Bulgaria, Romania and the Changing Structure of the Black Sea's Geopolitics

Posted in Other | 20-May-05 | Author: Federico Bordonaro

The geopolitics of the Black Sea region has profoundly changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia has suffered from several setbacks since 1991, and its influence over the former Warsaw Pact countries -- including Romania and Bulgaria -- has declined. Although Russia maintains important -- and often underestimated -- economic ties with most of its ancient client states, American and European Union geopolitical penetration during the last 15 years into a great part of what has traditionally been Russia's sphere of influence has been tremendous. [See: "Russia's Future Foreign Policy: Pragmatism in Motion"]

This appears to be particularly true for the Black Sea region, which was poorly controlled by the U.S.-led bloc during the bipolar age (1947-1991). Turkey, which overlooks the Black Sea's southern shores, was then the only pro-Western country. Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Georgia were all tightly under Moscow's control. After Georgia's drastic pro-Washington reorientation in 2002 and Ukraine's new pro-Western course, Romania's and Bulgaria's admission into N.A.T.O. in 2004 and the E.U. (to be formalized in 2007) completed a dramatic change in regional power relations –- with global consequences not to be underestimated.

The Black Sea's Basic Geopolitical Coordinates

From a genuinely geopolitical perspective, the Black Sea region is a relatively small and closed area, historically crossed-through by conflicting forces from the northeast (Russia, via-Ukraine and/or Georgia), south (Turkey), and west (Romania, Bulgaria and European powers like France, Germany, Austria, Great Britain). A big "salted lake," it has been historically a place of confrontation between the Russian-Orthodox world, the Turkish-Muslim world and the West. Its control is important from both the strategic/military and the economic aspects.

Today's geopolitical structure in this region is marked by two main dynamics. The first one is the substitution of former Russian and Soviet influence with American influence -- which, in its turn, enters in competition with French and German ambitions. The second dynamic is the emergence of an energy axis that connects Central Asian and Caspian gas and oil with the Balkans and the European Union. As the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1989-91, Ukraine and Georgia remained initially under Moscow's influence, but the Russian capacity of maintaining its grip dramatically diminished at the end of the century, losing positions in both regional countries.

N.A.T.O.'s and the European Union's Further Enlargement: Bulgaria and Romania Go Western

Just like in the case of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania were first integrated into N.A.T.O. before joining the European Union. Sofia and Bucharest joined N.A.T.O. in the spring of 2004, after an intense period of negotiations, whilst their admission in the European Union has been postponed until 2007. The years 2002-03 marked a very important turn in the relations between the Atlantic Alliance's Western countries and the two ex-communist nation-states. American influence grew stronger, and during the crisis which preceded the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, the Bulgarian and Romanian governments allowed the U.S.-led coalition to use some of their military bases.

In February 2003, French President Jacques Chirac overtly criticized the "imprudent" move of the two E.U. candidates, mainly because it strongly complicated Paris' delicate anti-war diplomacy of the moment, but also because France felt it was losing influence over the E.U. "newcomers." It shouldn't be forgotten that France consistently backed Bucharest's and Sofia's application for E.U. and N.A.T.O. membership since the 1990s, and that historical ties between France and Romania have always been particularly strong. Paris has even accepted Bucharest as a member of the francophone countries, and the clear pro-American orientation of the new Romanian rulers disappointed France.

The Black Sea's new geopolitics shows a new competition among great powers. With Russia in retreat, the United States, France and (more discretely) Germany are the new main external actors struggling for influence in the region. Economic interests and security enhancement are at stake in an energy-rich, strategically crucial area connecting the Balkans with the Caucasus and East-Central Europe with Turkey.

In November-December 2003, both Bulgaria and Romania were at the center of U.S. military attention, in the context of post-Cold War U.S. forces redeployment. On November 29, the U.S. naval attaché in Bulgaria declared that Washington was looking for "small flexible bases for possible deployment of forces in Europe," thus sending delegations to Bucharest and Sofia. The Bulgarian parliament passed a resolution on December 19 that granted the U.S. and N.A.T.O. permission to station military forces on its territory. Sofia's government and diplomacy openly said that Washington could count on future strategic collaboration by Bulgaria.

This move helped Bulgaria in its goal of rapidly joining N.A.T.O. -- although its military forces must still meet Western standards -– while at the same time allowing the U.S. to plan a strategic redeployment of its forces. Washington wants to drastically reduce its presence in Germany and to move forces farther east in Europe and nearer to the Middle East's theater of operations. [See: "U.S. Troop Redeployment: Rational Adjustment to an Altered Threat Environment"]

Romanian application for N.A.T.O. was actually one of the first among former Warsaw Pact members. In January 1994, Bucharest signed the Partnership for Peace, a first step toward integration. Traditionally, apart from the Warsaw Pact era, Romania has looked Western for its security, in order to escape Russian hegemony.

The Bulgarian and Romanian relative positions in front of Moscow remain, by the way, very different, as Sofia is more Russia-friendly for historical and cultural (i.e. religious) reasons. What is interesting, though, is that this difference does not prevent them from being equally eager to be integrated into N.A.T.O. and the European Union. This is a clear sign of the decline of Russian influence and security-providing abilities in our time.

Romania's and Bulgaria's Ambitions and Security Concerns

The post-communist elites in place in Bucharest and Sofia share with other former socialist countries' ruling classes the ambition to be fully integrated into the European economic and monetary system. The common perception among these elites is that both their personal success and national prosperity are inextricably linked to their acceptance into the Western political and financial set of rules. Integration into the E.U. is, therefore, a vital goal for the post-communist rulers in both countries. [See: "Romania: Europe's New 'Sick Man'"]

However, as far as national security is concerned, former Romanian president Ion Iliescu, current president Traian Basescu and former Bulgarian president Petar Stoyanov clearly opted for a strategic alliance with Washington and London instead of backing France's attempts to build a more autonomous European Security and Defense Policy (E.S.D.P.). This is the fundamental lesson of the 2003 European crisis following Paris', Berlin's and Brussels' refusal to take part in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As in the case of Poland and the Baltic states, Bulgaria's and Romania's new geopolitical orientation follows a double track: European integration (political and economic institutionalism) and a pro-U.S., pro-NA.T.O. strategic stance. This policy, as mentioned before, infuriated Chirac in February 2003, but it can be easily explained by historical and political reasons. Historically, the main security concern for all Eastern, Central-Eastern and South-Eastern European countries has been not to fall prey to German or Russian hegemony. An offshore great power (Great Britain or the U.S.) is therefore preferable to a continental one. Politically, the U.S. simply has momentum and capabilities far superior to French and German ones in the last 15 years, explaining its attractiveness to these smaller European states.

G.U.U.A.M. and U.S. Geopolitical Strategy

Placing Romanian and Bulgarian geopolitics in a macro-regional, broader context can help to clarify a lot of current stakes and dynamics. As we have seen, the Black Sea region must be analyzed also in light of the Balkans-Central Asia strategic and energy axis. This explains why the United States is trying to enhance the role of G.U.U.A.M. (Georgia-Ukraine-Uzbekistan-Azerbaijan-Moldova organization) and pushing Bucharest to adhere to this political association.

On April 22, the Georgian, Ukrainian, Azeri and Moldovan governments met in Chisinau to revitalize G.U.U.A.M., trying to make it a political tool for their "Euro-Atlantic" integration. This upgrade attempt apparently wasn't accepted by the Uzbeks, but the meeting was significantly attended by the presidents of Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria, as well as a U.S. State Department representative.

Washington is, in fact, very active in the Black Sea region: in the last few years, Bruce Jackson -- a former U.S. Army officer and a former vice president with Lockheed Martin -- has worked with various pro-American lobbies in Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Ukraine in order to facilitate their future admission into N.A.T.O. and to open the way for a "Pax Americana" extending from the Adriatic Sea to the Caspian region.

Another significant U.S. move was the nominee of Jack Dyer Crouch II, an advisor to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, as American ambassador in Bucharest. In fact, Romania is considered to be a key state necessary to increase American influence in the region. On March 9, one day before Romanian president Basescu visited Washington, Bruce Jackson explained to the press that the Black Sea is already vital for European energy acquisition, and that it will be even more so in the future. E.U. countries import around 50 percent of their energy, and they are projected to import 70 percent of it in 2020. The Black Sea will be the vital link to transport the Caspian resources to the West.

Washington is therefore trying to increase its political influence in the region, hence controlling present and future European capabilities.


The geopolitics of the Black Sea is still searching for stability after the 1989-91 "revolution." For the moment, a clear change can be assessed: Russian influence has declined and American influence has increased; in spite of still existing pro-Russian political forces, Moscow isn't able to effectively contrast Western superior capabilities in terms of economic integration and security-providing ability. Bulgaria's and Romania's admission into N.A.T.O. and projected admission into the European Union has been a major factor in altering the regional balance of power.

However, the situation is far from static. The political future of the European Union and the German-American relationship will be the key variables in how this develops. An increased, federalist European integration coupled by a strong Euro-American relationship would probably result in a diminution of great powers' competition and in a stronger Western hold on the area, at the expense of Russian ambitions. On the contrary, a more independent German foreign policy, predicated upon strategic partnerships with Russia and China rather than upon a "Euro-Atlantic community," could revamp a serious intra-Western competition, and will summon Sofia and Bucharest to make difficult choices.

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