EU diplomacy with Erdogan should seek the Bulgarian channel

If the EU wants to be heard by Turkey in the current crisis with the Kurds in Syria, the EU will be smart to work through the diplomatic channel that the Bulgarian government and its Prime Minister Boyko Borissov have established with Turkish President Erdogan. 

Last week, the Turkish President told the EU to “wake up” threatening to send 3.6 mln refugees towards Europe if the EU called Turkey’s actions in Syria an invasion. The EU did not remain silent, and Donald Tusk responded promptly by saying that the EU will not be blackmailed with refugees. The tone was sharp on both sides – and there are good reasons for it.

Germany halted weapons exports to Turkey on Saturday, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel together with French leader Emanuel Macron jointly spoke out against the Turkish military operation in Syria on Sunday, as did the leaders of several other EU countries. Macron and Merkel also held phone calls with Erdogan and Trump.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov, on the contrary, told Brussels to stop with the criticism against Turkey. On Friday, he called for sticking to the EU’s current deal with Turkey. Erdogan told the EU on Monday to listen to Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov.

Then on Monday, the EU ministers came up with a joint EU position condemning Turkey’s attack on the Kurds, but fell short of unanimous EU-wide embargo to halt all arms exports to Turkey.

Tough words were exchanged over the past week. But now it’s time for diplomacy.

The Bulgarian government and its Prime Minister Borissov have a unique diplomatic relationship with neighbor Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. There are very few refugees – if any – that the Turkish side sends to the Bulgarian border, compared to hundreds of refugees whom Turkey sends to its border with Greece every day. Refugees are Turkey's bargaining chip with Europe, as President Erdogan made clear last week. So what is Bulgaria's secret in dealing with Erdogan?

“Diplomacy”, answered Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov on Bulgarian television on Friday.

Skillful diplomacy, of course, is not the whole story. The Bulgarian Prime Minister has gotten on Erdogan’s good side over the past years by discretely extraditing political asylum seekers who belong to the Turkish Gulen opposition, as argued by Georgi Gotev. The Bulgarian government has contravened international laws and human rights laws, in doing so. Gulen supporters are aggressively being sought after by Erdogan. That has earned Bulgaria a good standing with the Turkish government, and this diplomatic capital can be used for good now, for a solution to the Kurdish crisis, if the EU is prudent to go for a behind-the-scenes diplomatic approach with Erdogan.

The Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov has in the past played the messenger role in EU’s dealings with Turkey . "Many times, when Europe strongly opposed Erdogan, I was the only one to go there," Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said on Friday.

By defending Erdogan, Borissov could turn out to be a positive key actor to help influence Erdogan diplomatically in the current humanitarian crisis, by carrying the EU joint message to Ankara.

Erdogan seems dead-set on his anti-Kurdish operation in Syria, but that is not to say that he would stop at nothing.

The EU could provide Erdogan with the right counter-incentives, especially if they are coupled with hard-hitting sanctions by the US Congress, which are currently in the making.

This week, the EU will gather member states to discuss what to do about the Kurdish crisis; divisions are expected and a unanimous formal hard-hitting position will be difficult to reach, given also Hungary’s obstruction last week.

By all means, the EU is not a “global dwarf”, as a Member of the European Parliament called it over the weekend. The EU has a tool-kit of sanctions and other measures at its disposal which it can use in a crisis like the Turkish attack on the Kurds.

For one, it is up to the European Commission at the moment to decide whether the Volkswagen deal in Turkey can go forward. The car company is set on building a new plant in Turkey and Turkey has offered a generous 400mln euro subsidy to the company. The Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber filed a complaint with the EU competition Commissioner about the deal, on the basis of non-compliance with EU competition rules. Turkey’s plans to subsidize Volkswaggen clearly run counter EU rules. The EU Commission can stop the 1bln deal, if it so decides.

And this is just one example. Turkey is not the only one who holds bargaining chips.

Erdogan’s threat that he would open the gates for millions of refugees to flood Europe actually holds true for the Turkey-made Kurdish crisis, too. The humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes has prompted the prediction that a Turkish genocide on the Kurds is in the making. Turkey’s actions will lead to another migrant wave towards Europe of Kurds fleeing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

So, there will be refugees, either way. That shouldn’t scare the EU or the EU’s outer frontier countries like Bulgaria who might turn out to play a central role in the diplomatic solution to the Kurdish crisis.

Bulgarians share a somewhat similar faith with the Kurdish people. Bulgaria broke away from the Ottoman Empire in the end of the 19th century and a bit later earned full statehood independence from the Ottomans in the beginning of the 20th century. The Kurds were not so lucky.

This is why the Bulgarian people should not be indifferent to the faith of the Kurds.

Famous Bulgarian cartoonist Christo Komarnitski tweeted on Sunday that Bulgarians are very loud when it comes to citing great Bulgarian revolutionaries and poets about Bulgaria’s struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. But, he added, when it comes to the current situation, Bulgarians are laying down low now “not to anger the Sultan, while he is slaughtering the Kurds”.

Bulgaria is uniquely positioned in the current Kurdish crisis. It might turn out to be EU’s secret diplomatic weapon.

The country is on the front line of the migration crisis as Turkey’s neighbor and as the EU’s outer border; it currently boasts a good diplomatic relationship with Turkey’s Erdogan; and it also shares a somewhat common history with the Kurds who were not as lucky as Bulgaria to break away from the Ottoman Empire.

This is why don’t be surprised if the Bulgarian government and its Prime Minister Borissov play a major role behind the scenes in EU diplomatic efforts with Turkey over the coming weeks.

Iveta Cherneva, author in the fields of security and human rights, previously at the UN and in US Congress


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