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May 9, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

6 mins read

Bulgaria and Romania: Caught Between Crises

Bulgaria and Romania: Caught Between Crises
Forecast Highlights

  • Romania and Bulgaria will contend with and become increasingly involved in Europe's refugee crisis and the standoff with Russia over Ukraine.
  • In the refugee crisis, both countries' efforts to enter the Schengen area will be hampered by EU states' measures to limit movement between countries.
  • As the Russia-West standoff develops, Romania and Bulgaria will continue to accept the West's military buildup, though Sofia will maintain its ties with Moscow.

Romania and Bulgaria have a long history of being influenced by larger, more powerful neighboring countries. Located in the southeast corner of Europe in the Balkan region, Romania was once dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while Bulgaria was ruled by the Ottomans. During the Cold War, both countries were absorbed as satellite states by the Soviet Union, with Moscow largely shaping their foreign and defense policies. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Romania and Bulgaria adopted a pro-West path, joining the European Union and NATO in 2007.

Both countries are once again caught in the middle of conflicts and crises between these powers, mainly the refugee crisis between Europe and Turkey and the Ukrainian conflict between Russia and the West. Romania and Bulgaria will make efforts to assert their interests in these developing situations, but as in the past, will largely react to rather than shape the outcomes.

Among Refugees

After the global financial crisis of 2008, both countries' economies contracted, along with those of much of the rest of the European Union. However, since neither Romania nor Bulgaria were members of the eurozone, they were spared some of the structural financial problems that affected other members of the common currency. Both have returned to economic growth in recent years, though Romania has performed substantially better than Bulgaria as the former's economy is more developed and less restrained by institutional issues than the latter's. Still, corruption and the slow pace of reforms have prevented either from reaching their goal of entering the bloc's Schengen zone, which would allow Romanian and Bulgarian citizens to freely emigrate to other countries for economic opportunity.

On top of the economic and political challenges lingering from the crisis, a large wave of asylum seekers has hit Europe, exacerbating divisions that threaten to fragment the bloc and reduce the security it provides. More than 1 million migrants, mainly escaping from war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, came to the Continent in 2015 alone. But the crisis has not really affected Romania and Bulgaria, as neither country is part of the primary migrant route, which goes through Turkey, Greece and the Western Balkans to Austria, Germany and Northern Europe. Romania and Bulgaria have received refugees under the EU resettlement program, but the number has been negligible, in the dozens to low hundreds for each country.

However, greater refugee activity could move through Romania and Bulgaria if migrant routes change, or, more important, if the EU refugee agreement with Turkey collapses. In March, Macedonia closed its border with Greece, creating the possibility that refugees could be diverted west through Italy or along an eastern route that includes Bulgaria and Romania. In such an event, Bulgaria is likely to be more sensitive to refugee flows than Romania because of greater ethnic and religious sensitivities due to the large ethnic Turkish minority in the country and a smaller population overall (7.2 million people compared with Romania's 20 million). Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov opposes his country's becoming an "alternative route" for migrants, and is making plans with Macedonia to hold joint land and air security operations to "ensure border control." Bulgaria even built a fence on its border with Turkey in mid-2015 as a precaution.

In addition to the logistical and political problems greater migrant flows would cause, the refugee crisis has dampened the prospects for Romania and Bulgaria to be admitted to Schengen anytime soon, especially since many European nations are erecting border fences and restricting movement between countries. Regardless of whether more refugees enter these countries, growing nationalism and anti-Schengen sentiments in Europe in general will hurt Bucharest's and Sofia's chances of entering Schengen. In Western Europe, Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants could come to be viewed as a threat similar to that of the refugees.

More Assertive on Ukraine

The Ukrainian conflict and the subsequent low point in relations between Russia and the West are also influencing Romania and Bulgaria. Both countries are concerned about Moscow's activities in nearby Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet periphery and wary of the potential for conflict to spill over their borders. Moreover, Romania and Bulgaria have become an important part of increased military exercises and weapons deployments by NATO and the U.S. military throughout Eastern Europe.

However, because of shared cultural and historical ties, Sofia is more accommodating toward Moscow than is Bucharest. Conversely, Romania has a direct political conflict with Russia in Moldova, where the two countries are competing for influence. Bulgaria shares no such contested zone with Russia. Moreover, Bulgaria's total dependence on Russian energy also reduces Sofia's room for maneuver politically, whereas Romania produces some of its own natural gas and oil and relies much less on Russian exports. Finally, Bulgarian oligarchs and certain politicians generally have closer links with Russia than do their Romanian counterparts.

Yet the intensity of the Ukrainian conflict and the duration of the Russia-West standoff have nonetheless made both Romania and Bulgaria more assertive in promoting their security and challenging Russia. Both the NATO buildup in their territories and Bucharest's and Sofia's relationship with Kiev speak to this. Over the past month, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has reportedly discussed with his Romanian and Bulgarian counterparts setting up a joint military brigade. While no details have been given, the formation of the brigade, much like the one set up among Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, would be a way for Romania and Bulgaria to establish a more active posture in the Ukraine crisis.

Romania and Bulgaria appear ready to become more important players in that crisis, and potentially in the refugee crisis as well. Now, as in the past, Romania and Bulgaria will be swept up in the political and security developments in Europe, Russia, and Turkey — and their role in them could grow.

Lead Analyst: Eugene Chausovsky

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