Bulgaria has been building ties with many of its neighbours over the past few months. Relations with long-standing European Union member Greece, with which it has increasing economic links, are on an upswing while Bulgaria's support for EU membership hopefuls Serbia and Albania has borne fruit in the form of bilateral security agreements.
In a visit to Bulgaria last week, Greek President Karolos Papoulias referred to the present state of Greek-Bulgarian relations as the "golden age". In a joint statement with his Bulgarian counterpart, President Georgi Purvanov, the presidents said this is the best period in the history of bilateral relations between the two countries.
Papoulias indicated that Greece and Bulgaria, together with fellow EU member Romania, could form a "Balkan nucleus" in the Union, saying the countries should work together to promote regional interests.
Parvanov said the meeting signified a "serious engagement" to boost economic and business ties and there was considerable potential for collaboration in the tourism sector, a major industry for both countries. He also said there could be further opportunities in the fields of defence industry and civilian protection. The two presidents also said that Bulgaria's entry into the EU created a more favourable environment for strengthening these relations.
According to Papoulias, Greece is among the largest foreign investors in Bulgaria, both in terms of the number of investments and in terms of the capital invested in the Bulgarian market, saying his government's goal is to extend the range of products exchanged.
Purvanov stressed that Greece is a foreign policy priority and that Greeks wanting to invest in Bulgaria will meet with understanding and support from the country's institutions. He said Bulgaria offers a secure environment for investments and is in the process of updating its laws regarding foreign investments.
Papoulias's visit to Sofia comes at a time of ever-increasing co-operation between the two countries. Next month, an agreement between Bulgaria, Greece and Russia on the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline will be officially signed. The pipeline will transport Russian crude oil from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas to the Greek Aegean port of Alexandroupolis, avoiding the congested shipping routes of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. The project has been on the drawing board for more than 14 years.
Parvanov reiterated Bulgaria's support for the project, saying it would help secure different energy sources for the Balkans and Europe as a whole. The Bulgarian president also stated that the project would bring greater prosperity to the region, bringing $23.5m per year to Bulgaria alone.
There were also discussions on Bulgaria's role in providing electricity to Greece. Anastasios Neratzis, Greece's deputy development minister, said the two countries were considering a deal in which Bulgaria would transit electricity to Greece from a third country. Greece has suffered power shortages since the EU-mandated closure of Bulgaria's Kozloduy nuclear reactors at the end of last year. Bulgaria's role as a short-term transporter and long-term producer of power is seen by many as important to Greece's energy security.
The presidents also discussed Balkan security and sovereignty issues during their meeting, including the future of Kosovo, local press reported. Parvanov stressed the importance of taking into account "the interests of the Kosovo population, Belgrade, Pristina and all countries in the region". Parvanov said that any solution suggesting "ethnically clean states" would be "unviable" in the region.
Greece is not the only country in the region with which Bulgaria is seeing a high point in relations. In January, Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev made a much-publicised visit to Albania, where he signed an agreement of co-operation on fighting terrorism, organised crime and illegal trafficking with his counterpart Sali Berisha. Berisha is the only leader in the region to support Bulgaria's appeal to re-open the Kozloduy reactors.
As an EU member, Bulgaria is better placed than ever to take a leading role in the Balkans, which has been an unstable region in recent decades.