A whole-of-government approach (WGA) is not common in Bulgaria as a concept even at the level of rhetoric. ‘Vseobkhvaten metod’, the concept most common at the level of rhetoric, can be considered the proper translation of the English term ‘comprehensive approach’ (CA). In very broad terms, it implies the need for a complex, holistic and coordinated approach to problems and tasks in an increasingly complex environment.
In Bulgaria, well-established inter-ministerial councils facilitate addressing the multiple dimensions of the issues on the government’s agenda. With regard to security issues, CA in the Bulgarian context implies awareness of the multi-level complexity of challenges that need to be addressed not only at the local and national levels, but also at the regional and global ones. Multilateral cooperation within the framework of NATO and the EU is considered crucial for addressing the multi-level complexity of security challenges. With regard to external conflicts and crises, CA has been adopted at the level of rhetoric, but it has not resulted in the introduction of new institutional practices in either the legal or administrative fields. Instead, decision making related to and the organisation of Bulgaria’s involvement in external conflicts and crises are the result of an ad hoc, pragmatic approach.
If CA to external conflicts and crises is defined as a so-called 3D issue (i.e. one involving the coordination of diplomatic, defence and development instruments), the Bulgarian preference for the ad hoc approach rather than for any institutionalisation of a multi-dimensional CA is to be understood against the background of the complex transition from being part of the Soviet sphere of influence – as a member of the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) – to membership in NATO (2004) and then the EU (2007).
With regard to the development D, it matters that Bulgaria’s involvement with the ‘third world’ during the Cold War was linked to the ideological aspiration to convert ‘fraternal’ parties and countries to communism. Bulgaria’s ideologically motivated support for loss-making projects during this period can hardly be viewed as useful knowhow for ‘development policy’. On the eve of the fall of communism, the accumulated debt of 24 developing countries to Bulgaria amounted to USD 2.79 billion, with Algeria, Iraq and Libya being the major recipient countries (Vachkov and Ivanov 2008). Owing to its high level of indebtedness and economic mismanagement at the start of the transition, Bulgaria itself had to rely on development and humanitarian aid beginning in 1990 and lasting until its EU accession in 2007. Consequently, despite Bulgaria’s stated commitment to EU development policy, its levels of development and humanitarian aid are low, and any enthusiasm for adopting a legal and institutional framework for development policy has been waning since 2016 (Fileva, Valkanova and Buchkov 2018).
With regard to the diplomacy D, Bulgaria’s difficult economic transition is a major factor for understanding why the country did not have a capacity for active diplomatic involvement in issues that were not of immediate national concern. Furthermore, in its 15 years of NATO membership and 12 years of EU membership, Bulgaria has not been an active shaper of peace and security policies. This inaction can be seen in the results of the European Foreign Policy Scorecard, a project conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR 2010/11–2016) between 2010 and 2016 to provide a systematic annual assessment of the EU’s and its individual member states’ performance in dealing with the rest of the world. Depending upon their performance, member states were assigned ‘leader’, ‘slacker’ or ‘supporter’ status. Bulgaria got mostly the neutral “supporter” status, but it did occasionally fall into the ‘slacker’ category. Indeed, except for its active involvement with the Western Balkans during Bulgaria’s recent presidency of the Council of the EU (in the first half of 2018), Bulgaria cannot pretend to assume a leadership role with regard to the EU’s CFSP and CSDP anytime soon.
Last but not least, with regard to the defence D, it is important to consider that defence reforms started late in Bulgaria and are still ongoing. Prior to 1989, Bulgaria was an appendix to the Soviet Union in military and defence terms. In 1968, the country was involved in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Throughout the Cold War, Bulgaria had to cover 6 percent of the military and logistic expenses of the Warsaw Pact, and it actually spent 12 percent of its GDP on Soviet military equipment (compared to the 2 percent that it has yet to achieve to meet its commitment to NATO). Whereas membership in the EU was accepted as a national priority early on (in 1990), political consensus on Bulgaria’s security policy only emerged slowly. Until 1998, Bulgaria’s political elite remained deeply divided over the nature of national security and the aspiration to join NATO. However, that same year saw the formulation of the National Security Concept (NSC), which stipulated integration into the EU and NATO as being among the country’s foreign policy priorities. What’s more, it was the first document of its kind to treat national security as being affected in a comprehensive way by global economic, political, scientific and environmental processes as well as by regional developments.
The NSC of 1998 facilitated a CA to Bulgaria’s preparation for EU and NATO membership. On its basis, Bulgaria made fast progress in establishing the operational and institutional infrastructure needed for EU and NATO accession in the form of various inter-institutional councils and working groups. They were good enough to allow Bulgaria to comply in a reactive way to the blueprints of the EU and NATO and to thereby join NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007. However, they were not designed to facilitate proactive policymaking either in general or more specifically with regard to Bulgaria’s stance towards external conflicts and crises.
On the eve of Bulgaria’s accession to NATO, the scholar Blagovest Tashev criticised the slow emergence of fresh strategic thinking in Bulgaria and pessimistically predicted (Tashev 2004: 15): “If no change in strategic thinking is to take place, Bulgaria will then assume a relatively low profile in the Alliance, doing only the minimum required as a member and frequently refusing to take a firm stand on issues which do not appear to concern the narrowly defined national interest.” A decade later, in a critical assessment of the post-Cold War defence reforms in Bulgaria, the scholar Georgi Tzvetkov also identified “a critical need for a strategic vision and governance in defence” (Tzvetkov 2014: 77).
In sum, owing to its complex economic and political transitions as well as its quite recent memberships in NATO and the EU (not to mention its still-pending negotiations related to OECD membership), Bulgaria does not aspire to assume a leadership role with regard to the management of external conflicts and crises. This lack of aspiration, in turn, most likely explains the country’s lack of eagerness to consider any kind of institutionalisation of a CA to external conflicts and crises.