Greece and Bulgaria: Celebrating 60 Years of Diplomatic Relations 1954-2014

The Greek and Bulgarian Flags

By Tonka Kostadinova

In May 2014, Greece and Bulgaria celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1954 restoration of their diplomatic relations. Bilateral affairs of the last six decades underwent remarkable and unexpected progress – the two countries overcame burdensome legacies of the past, settled important wartime issues and established constructive political, economic and cultural relations for the first time in their diplomatic history. The Greek-Bulgarian rapprochement and the converting of decades of mistrust and hostility into good-neighborliness and will for cooperation constitute a precedent in Balkan and European history, compatible only to the German-French example.

The development of bilateral relations after 1945 was influenced by the burdensome legacy of the past and the broader macropolitical context that emerged after the end of the Second World War. US and Soviet geo-strategic considerations left Greece and Bulgaria in two opposing Cold War alliances, while ideology appeared as a new line of division reinforced by the two countries’ incorporation in the political, economic and military structures of the emerging blocs. Security considerations and the legacy of the past froze relations between Greece and Bulgaria for nearly ten years. The first break-through occurred hardly in 1954 with the resumption of diplomatic relations, yet the pending reparation issue prevented the two countries from exchanging ambassadors and establishing constructive forms of political and economic cooperation. The issue was resolved in May 1964, when Greece and Bulgaria signed the so-called Athens Accords, consisting of an agreement regulating the payment of the Bulgarian reparations to Greece and twelve agreements on economic and cultural cooperation. Greece and Bulgaria agreed to cooperate in the use of the waters of rivers running through the territories of both countries, to restore road transportation facilities and railway connections, to set up direct telecommunication links (until then accomplished via Paris), and to establish a direct Athens-Sofia air route. By implication, trade and tourist flows between the two countries increased significantly. The number of Greeks visiting Bulgaria grew ten times just within two years: from 2,543 people in 1963 to 25, 400 people in 1965. The number of Bulgarians visiting Greece was far more limited, yet it rose nearly five times from 1, 150 people in 1963 to 5, 111 people in 1965. The signing of twelve agreements between countries belonging to two opposing alliances was a precedent in Cold War diplomacy and paved the way for genuine political rapprochement.

The escalation of the Cyprus issue in 1974 placed Greek-Bulgarian relations on a new level of strategic partnership and cooperation. Constantine Karamanlis set the ground for more independent and multidimensional foreign policy based on the departure from the tight entanglement with NATO and on the improvement of relations to the socialist world. In this process, Sofia acted as a „guarantee” in the Eastern policy of Karamanlis and often mediated relations between Athens and Moscow. Between 1975 and 1989 Greek and Bulgarian leaders set the tradition of annual summit meetings and consultations on the major bilateral, regional, and international issues. The exchange of opinions often served as an indicator of broader (NATO’s and Warsaw Pact’s) supranational stances, especially in regard to disarmament and détente, as well as to major Cold War crises such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Lebanon war etc. In regional terms, the prolonged threat to Greek and Bulgarian national interests posed by Turkey and to some extent by Yugoslavia, deepened the strategic bilateral cooperation and left with the impression of an emerging Greek-Bulgaria axis in the Balkans.

Karamanlis and Zhivkov in Bulgaria
Karamanlis and Zhivkov in Plovdiv, 1980. Source: Central State Archive (Bulgaria) Photolibrary 1, 80-3253-1.

The end of the Cold War significantly changed the spectrum of Greek and Bulgarian foreign policy depriving the two countries from their geopolitical importance as balancing factors in the confrontation between the East and the West in the Balkans. Yet, Greece and Bulgaria tried to follow the established line of cooperation and in 1991 signed a Treaty of friendship and security aimed at underlining the continuity in bilateral affairs. The two countries regulated their economic relations with the Agreement on the promotion and mutual protection of investments, which facilitated the intense penetration of Greek public and private enterprises on the Bulgarian market. By the end of 1993, Greece had acquired the highest level of FDI in Bulgaria and had covered nearly 50% of the import from all Balkan countries. In the mid 1990s, Greece and Bulgaria became partners within the EU cross-border cooperation programs (PHARE and INTERREG) and implemented a number of projects on transport, infrastructure and the environment aiming at reviving the dead-zones of what used to be the separation line between the East and the West.

In the post-Cold War period, the geostrategic importance of Bulgaria and Greece manifested itself mainly in the field of energy relations. In October 1996, the governments of Greece, Bulgaria and Russia signed an agreement on the construction of the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline for the transport of oil from the Caucasus to Europe. The Burgas-Alexandroupolis project raised concerns about Russia‘s attempts to strengthen its positions in the Balkans and to subdue Bulgarian and Greek energy infrastructures to the Russian energy interests. The energy field revived discourses on the two countries’ former belonging to two opposing blocks and on the drawing of a new, invisible Iron Curtain in Europe. In this process, Greece and Bulgaria continue standing in-between the incompatible energy strategies of Russia at one hand, and the EU and the US at another. Relations between the two countries thus once again fall within the spectrum of the delicate balance of power between the East and the West in the Balkans.

With Bulgaria’s accession to NATO (2004) and the European Union (2007) the Greek-Bulgarian cooperation was further placed on a broader, supra-national level. In 2010, Sofia and Athens established a High Level Cooperation Council consisting of Greek and Bulgarian Prime Ministers and key resource ministers. The Council is supposed to held annual sessions and to thus reinforce the political decision-making between Sofia and Athens. The initiative gave the impression of a re-emerging Greek-Bulgarian security axis in the Balkans, especially in regard to the recent rapprochement in the two countries’ stances on the Macedonian issue. Over the last few years, Bulgaria has returned to more acrimonious discourse in relations to FYROM, and has been opposing any decision to set a date for the opening of EU accession talks with Skopije thus drawing its position closer to that of Greece. This development overcame the 1992 breach in the common Greek-Bulgarian approach on the Macedonian question and drew the two countries even closer together.

Today, Greece and Bulgaria continue to develop constructive inter-state relations, to be reliable partners within the EU and NATO, and to play a stabilizing role in the intra-Balkan processes. Sixty years after the resumption of diplomatic relations the legacy of the past seems to be eventually overcome while new perspectives to the bilateral cooperation have been opened. The development of Greek-Bulgarian relations over the last sixty years represents a worth studying story of rapprochement and one of the few examples of a genuine postwar reconciliation in the contemporary diplomatic history of Europe.


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