Interview of President Plevneliev for the BBC
BBC: What are the biggest challenges you have been through?
Rosen Plevneliev: Thank you so much. When you are asking this question I'd emphasize on the big - you say 'big challenges'. Let me first start with the big picture. Where are we today in Europe? To me the big picture in Europe is that the game has changed. And the Ukrainian crisis was the game changer. And we have entered completely new phase of development. We will have the history of Europe divided by Europe before and after Crimea. And I totally disagree with a lot of politicians on the international scene. A lot of analysts and a lot of journalists that are saying: 'We are just coming back to a new Cold War time. A lot of people speak about a second Cold War time. I totally disagree. We are in a new phase of development. We are swimming in unknown waters. And I call this new phase of development 'The Cold Peace Time'. So welcome to the Cold Peace time. And in this Cold Peace time - it is peace because nobody wants to have a war and nobody wants to go back to the Cold War time. But it is a cold peace because we see a lot of methods from the Cold War. Like propaganda, like cyber-attacks, like trying to destabilize your opponent, like using 'frozen conflicts'. And we see a triumph arc of 'frozen conflicts' created by Russia all over the Black Sea region. From Azerbaijan, Armenia, Ukraine to Moldova and Georgia. And there are a lot of differences. Let me just point to some of them in the beginning of our interview. In the Cold War time the Soviet Union was having its allies. In the Cold Peace time Russia has no allies and it is isolated. And in the Cold War time In the Soviet Union there was a spread of power. You had the Secretary General of the Communist Party, you had the Politbureau. Today in Russia Vladimir Putin has the full and absolute power. In the Cold War time the Soviet Union was kind of offering different model. Today Russia is not offering a different model. In the Cold War time there was Capitalism against Communism. Today Russia is not offering a different model but is opposing us. In the Cold War time we had a certain level of trust. Low, but a certain level of trust. We all knew what the other one is not going to do. We all knew, the Western allies knew that the Soviet Union is not going to push the red button for a nuclear war. But today there is no trust at all. And today President Putin knows what we are not going to do but we do not know what he is capable of doing. We were shocked with the illegal annexation of Crimea. We were shocked when Russian missiles have been flying over a couple of states to bomb Syria. And we were shocked when we have seen Russia bombing humanitarian convoys and hospitals in Syria. But are we going to continue to be shocked. And what is coming we don’t know.
So, in the Cold Peace time we are in after the Crimean annexation - it is a dangerous time, it is unpredictable. There is no much trust and we need to be very smart and very careful how to swim in those waters. And it is going to stay for longer. The world has lost its balance. In the Cold War time there were two major powers. In the Cold Peace time today we have a multilateral world and we have no balance at all today in the world.
BBC: Do you think the European Union and NATO have done enough to confront Russia, to talk about Russian influence particularly in this region?
Rosen Plevneliev: Well, today what we see is that Russia is confronting us. So Russia is opposing us. I don't think Russia is going to shoot or Russia is willig to have a war. But I really see a Russia that is trying to destabilize the European Union, to weaken, to divide by any possible mean the European Union. And we just see so many proves about that. Are the European Union and NATO doing enough? Well, we could do more. But definitely we need to be up to the responsibility of the Cold Peace tie we are in today. We need to be strong, we need to show character. We need to have a dialog with Russia. But we need to stay strong and stay united. For example about NATO - we just recently had a NATO summing in Warsaw. And a real NATO summit of historic importance in Wales three years ago. And Bulgaria is very grateful because we tool historic and important decisions together. For example - The Readiness Action Plan. And for example, the so called Contingency Plans for Bulgaria and Romania - to be fully covered and secured. With all insecurities from the Black Sea and on the Eastern Flank of NATO... So NATO is having a task. NATO is having a mission. NATO is strong. I wish the European Union also could be stronger and united on the problems we have.
BBC: Because is has not always been that United on some of this issues?
Rosen Plevneliev: Exactly, we see clearly that Russia is opposing us. We all see that Euro-haters all over the spectrum - nationalists, populists, are funded in different ways by Russia. We see cyber-attacks, we see unbelievable propaganda efforts. All of them trying to destabilize and divide the European Union. So the European Union today is in trouble. I wish it would be stronger. I track with my team here in the Bulgarian Presidency not one but eleven crisis in the EU. And I can name them. Let us just start with the Ukrainian crisis, which is still not solved; the Greek crisis, which is not solved; the crisis of terrorism on the European streets, which is not solved; the crisis with migration, which is not solved and it is now going to be solved very soon. The crisis with the relationship between Russia and the European Union; we have a crisis of nationalists and populists that are marching on the European capitals and gaining importance playing with people’s fears. And we have crisis with the economies, we have the debt crisis, which is still there. But one crisis which I particularly fear the most and the one that could really hurt very very bad the EU is, as I call it, the moral crisis. If we split, if we are not together, if we divide and if we allow for example Russia to divide us on the sanctions of some other issue... So today for example the migration crisis has the potential to split the EU which is so sad and so bad. I wish and I will do my best as a pro-European and pro-democratic president to do everything with is in my hands to strengthen the European Union. I was so proud that just month ago we had ten presidents of EU member states who came to Bulgaria, including the presidents of Germany, Italy, Portugal, Poland... We were debating how we could increase the trust into the European project and make it stronger.
BBC: You talked a bit about Russian attempts to influence politics. There are elections here coming up in a few days. Do you believe that there has been attempts to influece politics and the elections here in a way that you consider unacceptable?
Rosen Plevneliev: Of course, you can sense that, you can see that. And not just in Bulgaria. You see it everywhere in Europe. When you see that for example Madame Le Pen from France's nationalistic movement has been funded for example through a Russian bank. It is kind of strange for me - how this could be possible. Especially in my country this could be a huge scandal. Of course, you have politicians that are very much Russian friendly. And not just in Bulgaria but all over the region. You have politicians that are against the sanctions. You have politicians that represent parties that are very much linked to Russian counterparts. And especially far right, far left, nationalists, populists. And it seems to me and the facts show… no matter if they are in Bulgaria or Serbia or in Greece, or in Croatia, or in Slovakia, Hungary or even Western countries like for example Germany, even United Kingdom and France. In one or the other way, they are linked to Russia.
BBC: And it is not just sympathy with Russia. You believe that Russia was actually trying to directly control or influence the politics?
Rosen Plevneliev: We should never underestimate that Russia is sitting on what the Soviet Union was established on. That Russia is sitting on, let's say, what the Soviet Union was establishing - its connections, partnerships. And you know very well that in the past, in the Cold War time the Soviet Union was having all over the world its connections with communist parties, with nationalistic parties and many others. Those links and those people exist and they are there, but it is not just that. Now if you look at the Russian hybrid warfare today - once again I am saying that they are not willing to send 'green people' in Bulgaria or to Serbia for example. They are not willing to occupy us as they did in Crimea. President Putin was happy with the president of Ukraine Yanukovitch. So if you have a president who is dependent, if your influence is there - well, this is the goal. The idea in Europe today is not to have a full scale war and to shoot against your enemy. Putin wants to make other countries dependent. And the way they do it is for example through using all the networks of old Soviet Union communist services. They have been dismantled in my country, they have been dismantled over the region. Still not in Serbia or Macedonia for example. Though Bulgaria has far advanced, still you have these networks existing. The communist secret services are not existing any more but those networks are here. And they could be used. Look at all the oligarchs, all the dependent media and media empires that exist all over Europe. And they just spread the Russian propaganda. Look at the many other ways how you could influence public opinion. So what today Russia is trying to achieve is to weaken Europe, to divide Europe and to make us dependent.
BBC: There have also been reports of cyber-attacks and cyber espionage. I think last year here around the time of the referendum and local elections there were attacks of the electoral commission and some of the government institutions. What exactly happened and are you worried that that could happen again with the elections coming up?
Rosen Plevneliev: You are absolutely right. And that was exactly the case. That in a day of elections and in a day of national referendum a year ago Bulgaria was heavily attacked. That was the heaviest and the most intense cyber-attack that has been conducted in South-East Europe. But Bulgaria is strong in ICT, Bulgaria has the best computer programmers, knowledge and talent in the region. We have the best internet speed and the best capabilities to resist. And we have resisted and nothing bad happened during this cyber-attack which was very dangerous. That was not just a very intense and strong cyber-attack on the Bulgarian institutions. The Presidency was attacked, the Central Electoral Committee was attacked. The Council of Ministers was attacked and also many other websites and national institutions. And it was not just against the Bulgarian institutions. This was an attack against the Bulgarian state and in a day of referendum I consider it as an attack against the Bulgarian democracy. And this is not Just Bulgaria. So as we have been using all the networks and the knowledge of our friends in NATO to track who could initiated it, who stay behind, we could with high probability today say that it was the same organization that has attacked the Bundestag stealing all the emails of German members of parliament, that was the same institution that has attacked NATO Headquarters and that was the same that was trying to even influence the American elections lately. So with very high probability you could point East from us.
BBC: President Obama from the White House has said that they believe that the attack against the Democratic Party was linked to Russia and officials in Kremlin.
Rosen Plevneliev: And I just say that it is the same address, the same signature, and the same approach we have seen also in Bulgaria. And that is extremely dangerous. Just look at the fact how well designed and targeted it was - in a day of election. To confuse the democratic process. To make it not work. And that is so dangerous. And one more thing that really bothers me as a Bulgarian president - guess how many Bulgarian politicians have openly spoken about that cyber-attack or tracked it or pushed for solution... I was one of the very few. I have organized a National Security Council on the cyber-attacks. And I have seen many of the other Bulgarian politicians that were not sitting so comfortably when we were debating this. Because you need to admit that this is an attack on the Bulgarian state. This is an attack on the Bulgarian democracy. And it had been conducted with high probability from Russia.
So this could be and should be clear. And as a result, as a very responsible national leader, in the National Security Council, I have agreed with all the political parties - under my leadership we have established a new National Security Strategy on cyber defense which is now in implementation.
BBC: So you think you're in better place to be protected with the elections coming up?
Rosen Plevneliev: Absolutely.
BBC: What do you think is the impact for you, for Bulgaria, for Europe about Britain leaving the EU?
Rosen Plevneliev: Well, I was so sad. I have to tell you I was shocked and saddened about looking at the results [of the referendum]. Nobody was expecting that. We just, all of us, love British people. We love the United Kingdom. It is such a wonderful country. And it is spreading soft power, culture, music, liberal democracy. And competitive economy all over Europe and the world. I think this was a very tragic moment. Exactly this is one of the eleven crises I am speaking about in the EU today. 'Brexit' is a crisis. And it is a very serious one. But we need to respect what the British people said. I have to tell you - I was also shocked because, speaking honestly for such a great and renowned media as BBC, who else but the British are pragmatic... Who else, but the British know what is good and what is bad and who else but the United Kingdom was spreading free trade and liberal democracy creating the biggest empire of the world. It was based on free trade and integration and not on isolation. And I am so worried when we see the UK in a way isolating itself in its own island. I am so worried when I see populists and nationalists on the march, including in the United Kingdom. And it was not a coincidence for me when all the guys who have been leading the Brexit campaign resigned after. This is just irresponsible politics. You need to stay to what you preach and pray. And you need to deliver. And I am also very saddened because I think.. as I 'preach and pray' about the American elections today... that.. you see, if you have a negative approach, if you are against, a lot of British people have voted 'against'. And a lot of people in the United States today could be having the same logic - 'Let's be against the political elites. Let's be against the bankers and all the others... probably the EU.'. But the 'against' logic is never helping. It is now bringing any sustainable result on the long term. It is only the positive logic - who are you, what are you fighting for, what are your values - which is giving you the right way to go. And I see so many people today in the US just being against, I wish I could see those who are 'for'. Who have the positive logic, who have the conscious decisions, to go ahead and to really preach and pray... What happened in the UK – I hope - is not going to happen in the US.
BBC: Do you think that what happened in the UK would make it harder to deal with that challenge of dealing with Russia as well?
Rosen Plevneliev: Of course. The UK is always very strong supporter of our democratic stand and of our security and for our fight for what is important for Europe. And it is just one thing. And it is called peace. And the only way to have peace is if the rules apply to everyone. And a very certain way to have a war is that you have a country that is violating all the rules, is moving borders by force... which we thought would never happen in Europe again. So this is very bad and very dangerous. The UK has a strong stand, it is a very reliable and a great partner on all those issues. And I am really really very saddened by the Brexit. But we stay together in NATO. And if Brexit is going to be a divorce, though I hate this word, we should stay the best possible, the closest possible friends.
BBC: It shouldn't be a difficult divorce in other words?
Rosen Plevneliev: It has to be targeted that we stay the best possible friends so that in a way you stay in one family. We should. Because we are one family.
BBC: And the other great crisis - the refugee crisis. It has been a big issue here in Bulgaria. Fence is being constructed. Do you think Europe has found a way of dealing with this yet? Or you think this challenge is going to grow in the months and years ahead?
Rosen Plevneliev: Well, there is not a sustainable solution yet on the table. And still the EU is divided on that. And still there is a lot of internal pressure and disagreement how to address it. But let me tell you a very simple thing. As we track these eleven crisis in the EU, looking and pointing at any one of them, the only workable solution to any of them is the European solution. You cannot address and solve the problems with terrorism, Russia, Ukraine, Greece, migration alone. It is just not possible. The only sustainable solution is the European solution. And I wish also other European leaders understand that. And I wish we are going into a common European solution. It is not so difficult for such to be established. And some of the right moves are there on the table. Today Europe is protecting much stronger its outside borders than it was the case just one year ago. And here also NATO is helping a lot. Bulgaria is very proud of what we do on the longest actually external border of the EU and that is the border with Turkey. We stand to security, we do not agree that huge groups of people completely without any registration and any control will be just marching towards our territory. We've never allowed that and we were the only ones not to allow this to happen. We do not see any contradiction between keeping to the human rights and freedoms and keeping our borders safe. And we believe that this is important task of every state - at least to control safely its borders. If not - this is what happened. The European Union is now making progress. Also there is progress in addressing the issues of integration of migrants. There is progress also with understanding the importance of long term solving the migration problem. And I am a believer that very soon there will be a common European solution. A new institution has been established. A new and reasonable amount of money of the European budget have been targeting the solving of this issue. So today Europe is much better prepared than it was in 2015th. But we are not there yet to say that we have solved it in a sustainable and efficient way.
BBC: President, thank you very much.
Rosen Plevneliev: And I thank you very much.