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International Scientific Conference “The Balkans in European Integration –Its Past, Present and Future”

Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” was the host of “The Balkans in European Integration – Its Past, Present and Future”. In the two days’ forum scholars from Bulgaria and other European countries participated and traced the historical links between the Western Balkans and Europe, the integration processes in the European South-East as a phenomenon of the past and their perspective in view of the future accession of the region to the European Union.

Amongst the participants were former prime ministers and ministers of foreign affairs of Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania who were also prominent scholars from the Western Balkans. The group included Professor Zarko Korać, former prime minister of Serbia, Professor Vlado Bučkovski, former prime minister of the Republic of Macedonia, Associate Professor Bayram Kosumi, former prime minister of the Republic of Kosovo and Rector of the “Kadri Zeka” University in Gjilan, Professor Paskal Mico, former foreign minister and a minister for European integration of Albania.

Organized on the initiative of the governing body of Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” by the Department of the History of Byzantium and the Balkan Peoples at the Faculty of History of Sofia University, the conference aimed at supporting and enriching with scientific expertise the EU summit meeting EU – Western Balkans, which was being held in Sofia at the same time, by tracing the history, achievements and perspectives of the countries in the region and also accounting for the ever deepening relations with the European Union.


The opening of the conference took place at Aula magna of Sofia University and was attended by Professor Dr habil Anastas Gerdzhikov, Rector of Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”;, Corresponding Member Professor Dr Ivan ILchev, Chairperson of the Organizing Committee of the Conference; Ms. Maria Gabriel, European Commissioner for digital economy and digital society; Mr. Ognyan Zlatev, Head of the EC Representation in Bulgaria; the deputy minister of culture of the Republic of Bulgaria Mr. Roumen Dimitrov; Ms. Monika Panayotova, deputy minister for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU 2018; Associate Professor Dr Todor Popnedelev, Dean of the Faculty of History at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”; Professor Dr Alexander Kostov , Director of the Institute of Balkan Studies with a Center in Thracian Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

Professor Ilchev welcomed the guests of Sofia University and noted that Alma mater had always had the pleasure of hosting such meetings. He said how glad he was of the fact that in the Aula there were historians, economists, political scientists, theoreticians and practitioners, who had come to discuss the past, the present and the future of European integration. Professor Ilchev stressed that irrespective of the fact that some of the Balkan states were already members of the EU, they still had a lot to learn and also pointed out that the EU would not be a complete whole unless it incorporated the whole of South-Eastern Europe.


In his words, the objective of the scientific forum was the sharing of experience and finding ways and means of accelerating the process of integration which would speed up the process of integration, and what the participants had at their disposal was expertise that could be of use to the politicians.

Professor Ilchev pointed out that during the next couple of days in Sofia the most frequently used word would be „communication” and also said that together with his colleagues they viewed communications as the transport corridors which connected the hearts and the minds of the people. He added that, unfortunately, the Balkan peoples knew very little about each other, about their own problems and successes.


Professor Ilchev drew the attention to the fact that even nowadays the textbooks did not offer relevant information about the current development and the situation in the neighbouring Balkan countries. The task of the forum was to carefully pave new roads in the conscience of the people which would promote the concept of the common European future. Professor Ilchev thanked all the participants and wished them two days of fruitful and mutually useful discussions.

The Rector of Sofia University Professor Anastas Gerdzhikov welcomed the guests of the event and remarked that the Western Balkans had always been at a crossroads and the region of potential conflicts. He stressed that the liberation movements, the wars and the ethnic conflicts were an important part of the history of the Balkans.


Today, two of the countries of the Western Balkans were NATO members but neither of them was an EU member. According to him, the new challenges facing European security, such as terrorist threats and migration, could not be overcome without the cooperation and integration of the Western Balkans.

The Western Balkans are in need of a clear European perspective, Professor Anastas Gerdzhikov remarked and added that the European perspective of the region meant stability, security, peace and prosperity. The lack of clear perspective would bring to Euroscepticism, populism, radicalization, foreign influence and revival of past tension and conflicts. Those were the reasons due to which the Western Balkans were a major strategic priority of the Bulgarian Presidency of the European Council whose major goal was to support the countries of the Western Balkans in their efforts for establishing regional cooperation, good neighbourly relations and Eurointegration, Alma mater’s Rector pointed out.

Professor Gerdzhikov said that, as of the next day, an informal summit meeting would be held in Sofia of the state and government leaders of the EU member-states and the countries from the Western Balkan region. The host of the meeting, chaired by the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, would be the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council. “It will not be an exaggeration if we consider the summit the most important event of the Bulgarian Presidency, “Professor Gerdzhikov said. He stressed that the central topic of the meeting would be “Connectivity" in terms of transport, communications, energy and digital infrastructure, education and other aspects.

European integration required also the strong efforts of the countries of the Western Balkans. To meet the criteria of membership, they have to carry out comprehensive reforms in major areas – economic reforms, fight with corruption and organized crime, The functioning of the democratic institutions and the consolidation of the rule of law were the most important amongst them, Professor Gerdzhikov pointed out. “However, our neighbours from the Western Balkans should also be ready to close the door of the past, be ready for a compromise, reconciliation, regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations,” the Rector of Sofia University added.


In his words, we cannot leave the past behind us and move forth without carefully studying how the past influenced the way we look at the present: “That was our deep conviction when we decided to organize today’s scientific conference “The Balkans in the European Integration – Its Past, Present and Future”. The Rector also said that within the framework of the forum the participants from the Western Balkans and from many other European countries would scrutinize the historical relations amongst the Balkan countries, between the region and Europe, and also the future of integration of the Western Balkans in the European Union.

The conference’s objective was to facilitate the EU – Western Balkans summit and present expertise by studying the historical development, the achievements, the complicated relations and the perspectives of the region, Professor Gerdzhikov remarked. The topics of the forum included the past, the present and the future of the region – the lessons of the past, the solution of ethnic conflicts, the Western Balkans as an issue of European security and the perspectives for EU membership, etc.

According to the Rector of Sofia University, the participation of leading scientists in that domain, some of who had first hand political experience as former prime-ministers and cabinet ministers, gave him confidence that the conference could furnish the summit with the scientific basis that any strategic meeting of that type needed.

Professor Anastas Gerdzhikov expressed his gratitude to the organizers from the Faculty of History at Sofia University and the Institute of Balkan Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and personally to Professor Ilchev and Dr Barumova, as well as to all the participants in the forum.

“Allow me, please, to wish every success to the forum and also to tomorrow’s summit. The Balkans and Europe need that,” Professor Gerdzhikov concluded.


Mariya Gabriel, the European Commissioner of Digital Economy and Society, welcomed the guests and participants of the forum and thanked the organizers of the conference. In her words, the conference was particularly important and was taking place at a unique moment for Bulgaria and Europe. “That is a moment when not only Bulgaria is the President of the EU Council but also when we can also say to our Balkan neighbours: We are together with you, we have worked together and we will do so so that we’ll be together in the building of our Europe, “ Mariya Gabriel said.

Today we take a retrospective look at the past but we also outline the picture of the world ahead of us. According to Mariya Gabriel, if there was a place where the diversity of various cultures that had peacefully coexisted for centuries could be seen, those were the Balkans, She also added that often in history many of the challenges that we faced were linked to the surmounting of borders. “The borders are not only state borders. The borders are frequently also those which pose an obstacle to our movement ahead together, to communicate and interact with the others. That will allow us to work creatively and change for the better our common life,” the European Commissioner remarked and noted that in the past, when there were borders, i.e. when there was an obstacle to be overcome, people would build bridges. She quoted the Nobel prize-winner Ivo Andrić, who says: “All bridges are in fact one and the same thing, and are equally worth of our attention, for they show where man faced an obstacle but was not stopped by it; rather he overcame it and went through it following his principles, taste and the conditions that surrounded him.”

The European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel remarked that nowadays one of the bridges the Balkans needed were technological bridges. Strong and safe Europe had no other alternative but to be connected digitally. There was no way the Balkans could be part of strong and safe Europe unless they were linked with it. “Our connectivity is part of our joint security. It is part of our common life and work in a safe environment. That is why, for me it is particularly important as a Commissioner in charge of the digital economy and society to work on specific projects which will be useful to the citizens, which are visible and which allow us to move ahead,” Ms Gabriel said.


Today digitalization is a great chance for all of us. But at the same time we have to be careful because it keeps covert many risks, too. That is why it is important that the interest of the European citizen be placed at the center of it. We must show that the digital connectivity of the Western Balkans is not a mere declaration but rather a genuine initiative backed up by many concrete activities, Mariya Gabriel pointed out and added that the most important point was to safeguard the interests of the citizens. The Western Balkans have always been part of Europe, she stressed. She thanked Sofia University for organizing the conference and wished success to the scientific forum.

Dr Ognyan Zlatev, Head of the EC Representation in Bulgaria, also welcomed the audience at Aula magna and said that European integration was a complex process and it was worth noting that the negotiations for accession to the EU were part of a larger process for modernization and reform. The governments of the acceding countries should make more active efforts in carrying out the necessary reforms and the latter should form an integral part of their policies, that being done not because the EU expected it but rather because it was in the interest of their citizens. 2018 was the year of the opportunities for the region, Ognyan Zlatev pointed out and added that regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations were of particular importance.


Ognyan Zlatev recalled the words of Jean-Claude Juncker, who claimed that investment in the stability and prosperity of the Western Balkans meant investment in the security and future of the European Union. “We have common interests to work together, to safeguard the people economically and promote social development and security,” Dr Zlatev pointed out and expressed his satisfaction that the conference was held at a moment when EU and Western Balkan leaders would convene in Bulgaria.

As part of the opening of the conference both participants and guests were greeted by the deputy minister of culture of the Republic of Bulgaria Mr. Roumen Dimitrov. He congratulated the organizers from Sofia University on the initiative to facilitate and enrich with scientific expertise the EU – Western Balkans Sofia summit. “Thanks to prominent scholars from Bulgaria and the other European countries, who reacted positively to the idea, we will have the opportunity to scrutinize the past, the achievements, and also the perspectives of the countries in the region. We will also appraise their ever deepening relations with the European Union,” the deputy minister said.


He pointed out that the unique, irrepressible and always searching spirit of the Balkans has invariably been manifested in art, the latter serving as a source of inspiration. Roumen Dimitrov expressed his view point that artists are envoys who built the wonderful bridges of friendship and it is they who could guarantee the peace and stability of the Balkans. In his words, every cultural event is a platform of free expression of a responsible civilian position and active involvement in the problems of the region.

Roumen Dimitrov emphasized that we could communicate more easily through the language of art. That kind of language needs no translation; it can only unite, overcome prejudices, enrich and integrate.

“I am fully convinced that your wok will be of essential significance for establishing firmly the substantial contribution of the Balkans to the history of European and world civilization; it will also find its practical implementation,” the deputy minister concluded and wished success to the conference.

Ms. Monika Panayotova, deputy minister of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, welcomed the official delegates, participants and the guests of the forum on behalf of Minister Lilyana Pavlova and the institution she represented – the Ministry of the Bulgarian Presidency at the Council of the EU.


Ms. Panayotova introduced briefly the audience to the goals and the expectations of the EU – Western Balkans Sofia summit (16th – 17th May). That was indisputably an historic event in its character, for the last meeting of that kind was held 15 years ago in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Ms Panayotova’s exposition was based on two major lines of argumentation: a commentary on the European perspective and the involvement between the EU and the Western Balkans, the priority topic of the Bulgarian Presidency, and singling out the issues that would be discussed at the Sofia summit.

Ms. Panayotova recalled that every Presidency of the Council of the EU had different characteristic priorities. Some of them were related to inherited priorities from the preceding Presidency as, in our case, were the important issues of the Estonia – Bulgaria – Austria trio.

On the other hand, there are priorities, closely related first and foremost to European and international planning. Such an example was the finalization of the project of the digital market till the end of 2018, which formed the active focus of the work of the European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel.

The third type of priorities are the so-called extraordinary ones, i.e. topics and problems that have gained relevance as a result of circumstances, events and processes at a local level, the latter were not part of the preplanned European policies for integration and development.

The so-called top priorities which deputy minister Panayotova singled out were the issues determining the image of the individual Presidency. They were the issues with which the Presidency would remain in history.

Ms. Panayotova said she was deeply convinced that our Presidency would be remembered as the “Balkan presidency” because of its strong message and also for its concrete proposals, new projects and initiatives, taken in view of and building on the European perspective for full fledged integration of the Western Balkans.

Bulgaria is a country fully aware of the complexity of the challenges and the advantages of the specific geographic location in the Balkan region. The Bulgarian government purposefully substantiated its conviction that the prosperity, the development and the stability of the European continent were closely interconnected with the welfare and stability of the Balkans, deputy minister Panayotova said.

Bulgaria has been part of the EU for 11 years now and the road we went through during the accession period was long and difficult, at times full of myriads of challenges and problems. According to her, the points of view in Bulgarian society – particularly those of the young generation, were invariably pro-European and full of optimism for the future of the EU. The process of positive transformation required huge efforts, yet the government never lost motivation for work for the integration of Bulgaria in the present and the future of the European project, the latter in its essence being a project of reforms.

The expectation and the stimulation of reforms were never discouraging for Bulgarian politicians and administrators were fully aware that reform meant innovation and improvement in a certain direction: the public administration had to improve its services for the benefit of society; education was to increase its competences; the economy had to support the increase and development of business and the labour market; efficient legislation and legislature should be functional.

Monika Panayotova availed herself of the opportunity to send the message that the doors of the European Union should stay open for the Western Balkan partners and every country in the region should continue its sustainable development and active cooperation in the implementation of the major European policies on the local level.

Ms. Panayotova pointed out that presently one could easily see the concrete benefits of the cooperation between the EU and the Balkan partners: internal and external mobility, education abroad, substantial improvement of the state governance and legislature; interneighbourly partnerships, etc.

With reference to the Sofia summit, Monika Panayotova singled out three major goals the government had set: reforming the European perspective to the region, putting forward concrete initiatives for the improvement of the special and communal links and discussing of variants for the improvement of the cooperation in common for the whole of Europe challenges such as security and migration.

With reference to the first topic a Declaration for Cooperation between the 28 member-states was established which was a sign of unanimity in terms of European values and principles, and also the involvement of the EU in the processes of assistance in the political, economic and social transformation in the region.

Ms. Panayotova pointed out that the program of the summit included a discussion of both the links and the unification between the EU and the Western Balkans, and between the countries of the region itself. That was based on the assumption that unification was important in encouraging economic prosperity, social development and political stability. In the so-called Annex of the Priorities in the Declaration, prepared by the Cabinet, a number of initiatives in different spheres were set forth, contributing to the improvement of the digital connections, energy efficiency and exchange, transport infrastructure, education, European policy, etc.

As far as the issues of migration and security were concerned, she expressed the hope that the leaders of the European countries would exchange experience and viewpoints on the common European security strategy of the EU. The Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council had already yielded positive results for the unification of the region and for the active participation of the Balkan countries in European policies.

Ms. Panayotova concluded with best wishes for fruitful and inspiring work to all the participants in the conference because intelligence and creativity are of particular importance and also guarantee better mutual understanding and interaction.


The Dean of the Faculty of History, Associate Professor Dr Todor Popnedelev also welcomed the esteemed guests and participants in the conference and said that it was a great honour for him in his capacity as a Dean of the oldest Faculty at Alma mater to address the forum.

Associate professor Popnedelev stressed that Europe was a union of values that led mankind to prosperity; those values gave an impetus to the development of spiritual culture, the economy and values which civilize the individual who had embraced them. He posed the question whether those high values were of any worth unless they were shared and unless you look for assistance and they give the opportunity to the one who wants to embrace them too: you are also duty bound to offer him a helping hand and share your experience, and what your forerunners have passed on to you.

Associate professor Popnedelev expressed his genuine hope that in the year of the 130 anniversary of Alma mater the Western Balkans would not merely remember when Sofia University was founded but would also remember the Sofia summit with the first big step towards the unification of the whole of Europe. At the end of his address he wished success to the forum.


Professor Alexander Kostov, Director of the Institute of Balkan Studies with a Center in Thracian Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, addressed the participants and the audience on behalf of the Organizing Committee of the Conference. He thanked Alma mater as a major partner and co-organizer, and specifically Professor Ilchev and his colleagues from the Faculty of History for their contribution to the preparation of the event.

According to Professor Kostov, the common issue and the problems discussed within the framework of the conference would doubtlessly be of particular importance for the Balkans and the EU as a whole. The Institute of Balkan Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences had half a century of history behind in the study of the past and present of the Balkans, he mentioned and added that for the past 20 years more efforts had been put in the study of the Eurointegrational processes in the region. The results of their scientific activities had already been presented at many conferences and publications, realized invariably in close cooperation with Alma mater and the other academic institutions in Bulgaria and in the other Balkan countries.

Professor Kostov dwelt also on the current big project carried out at the Institute – “The Balkans of Today and the Challenges Facing Bulgaria”, which included Balkan scholars from various academic centers, many of them would be taking part in the present conference. He expressed his hope that during the time of the conference they would avail themselves of the opportunity to present their ideas and theories, and appealed to the foreign guests to actively and fruitfully participate in the discussions.

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