancestor worship as part of membership in the new religion. Even before conversion, the evidence suggests that the Bulgars did believe in an afterlife, as well as practice shamanism, like other Eurasian steppe nomads. And here again Sophoulis takes care to point out the need to keep in mind distinctions between what this practice might have meant to that people, in light of the cumulative connotations that have been given it over the last two centuries of popular interest in the topic worldwide. It is this sort of observation again that demonstrates the author’s critical vigilance in assessing his topic.

Next follows the third chapter, which takes a short detour north to the Carpathian basin and the steppes. Here is discussed the wider context of Bulgaria’s northern neighbours from the seventh to the ninth centuries. It allows the author to present Bulgar society and political developments in the context of the (non-Byzantine) factors that affected them, such as the Khazar conquest of the southern Russian steppes and Khan Asparukh’s migration to the Balkans. The chapter’s discussion of the significance of Crimea to the Bulgars and Byzantines, supplemented by evidence from new archaeological findings, also indicates how the greater Black Sea area played a vital role in the affairs of both societies.

The central chapters of Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831 are devoted to fleshing out the political and military history of the period. The narrative begins in the context of Emperor Constantine V’s successful wars against the khanate, which was near collapse at his death in 775. However, the Byzantines were less successful thereafter, and the Bulgars became a chronically vexing enemy. The sixth chapter, for example, concludes with a vivid and harrowing account of how the armies of Khan Krum, who had been rather disrespected by the Byzantines, ran roughshod around Constantinople and its environs, in vintage steppe nomad fashion. Indeed, for anyone familiar with modern Istanbul, the spectacle of Bulgar hordes pillaging Besiktas would seem altogether remarkable, but apparently that is what happened.

The author informs the fast-paced narrative with reference to the effect of these events on social and political trends. For example, he shows how Leo V’s re-establishment of iconoclasm in April 815 was strongly influenced by the pious Byzantines’ perception that the Bulgars’ pattern of military victories attested to divine displeasure with their society (this point on mediaeval understandings of causality has been made by other modern historians, such as Mark Whittow in The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600-1025, in reference to the early Muslim armies’ victories against the empire).

The concluding chapter of the book gives an account of what the author calls a “turning point” in the history of the Bulgarian state- the reign of Omurtag. It explains how he kept the warrior aristocracy in check, while attempting to mold a group identity for his ethnically diverse subjects and expanding the khanate’s territory. This would create the basis for an enduring state that preserved elements of the steppe nomad tradition, along with the trappings of Byzantine ‘high society’ and, after 866, Christian practice and an ecclesiastical structure that looked to Constantinople, and not Rome for guidance.

It is thus shown how not only war but also cultural and political interaction with Byzantium created the conditions for a (Christian) Bulgarian empire that would emerge later when the capital had been moved to the Prespa and then Ohrid lake region in Macedonia under the tsars- a period that has tended to be much more popular for researchers. Yet for that society to emerge, and for it to once again vie with the Byzantines well into the eleventh century, was something only made possible by the successes and sacrifices of the khans and their subjects. And this is the untold story that Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831 tells so well.

*Note: This book review was originally published in the 2012 edition of the Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies’ journal, the British Bulletin of Byzantine Studies. Readers can also buy it directly from the publisher, Brill. Those in the UK can also find it here on

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Islamic Headscarves in Legal Limbo: the Controversy over Religious Symbols in Bulgaria’s Public Schools

By Professor Kristen Ghodsee*

Editor’s note: In this new article, contributor Dr. Kristen Ghodsee explores the intricacies of Bulgaria’s current debate on head scarves in schools.

The controversy over banning Islamic headscarves in public schools has, until now, largely focused on the situations in France and Turkey where secular governments are carefully trying to maintain a thick wall between church and state. In 2006 this controversy hit home in Bulgaria: the EU member state with the largest Muslim minority (estimated between 13-15%). Complaints regarding discrimination against Islamic religious symbols were filed with the Parliamentary Commission for Protection from Discrimination, the national body that deals with human rights violations. The Commission’s decisions in two key cases as to whether girls should be allowed to wear headscarves in schools have created a legal limbo wherein the state has abdicated its responsibility for interpreting the Bulgarian constitution. Instead, individual headmasters are now allowed to make their own policy regarding religious tolerance in public institutions.

In the first case, two high school students were forbidden to wear headscarves to the Karl Marx Professional Economics secondary school in the southern Bulgarian city of Smolyan. A heated national debate was ignited as two girls challenged a decision of their school’s headmaster. The girls claimed that their rights were violated because they wanted to obtain a secular education in economics while as devout Muslims also continue to wear Islamic headscarves in the classroom.

One of the two girls had been already wearing her headscarf to school for at least a year without incident, but when a second student decided to come to school with her hair covered, the headmaster told both girls that they could not attend classes with headscarves, because their specific headgear was not part of the school uniform.

According to the headmaster the girls knew of the mandatory uniform requirements before they applied to the school and noted that Bulgarian schools were secular, so religious symbols were thus not allowed on campus. In her view, girls that insisted on displaying religious symbols had an alternative – the government of Bulgaria accredited three Islamic secondary schools where wearing of a headscarf was encouraged and where the girls could obtain a religious education (on full scholarship) if they so chose.

The girls refused to remove their headscarves, and filed a complaint with the regional inspectorate of the Ministry of Education, which in turn upheld the headmaster’s decision, reiterating that Bulgarian education was secular and the girls should not be allowed to attend classes unless they conformed to the school’s uniform policy.

A local Islamic non-governmental organization, the Union for Islamic Development and Culture, took up the case and filed a complaint on behalf of the girls with the Parliamentary Commission for Protection from Discrimination. Since the Commission was headed by a Muslim-Bulgarian of ethnic Turkish heritage, the girls (who were Slavic Muslims, or Pomaks) and the NGO were quite confident that they would win their case. However, the political leadership of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (an ethnic Turkish political party represented in the government at the time) did not support the Islamic NGO, and the Commission found against the girls and fined all parties involved. Both the school and the regional inspectorate were fined for allowing the girls to wear their headscarves to school during the period when the case was being adjudicated, and the Islamic NGO was fined for “inciting discrimination” by bringing the case forward to begin with.

In its written decision issued in July 2006, the Commission stated that Islamic headscarves were religious symbols and that Bulgarian schools were secular, noting that the “ … complainant had gone beyond the limits of tolerance, requesting a solution that would actually result in unequal treatment and direct discrimination of all other students, irrespective of their religion.”

It also cited a key paragraph from a resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which advises states “… to protect women against violations of their rights in the name of religion and to promote and fully implement gender equality. States must not accept any religious or cultural relativism of women’s human rights… They must fight against religiously motivated stereotypes of female and male roles from an early age, including in schools.”

The complaint ignited a national controversy, and the media in Bulgaria sensationalized the headscarf case. To some, the case was evidence that radical Islamic sects were infiltrating the country and trying to destabilize the precarious postsocialist ethnic peace that characterized Christian-Muslim relations in the country despite its proximity to Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

A key point in this line of reasoning was that the members of the Union for Islamic Development and Culture, the NGO that filed the complaint on behalf of the two girls, had been educated in Jordan and had links Islamic charities in Saudi Arabia.  It was argued that they were attempting to introduce a “foreign” type of Islam that was not traditional to the country.

Many were suspicious of the idea that it was mandatory for Muslim women and girls to cover their heads since the vast majority of Bulgarian Muslims were ethnically Turkish, and very few Turkish women (particularly girls of school age) were expected to wear a headscarf.  Indeed, the Chief Mufti’s office in Sofia (theoretically the governing body of the Bulgarian Muslim minority), had also refused to support the complaint of the Smolyan NGO and actively discouraged further complaints, fearing that they would result in increased discrimination against Bulgaria’s Muslim minorities.

After the first headscarf case in 2006, there was a suggestion by the Ministry of Education that the Bulgarian parliament should pass a law along the lines of the French legislation prohibiting the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols in schools, but nothing happened. Then the Ministry of Education issued a verbal order banning headscarves and threatening fines to all headmasters that allowed girls wearing Islamic headscarves to attend classes.

The second major complaint to be filed with the Parliamentary Commission for Protection from Discrimination on February 23rd, 2007 came from three tenth-graders from the village of Gyovren attending the Professional Еlectro-technology Secondary School in Devin, a city just east of Smolyan. Тhe three girls had just recently began wearing their headscarves, and were keen to continue their secular education while remaining modest and covered.

What seems to have happened in the Devin case is that the headmaster called the girls into his office and warned them that there was a verbal order from the Ministry of Education that they were not allowed to wear headscarves in school. Although he did not make them take their headscarves off, he did warn that in the event of an official written order, they would have to comply and remove their head coverings or they would not be allowed to attend the school. The girls continued to attend school wearing their headscarves, and did not miss any classes or exams after this meeting with the headmaster, but they filed a discrimination complaint against him preemptively, assuming that the relevant authorities would eventually issue the written order.

During the hearings for the case, the regional inspectorate of the Ministry of Education stated that the girls should not be allowed to wear religious symbols to secular schools and that the Devin headmaster had failed in implementing this rule. Because of this, the Commission would not take the complaint into consideration, finding that there was no discrimination since the girls were still attending school in their headscarves at the time of the meeting.

According to the Commission the key issue hinged on the fact that the Devin secondary school did not have a uniform requirement. Because it did not have a uniform requirement, the Devin school was apparently not under the obligation to implement the verbal order of the regional inspectorate of the Ministry of Education about the prohibition of headscarves in public schools. According to the Commission, the right to education and religious freedom had not been violated.

In the Devin case the Commission for Protection from Discrimination would not recognize the prohibition of headscarves based on the precedent set by their own decision regarding the 2006 Smolyan school case. The lack of clarity on the issue created a situation in which there were different policies at different schools and no clear guidelines for students as to whether or not they could wear headscarves to class.

Thus, in schools with uniform requirements, the school headmasters had a duty to uphold the ban on religious symbols, but if the school had no uniform requirement, then the students were free to wear what they liked. Yet at the same time the decision as to whether a school has a mandatory uniform requirement is decided exclusively by the headmaster. This means that any individual headmaster could institute a mandatory uniform policy at his/her school specifically with the purpose of prohibiting girls from wearing headscarves.

The number of girls wearing an Islamic headscarf to school began to increase after 2006, particularly after these cases garnered such national attention. In the Smolyan school case, the two girls were almost instantaneous celebrities, being interviewed by the national newspapers as well as on the radio and on television. Both girls were quite articulate and framed the headscarf issue as one of personal choice and religious freedom; both claimed that they were doing something which hurt no one and which reflected their inner commitment to Islam.

This and other demonstrations have had a lasting effect in the Smolyan region, and it is likely that many young Muslim women are beginning to wear the headscarf as much as a political symbol or fashion statement as a religious one. As a consequence, some local authorities may have realized that prohibiting headscarves might actually be giving girls more incentive to wear them, and so have been hesitant to take a stand against them.

In a more recent development, the regional mufti of Smolyan announced in June 2010 that Muslim women in Smolyan should be allowed to take their new passport pictures with their headscarves on. The mufti claimed that he had received numerous calls from local Muslim women asking if it was prohibited for them to be uncovered in their identity documents. This once again instigated a public debate about whether the Bulgarian Muslims were asking to be placed “above the law,” since European Union standards require that all Bulgarian passports be issued with photos containing certain biometric data.

Once again, fault lines appeared between the Pomaks and Turkish Muslim minorities in Bulgaria. Within days of the Smolyan mufti’s announcement, an MP for the Movement for Rights and Freedom and the regional Mufti of Kardzhali (a region of Bulgaria with a large Turkish minority) announced that they did not support the statement of the Smolyan mufti.

Although they admitted that women should be allowed to wear headscarves for religious reasons, these reasons should not take precedence over all other considerations. “The headscarf in Islam is not a fashion. It is Allah’s command. But there is the Constitution of Bulgaria, which is in the EU, and all Bulgarian citizens should comply with it. So Muslim women who cover yourselves, please be kind and do not put yourself above the law,” the Mufti of Kardzhali said in a public statement.

In the end, the women agreed to have their pictures taken in accordance with the biometric requirements of the EU- especially after it became apparent that they would not be able to travel within the European Union if they had passport photos with their headscarves on.

Although there has not yet been any national legislation regarding the headscarf in Bulgaria, either in schools or with regard to identity documents, the issue remains a divisive one, not only between Bulgarian Christians and Muslims, but also between Bulgaria’s “traditional” Muslim communities and a newly emerging cohort of “orthodox” Muslims.


*Kristen Ghodsee is the John S. Osterweis Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College in Maine, and has been conducting ethnographic research on Bulgaria for the last fourteen years. She is the author of two books on post-socialist Bulgaria; The Red Riviera (Duke University Press 2005), and Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2009), which won the 2010 Association for Women in Slavic Studies (AWSS) Heldt Prize for best book in the field of Slavic/Eastern European/Eurasian women’s studies.

Professor Ghodsee’s forthcoming book, Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life After Communism, will be published by Duke University Press in fall 2011).

Together But Separated: Stereotypes as Demarcation Line between Alevis and Sunnis in Bulgaria

By Nuray Ekici*

Historically, Turks have not only been engaged in inter-religious conflicts, but also in intra-religious ones. In these conflicts, whether latent or not, stereotypes have played an important role; they have fueled the conflicts, and at the same time been sustained by them. Thus stereotypes have served to draw bold demarcation lines and sharp boundaries between intra-religious groups. The case of Bulgarian Alevis and Sunnis is not an exception to this rule.

The Need to Have “Enemies and Allies”, or just an (Internal) “Other”

In shaping collective identities, “others” play a vital role. “Me” and “us” has substance or significance, so long as “he/she” and “they” exist as a negative reference group: as Huntington puts it “we know who we are only when we know who we are not, and often when we know whom we are against.” That is to say, we are “what the “other” is not.”

When it comes to Bulgaria’s Sunni Muslim community, the “main other” (by definition inferior and in some cases even subhuman), is the Alevis. In the larger national context, Sunni religious identity itself has been formed primary against that of the Christian Bulgarians. But Alevis, more commonly known as Kizilbashes, are also crucial in their identity construction as being the main “internal others.” Indeed, they usually are not perceived as true Muslims by their Sunni peers; for the Sunnis, they are “semi-Muslims” or “Muslim-like people.” Thus they are not even always considered “internal” specifically. In some cases they are even considered inferior to Bulgarians in religious terms.

The Alevis in Bulgaria: A “Minority within a Minority”

Bulgaria’s Muslim community is mainly concentrated in Southeast and Northeast Bulgaria, and is almost totally composed of ethnic Turks. This community numbers approximately 967,000. The vast majority of these are Sunnis; the Alevis of Bulgaria, as a religious group, number around 53,000 people; in a way, therefore, they are a “minority within a minority.”

The presence of the Kizilbashes in Bulgarian public life is barely noticeable, not only due to their small population, but also due to the prevailing social biases, stereotypes and prejudices against them. Historically, they have had to hide their identity in order to survive under harsh political conditions. Today, though such a threat to the very existence of the Alevi community does not exist, most of them still prefer to hide their identity mainly due to the prevailing stereotypes within the dominant group.


Stereotypes are the most important mental constructs in drawing, shaping and maintaining group boundaries. They are easily “created,” and if necessary “invented,” and then internalized in religious identity through a process of “otherization.” They usually consist of highly sacral values and attitudes on the one hand, and behaviors usually considered as taboo on the other.

This is not a coincidence. In fact, this is the best possible way to draw and sharpen bold demarcation line between the groups. Presenting the unthinkable as undisputable truth will certainly irritate Sunni group members directly from the outset of the socialization process, and turn the Alevis into a kind of semi-human group.

Mum söndü (Candle Blown Out): “Sanctity of Family vs. Incest”

The most widely known stereotype about the Alevis can be summarized by the term “mum söndü.” This term implies a myth of communal sexual intercourse and incest during the Alevi religious ritual called Cem. Contrary to what is practiced in ‘Orthodox’ Islam, men and women usually jointly participate in the Alevi religious rituals, a practice unacceptable for Sunni Muslims. So, this stereotype is constructed first by tacitly referencing the sanctity of the family and the inherent holiness of the mother, and second, by tacitly linking a practice considered unthinkable and unacceptable to a taboo, incestuous relationship. Such a “created combination” certainly puts Alevis into the non-human category and right from the beginning of the socialization process “alerts” Sunni children to stay away from “deviants.”

“Quran vs. Bathroom”

The second myth about Alevis in Bulgaria, which is somewhat less known, is again related to the most sacral values of Islam and family life. It is believed that “infidel” Alevis force their (Sunni) wives/brides to tear a page from the holy Quran and throw it in the toilet. This “infidel” stereotype also places in bold the demarcation line between the two groups once and forever.

Today, these “created” or if you like, “invented” stereotypes about the Alevis in Bulgarian Sunnite society boldly mark the borders between these two groups; they keep alive the image of the “pervert,” the “infidel,” the not quite sufficient “Muslim-like” persona of the Alevi, and even the “semi-human” Alevi. This serves to make group borders sharper, to keep the unwanted “other” at a distance, to reduce the possibility of any mixing up or inter-group marriage, and in general to reinforce existing group cohesion and religious differences. So a vicious cycle, one which continues to poison the inter-group relations in Bulgaria, is created.

However, parallel to the opening of Alevi religious practices to public, particularly to the mass media, nowadays inter-group contacts are increasingly facilitating recognition of Alevi religious identity and mutual understanding. This, in turn, helps in the deconstruction process of the historical mental constructs and barriers. All in all, breaking the vicious cycle in inter-group relations will not be easy and definitely will take time, perhaps even generations.


*Nuray Ekici is an independent researcher and scholar, currently working on psycho-political approaches to ethnic studies and conflict management in the Balkans.

He has authored several texts on the Turkish minority in Bulgaria and the ethnic Turkish political party there (the Movement for Rights and Freedom). The present article is a synopsis of a longer one presented at a conference entitled “The Turks and Islam,” held at Indiana University in Bloomington, on September 11, 2010.

By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them: Speculations on the Future of the Bulgarian Stock Exchange

By Christian Filipov in Sofia

The future of Bulgaria’s capital markets is not a clear-cut case: its fate is linked to that of the global markets, the strength of the indigenous Bulgarian entrepreneurial spirit and – though this may come as a surprise to some – the immediate actions of the Bulgarian government.

Here emerge two outstanding issues: one, whether the government will lend a helping hand to the Bulgarian Stock Exchange (BSE) by deciding to privatize state-owned companies via stock offerings on the exchange; and two, whether the government will sell its quite substantial shareholding in the BSE to a reputable foreign exchange operator.

Rumor Has It…

At the moment, several rumors are going around in Sofia. One has it that a group of shady Russian businessmen is planning a hostile takeover of the BSE, with the help of treacherous insiders. No, scratch that- the hostile takeover guys are actually Turkish, and they are in cahoots with shady local businessmen and corrupt politicians.

Yet the notion of a hostile takeover of the BSE is ridiculous – an acquisition transaction in excess of 5% for the stock of the BSE would be invalid without the prior approval of the Commission for Financial Supervision. Ah, yes: here is the part where the corrupt politicians come into the game.

Another rumor, one that is gently forcing a smug smile onto the faces of Gordon Gekko’s fans in the country, is that the Deutsche Börse would be willing to take on the government’s share in the BSE. This, of course, is a reason to hear the repeated popping of champagne corks at gatherings of the private shareholders in the BSE and those of business analysts, investors, industrialists, employers, bankers, brokers and managers.

These market enthusiasts are convinced that if a reputable foreign stock market operator replaces the government at the BSE, trading volumes will double (at least!), while the BSE will become a much more attractive avenue for raising capital, and the listing of large infrastructure companies will be encouraged. To sum up: the euphoria of privatizing the government’s share of the BSE to a benevolent investor will levitate Bulgarian stock prices, if not into the stratosphere, at least to much higher levels than they have ever been.

A Government Buy-in?

While the rumor mills are spewing conspiracy theories and Cinderella stories alike, the government – the 600-pound gorilla that everyone is trying to ignore – owns close to half of the stock in the BSE, and is actually planning to increase its shareholding. Quite shockingly, the government is actually planning on nationalizing the stock exchange. Let us classify this as a rumor: just like the one about ‘them shady Russian/Turkish businessmen’ or that of the benevolent Deutsche Börse.

Now here is what has actually happened. The shareholders of the BSE at their meeting on September 13, 2010 decided to start offering shares of the BSE on the BSE itself. This is supposed to happen by the end of the year. The expected benefits are that the offering of BSE shares to the public will stir trading on the BSE (at least a bit); that the BSE will become a publicly-traded company (thus offering the stock exchange a greater level of protection from hostile intentions and undue influences), and that it will offer the BSE shareholders a means of increasing the return on their initial investments.

Prior to listing the BSE, however, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Finance – the principal holding the government’s 2.58 million shares in the BSE – requested that the capital of the BSE be increased by issuing an additional 715,000 shares, declaring that it would buy them at a price of 1 BGN per share, thus raising the government’s shareholding from 43.97% of the current 5.87 million shares to 50.5% of the shares.

Let’s follow the money here. The capital of the BSE is 9.59 million BGN, and the average price per share is 1.63 BGN. The BSE’s assets are 6.2 million BGN in cash reserves, 1 million BGN in deposits, 441,000 BGN in securities and 300,000 BGN in expected tax refunds. In the first two quarters of 2010, the BSE’s trading dropped by 24%, while BSE’s net profits from January through June 2010 are a meager 92,000 BGN.

Minority Shareholders- Frozen Out

So, the government’s offer to buy the new issue of shares for 1 BGN per share is quite a good deal. But here’s the rub: the transaction is envisioned to be structured in a way that the new issue will not be offered proportionately to the current shareholders: only the government can subscribe to the new shares. The minority shareholders in the stock exchange (126 corporate entities and 97 individuals) are not going to be given the opportunity to subscribe to this issue at all. Now, this has got your attention, hasn’t it?

Wondering why the government is increasing its share in the BSE brings the real concern to light: what will the government do with that 50% plus-one shareholding in the BSE?

Now let us speculate a bit. A first possibility is that the government is increasing its shareholding in the stock exchange in order to increase profits generated from the sale of its shares to a foreign stock exchange operator. A savvy but unlikely plan, from a practical standpoint, unless the government plans to take action that would make the stock of the BSE more valuable. Any smart buyer would ask “what have you done to increase stock value to justify an asking price higher that the 1 BGN per share that you paid?”

This basically reflects the views of Victor Papazov, co-founder and former Chairman of the Board of the BSE, who in a recent interview with Trud said essentially that unless the government does something to increase the value of the BSE, any foreign operator will offer less than the issue price of 1 BGN.

This line of thinking makes sense: if one plans to buy a troubled business that needs investment to turn profit, one would naturally want to buy it on the cheap. Such a line of reasoning also robs the economic sense of raising the capital of the BSE by increasing the government’s share in it, for the purpose of making a more successful sale.

Sweetening the Deal

Anyway, let us speculate on the issue of what the government could do to increase the share value of the BSE, and so sweeten the deal for the imaginary benevolent foreign stock market operator. One easy answer is that it could start privatizing state-owned companies via public offerings on the BSE, giving ”brownie points” to companies that are publicly traded on the BSE for procurement transactions associated with large infrastructure projects (highways, railways, ports, electricity generating plants). Another simple solution is that the government could offer tax breaks for private investments in mutual funds.

Nevertheless, such government actions are the wet dreams of the Bulgarian business elite: in a letter dated March 5, 2010, addressed to the prime minister and the ministers of finance and economy, the BSE, the Chamber of Commerce and several mighty associations (including those of industrial capital, the confederation of employers, the investment intermediaries and the management companies) urged the government – quite convincingly – to jump-start Bulgaria’s capital markets by selling on the BSE part of shares that the state holds in companies such as the Bulgarian Energy Holding, Bulgargaz, Bulgartransgaz, the Kozloduy nuclear power plant, the Maritsa Iztok coal-fired generation plant, the National Electricity Company and the Electricity Systems Operator.

Dark Visions

Since we are still speculating, let us move on to option number two- and the one more likely to convince those enamored of conspiracy theories. This option reaches deep into the bowels of post-communist cynicism: Boyko Borissov’s government plans to transform the stock exchange from a beacon of free capitalism into a tool of state control and planning.

Why? Well, under such a scenario, the government will be lending its sizable muscle to a market player of its choice who, aided by interference or non-action by the government, eliminates any competition and instills an everlasting monopoly on Bulgaria’s capital markets.

Such a thought would be strange only to someone who lacks familiarity with the post-communist transition process. In the transition environment – Bulgaria not being the exception, but rather the rule here – the state has been very reluctant to give away economic power gathered by fighting tooth-and-nail under communism, regardless of which political party rules the country, despite the stated ideological aspirations of that party or whatever economic doctrine the party claims to worship in the media.

Doing Business, Party-style

The public simply believes that political parties are in a symbiotic relationship with their economic supporters and business affiliates. In such a relationship the party feeds upon the fruits of the labors of its supporters and affiliated business enterprises. In return, the political party, by pressing the appropriate government levers at the proper moments, promotes the economic interests of their supporters and affiliated businesses.

Depending on the relative strength of the political party in question, actions associated with “promoting business interests” succeed, partially or completely, in eliminating the competitors of the party’s supporters in the particular economic sector. This practice is so prevalent in Bulgaria that it is well known which particular business sector has been carved out for the supporters of which particular political party.

The notion that political parties’ sole purpose is to promote the business interests of their supporter base is so widely accepted that no one questions it. This is a fine example of the bastardization of democracy and capitalism that people in transition countries are living through. It is almost iconically defined in the infamous words of wealthy businessman Ahmed Dogan, founder of the ethnically Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) party: “every political party has its own ring of corporations… I have more power than any banker.”

In his painful directness, Dogan is not only referring to his own party. He is pointing his finger at all political parties in Bulgaria, to convey a simple message: this is the way things are done- get over it.

Although one need not agree with this statement, it is quite obvious that any arguments aimed at contradicting it become painfully useless. This is true to such an extent that a statement made by Volen Siderov (the fearless leader of the nationalist-populist party Ataka), to the effect that the NDSV (the political party of the former king Simeon II), is the “king’s brokerage firm in the Parliament” was not met with public outrage, but merely with knowing smiles. The case in point is how people take Siderov’s words- that is, that he is a populist and wouldn’t dare tell people anything other than what they are already thinking.

In light of this, speculations that the Borissov government is prepping the BSE for a takeover by its supporters and affiliated business doesn’t sound out of line with the prevalent cynical state of mind. There are enough arguments that we could fish out to support such a conspiracy theory.

Connections and Conjectures

Let us indulge then in feeding the rumor mills. For example, did you know that increasing the government’s BSE share was opposed by almost all private shareholders, save for BulBank, which is headed by Levon Hampartzomian- a banker famous for being on excellent terms with any government?

The thin air of the conspiracy theory thickens when we add the fact that Lubomir Boyadjiev, Executive Director of BenchMark Group was appointed to the board of directors of the BSE: he is a classmate of Simeon Diankov, Borissov’s Minister of Finance. Another person rumored to be close to Dyankov is the new Chairman of the Board of the BSE – Asen Yagodin, Executive Director of Post Bank.

There are, however, some who believe that neither Borissov nor his political party actually have a base of economic supporters and affiliated business that they are obliged to serve. In other words, there are people in Bulgaria who honestly believe that compared to other parties, Borissov’s party, GERB, comes with no strings attached.

This may be a ridiculous notion to some, but no such thing can be said about any of the other political parties: there is an entrenched belief among Bulgarians that political parties exist solely for the purpose of serving the economic interests of their supporters and affiliated business. Many believe that Borissov is doing the same, yet many also believe in giving him the benefit of the doubt. This, in the crass Bulgarian political landscape, marks a step up.

Let us now put the rumors to the side and speculate a bit. One likely scenario is that the government will increase the value of the BSE stock by privatizing large companies via offerings on the stock exchange, then sell its shares to that (supposed) benevolent foreign stock market operator in shining armor; in this way, it would be paving the way for the ascent of Bulgaria’s capital markets, whilst also making a sweet profit for the state coffers from the sale of the government’s shares in the BSE.

Or, the somewhat more gloomy scenario number two: that is, that the government does nothing, and by its inaction deepens the public mistrust in domestic capital markets, so turning the BSE into a tool of state control for the benefit of a monopolist of its choice.

These are only speculations as to what the government will do. Let us wait and see what it does. After all, as the Good Book says, “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:16).

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Bulgaria: 2008 Year in Review

By Oxford Business Group*

Though Bulgaria was sidetracked by the economic slowdown, the country fared better in 2008 than many of its neighbours and fellow members of the EU, maintaining higher levels of growth, seeing a fall in inflation and recording solid rates of foreign direct investment (FDI).


According to official figures published by the state news agency, Bulgaria’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 7% in the first three quarters of the year, compared to the same nine months in 2007. Though this expansion slowed somewhat in the third quarter, easing to 6.8% year-on-year in the July to September period, compared to 7.1% in the previous quarter, it is estimated that when final figures are released early in the new year, GDP for 2008 will have grown by 6.5%.

Growth for 2009 is expected to abate, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicting an increase of 2%. However, Bulgaria is not expected to fall into recession in the new year, setting the country apart from many of its fellow EU members.

While FDI in Bulgaria slowed in 2008, the decline for the first 10 months of the year was not unexpected, given the climate of the international economy. Up to the end of October, the country drew $6.57bn worth of FDI, representing 14.3% of GDP, according to figures issued by the Bulgarian National Bank (BNB) in December. This represents a fall of 9.2% compared to the same period in 2007. The Bulgarian economy nevertheless remained attractive for overseas investors.

One area of the economy that fared poorly was the stock market, with the Bulgarian Stock Exchange starting the year with a record 25% drop in January, and taking further hits in September and October following news of the deepening global downturn.

By the end of trading in 2008, the exchange’s two main indexes, the Sofix and BG 40, had both retreated by more than 79% each, while market capitalisation fell by just under 60%. By year’s end, total capitalisation represented 18.47% of GDP, compared to 51.29% at the close of 2007.

High oil and commodity costs fuelled inflation in Bulgaria in the first half of the year, with price rises hitting a 10-year high of 15.3% in June. However, in subsequent months, as energy costs started trending down and supply side demand fell, inflation began to ease, dropping to 8.8% at the end of November. Looking forward, the IMF predicted in mid-December that inflation would fall to 4.5% in 2009, mainly due to lower food and oil prices and some of the heat being taken out of domestic demand.

Bulgaria‘s real estate sector experienced a slowdown of its own, though it would have been hard to maintain the breakneck rate of growth experienced in 2007, when residential property prices increased by 29%. Estimates at the beginning of the year projected property price increases of 10-15% for 2008. Though figures for the first quarter had suggested prices would continue to surge at 2007 levels, by the third quarter increases had eased to around 3%, according to a report by the local media in late December.

While sales to foreigners were down, Bulgaria still earned $1.6bn from real estate sales to overseas buyers in the opening 10 months of the year, down from the $2bn generated in the corresponding period the previous year, BNB figures released in December showed.

Bulgaria‘s hopes of becoming a major energy transit country were given a significant boost in July, when the Bulgarian parliament ratified an agreement with Russia to build a pipeline to carry Russian gas to European markets. State gas monopoly Bulgargaz will form a joint company with Russia’s Gazprom to construct and operate the pipeline, which will have an annual throughput capacity of 31bn cubic metres when completed, possibly as soon as 2013.

Combined with the proposed Nabucco pipeline – the project long championed by Sofia to bring Central Asian gas to Europe – Bulgaria could serve as the transit point for 10-12% of the EU’s gas supplies, Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said in June.

In September, initial work began on Bulgaria’s second nuclear power station, with construction scheduled to commence in May 2009. The Belene facility will feature two 1000 MW reactors, with the first due to come on line in 2013.

The Bulgarian government has vowed to step up spending in the new year to stimulate the economy and ward off the worst effects of the global downturn. Having initially announced a budget with total revenue of $14.7bn, and expenditures of $7.9bn, the state is well placed to build on its pump-priming efforts in 2009. Combined with the fact that most of the country’s economy remained in positive territory in 2008, this should allow Bulgaria to ride out the international economic storm

*Oxford Business Group (OBG), a UK-based publishing, research and consultancy organisation, publishes economic and political intelligence on the markets of Eastern Europe, North and South Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

OBG offers comprehensive analysis of political, macroeconomic and sectoral developments, including banking, capital markets, energy, infrastructure, industry and insurance.

OBG’s acclaimed economic, political and business reports are the leading source of local and regional intelligence, while OBG’s online economic briefings provide up-to-date in-depth analysis. OBG’s consultancy arm offers tailor-made market intelligence and advice to firms operating in these markets and those looking to enter them.