Bulgaria complied with demands for extraditions of opponents of the Turkish government, hoping to prevent Ankara unleashing a new refugee influx, but Sofia is risking its relationships with Western allies, experts warn.
By Mariya Cheresheva
Bulgarian leaders have been showing "insecurity and fear" in their recent dealings with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which - even if justified, is "a bad sign for the state politics", Ilian Vassilev, а Bulgarian diplomat and former ambassador to Moscow, told BIRN.
Vassilev said that after the failed coup in Turkey and the subsequent government crackdown on its alleged adversaries, Bulgaria is understandably acting very cautiously towards its southern neighbor.
"It is easier to snarl at Erdogan from Vienna, Berlin or Budapest, when you know that there are many buffer countries between you and Turkey," he said. "For Sofia, it is different."
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is preparing to meet Erdogan in Istanbul on Friday to discuss joint energy projects and other bilateral issues.
After the latest developments in Turkey as well as the worsening relations between Erdogan’s regime and the EU and the US, Bulgaria has found itself in a difficult and vulnerable position.
On one hand, the Bulgarian government has shown its commitment to maintain warm relations with Turkey, fearing the risk of Ankara flooding the country with refugees. On the other, Bulgaria - as an EU and NATO member country - needs to remain in line with its Western allies.
"We are facing a huge crisis between Turkey and the EU... the whole of Europe is surrounded by fences," Borissov told NOVA TV on August 12.
Borissov warned that Erdogan had threatened to “flood Europe with refugees”, which actually meant flooding Bulgaria with refugees.
He was referring to a statement in May by Burhan Kuzu, a former adviser to Erdogan and a senior member of the Turkish ruling party AKP, who said on Twitter that if the European parliament takes “the wrong decision” about lifting visa requirements for Turkish citizens, Ankara will “send the refugees”.
In February meanwhile, the Greek news website euro2day published a copy of minutes of a meeting between the Turkish president and EU leaders during which Erdogan also allegedly threatened to flood Europe with migrants.
Borissov admitted that he was "extremely worried" about the possibility and explained that his aim was "to act so that Turkey treats Bulgaria differently from any other country in Europe".
He also pledged to keep "the best possible relations with Turkey" - but Bulgaria has already had to pay a price for this.
The cost of friendship
On August 10, the Bulgarian authorities handed over to Turkey a man called Abdullah Buyuk, a supporter of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based Islamic cleric who Ankara accuses of being responsible for the failed coup.
Buyuk had sought political protection from Bulgaria in 2015 after being charged with terrorism over his relations with Gulen's Islamic movement.
Buyuk's extradition, officially because of his lack of valid documents, provoked outrage in Bulgaria, as it took place the despite the fact that two courts - the Sofia City Court and the Sofia Court of Appeal - had refused to send him to Turkey because the argued that a fair trial was not guaranteed.
The extradition was carried out covertly, without the police even notifying the Ombudsman and relevant non-governmental organizations, as stipulated by Bulgaria’s Law on Foreigners.
It drew public attention in Bulgaria only after it was broadly covered by the Turkish media.
The case was largely condemned by legal experts, who have described it as contrary to the rule of law and an example of Bulgaria submitting to the demands of its powerful neighbour.
Buyuk’s expulsion contradicts the constitution as well as Bulgarian and international law, Bulgaria’s National Ombudsman Maya Manolova protested.
Even Borissov admitted that the extradition of the 43-year-old owner of a software business was "on the edge of the law", but at the same time noted that Bulgaria has returned 25,000 illegal migrants to Turkey since the beginning of the year.
In Turkey, the deportation of Buyuk, who Ankara accuses of being Gulen’s financier, has been welcomed warmly.
A few days afterwards, on August 14, Turkish media reported that two other Turkish citizens, alleged members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state for the right to self-determination, were handed over to Turkey by the Bulgarian police.
President Erdogan named Bulgaria as a possible example for the US, which has refused Turkey’s extradition request for Fethullah Gulen, over a lack of solid evidence that the exiled cleric’s organization, which Ankara calls the Gulenist Terror Organisation, or FETO, was behind the coup attempt on July 15.
"Sooner or later America will have to decide. Either the terrorist FETO or the democratic state of Turkey. It will have to make a choice," Erdogan told a rally in Ankara on August 10.
These extraditions have apparently achieved the desired effect in Turkey.
Two days afterwards, the Turkish government's press service announced that Prime Minister Binali Yaldirim has proposed a bilateral agreement on migration to his Bulgarian counterpart Borissov.
According to the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency, BTA, Yildarim said that the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal on migrants and visa liberalisation was Ankara’s top priority.
"But before such a stage is reached, I propose that our two countries, which have a common border, start a mechanism for bilateral cooperation on this question," the BTA quoted Yildarim as saying.
He also said that the extradition of Buyuk was a "good example" for Turkey's "friends and partners".
Bulgaria’s government has confirmed that Borissov has spoken to Yildirim, but refused to reveal the details of their telephone conversation.
Relations between the two neighboring countries will be tested again on Friday, when Borissov meets Erdogan. The two leaders will discuss common energy projects, especially in the light of the recent improvement in relations between Turkey and Russia.
Experts expect that the migration deal between the EU and Turkey, which currently appears to be stalled if not seriously threatened, will also be among the topics of conversation.
Right after his visit to Turkey, Borissov is meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Saturday together with the premiers of seven other countries – Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria – to discuss Europe’s refugee crisis.
Bulgaria’s balancing act
Unlike Turkish officials, many Bulgarian experts and analysts have been more cautious about Bulgaria’s compliant gestures towards Turkey.
Tayfur Hussein, a deputy editor-in-chief of the Bulgarian edition of the Zaman newspaper, which is linked to the Gulen movement, warned that the Buyuk case is also been used as an instrument for internal political propaganda by the Turkish government.
"Erdogan personally offered up Bulgaria as an example of an obedient neighbour and his media elaborated on the thesis that [Bulgaria] is ready to do anything it is asked for," Hussein said.
Dimitar Bechev, director of the Sofia-based Institute for European Policies, also said that Bulgaria cannot afford to criticise Turkey because “as a neighbour it has an interest in smooth relations”.
But both Bechev and Vassilev agree that Bulgaria’s policy of making compromises with the Turkish regime does not provide any effective guarantees against Borissov’s biggest fear - that Erdogan will break the deal with the EU, allowing a massive influx of refugees into Europe.
"Bulgaria risks being considered as a weak part of the EU and NATO – both by its allies and by its opponents. Neighbourly relations are an asset, but connections with the EU and NATO are a fundamental priority," Vassilev said.
He did not dismiss the possibility that after the controversial extradition of Buyuk, Bulgaria would continue to do what Turkey wants.
But at the same time he argued that the EU and NATO need to show more solidarity and to demonstrate that they will back a Europe-wide solution to Bulgaria and Greece’s issues with Turkey over the refugee and migrant crisis.
"Otherwise Borissov or some other [official] will seek individual solutions and direct negotiations [with Turkey], and no one could blame him for that," Vassilev said.