Diplomatic relations between Bulgaria and Greece were established in 1880, developed gradually over the years, and today they are at an exceptional stage of maturity. They develop constructively, showing an upward trend in all areas, especially after the accession of Bulgaria to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in March 2004 and its membership in the EU from January 1, 2007. The Embassy of Greece in Sofia operates a Consular Department, a Bureau of Economic and Commercial Affairs, Bureau of Public Diplomacy and Press Office, Bureau of the Defense Attache, and Office of the Police Liaison Attache.
The extremely high level of political relations between the two countries has acquired a strategic character and marked a qualitative deepening through regular high-political level visits. Greece and Bulgaria are partners and allies in the EU and NATO, they cooperate harmoniously at the level of regional initiatives, such as the South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), the Organization for Black Sea Economic Cooperation, and also in within the framework of the tripartite cooperation between Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. The tripartite and quadrilateral formats of regional cooperation in which the two countries participate are of particular interest for strengthening connectivity in Southeast Europe and for deepening regional cooperation.
Greece is one of the countries that enthusiastically and concretely supports Bulgaria’s membership in NATO and the EU. Athenes also supports Bulgaria’s desire for membership in the Schengen area and the Eurozone.
Novinite is honored to interview the Ambassador of Greece in Bulgaria, His Excellency, Alexios-Marios Lyberopoulos.
1. What is your opinion on the bilateral political and business relations between Bulgaria and your country? What do you think about the current global crisis and how, in your opinion, does it affect bilateral relations between Bulgaria and Greece?
During the last few years the EU and its Member States had to deal with unprecedented crises. The Covid outbreak and its numerous repercussions, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the energy crisis, to name just a few, fundamentally changed the world’s social, economic, geopolitical and security landscape and tested Europe’s resilience. The European Union’s unity is key in order to respond effectively to every crisis, to every single repercussion. In this setting, Greece and Bulgaria managed to further strengthen not only their political relations but also to maintain an almost historic high in their business relations and to massively increase their energy cooperation. This is crucial not only for the two countries but also for regional stability and the European Union as a whole.
Through joint efforts, clear choices, a large number of initiatives and projects, our two countries have strengthened their political and economic ties to such an extent that their cooperation is now being recognized by all our partners as a remarkable example of strategic cooperation, good neighborly relations and mutual respect in our region.
Regarding the business component of the cooperation in particular, for Greece Bulgaria enjoys the status of the most important economic and trade partner in the Balkan region and one of the most important partners worldwide. In absolute numbers, the previous year (2022) we recorded a new historical record in terms of bilateral trade volume. In 2022, Bulgaria reached second highest place in the list of Greece’s most important trade partners, only behind Italy.
At the same time, investment cooperation between the two countries is thriving, with bilateral FDI flows continuously increasing over the past few years. In the general ranking of foreign investors in Bulgaria, Greece stood at the fifth place at the end of 2021, recording a stock of investments of 2.8 billion euros (BNB data).
Last but not least, the excellent level of bilateral relations is also manifested in the will of both countries to further promote the development of “strategic” cross-border connectivity projects in the fields of energy and transport infrastructure, as a response to recent geopolitical developments in our region.
2. What kind of improvement of these relations do you see in the near future and also in the long term?
The challenge for me and our staff in the Greek Embassy is to further improve our already excellent bilateral relations, in the short to long term, This could take many forms such as: 1) further development of joint projects in the area of sustainable energy, transport and digital infrastructure, 2. Enhancement of the connectivity of major urban centers, commercial hubs and people of the two countries, by developing joint political, cultural and business initiatives and by eliminating the remaining obstacles to this connectivity and 3. Exploiting the untapped potential of natural, human and capital resources of the two countries and bringing closer together their business communities, through joint participation in European Cross-border Programmes, Research and Innovation initiatives and through joint investments in areas where both countries enjoy competitive advantages or have common needs. Last but not least, Greece and Bulgaria, together, can be the driving force for the region’s economic, environmental and energy sustainability.
Furthermore, there is also potential for further increasing the bilateral tourist flows between Greece and Bulgaria which maintained a constantly increasing dynamic, despite the recent “COVID-19” pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Bulgarian citizens and entrepreneurs are increasingly investing capital in property acquisition and hotel development in Greece, mainly in its northern part.
3. In your humble opinion, what is the place of Bulgaria in the modern world?
By taking full advantage of what the EU has to offer, Bulgaria, already an important EU member state and a valuable NATO member, could promote its strengths and deal with its weaknesses in order to create a better future for its citizens and to contribute, as a valuable and forward-looking partner, to the future of our Europe and to our regional stability and security.
4. If you want to promote Bulgaria to investors from your country, what would be the 5 most important advantages you would mention?
The Bulgarian market, a very important neighboring market to Greece, has been rapidly developing in recent years and presents Greek entrepreneurs with considerable opportunities for the development of business partnerships and for the “absorption” of Greek exports. For Greece, Bulgaria is a strategic economic partner in the wider Balkans and a very attractive investment destination – initially for SMEs and lately for larger multinational groups of significant greek ownership.
The main advantages I would mention are the following: 1) Bulgaria is a direct neighbor and an EU member-state, 2) Bulgaria is an important “bridge” within the EU for the activation of greek companies and for the access of greek products, services and capital to the single market of the EU, 3) there are important funding opportunities (EU funds and IFIs) to support the activity of greek companies, 4) the strategic geographical position of Bulgaria, with 5 Pan-European Transport Corridors crossing its territory (IV, VII, VIII, IX, X) and availability of a variety of multimodal/intermodal transport and supply chain services, 5) favorable tax regime for businesses (flat tax 10%, the lowest in the EU) and relatively low labor costs (the lowest in the SE Europe region). Of course, there are several other reasons why greek investors traditionally choose Bulgaria as an attractive investment destination, such as low warehouse rental costs and low costs of supply chain services or the multilingualism and “digital” capabilities of its human capital. Relative efforts to put forward reforms e.g. about public procurement procedures and the functioning of the judicial system, would also greatly further increase the attractiveness of Bulgaria for foreign investment.
5. Do you think Bulgaria can improve its image or branding and if yes – do you have an idea or advice you could share with us?
Bulgaria can strengthen her image and reputation abroad, provided that it sets for itself specific goals. Such goals can be, in my opinion, the branding and promotion of its natural scenic beauty, its rich cultural heritage, its hospitality, its abundance of natural resources and its variety of services offered. The question is what Bulgaria’s branding and promotion strategy tells about the country, what message it delivers to people around the world about modern Bulgaria. An effective branding and promotion strategy about Bulgaria based on those terms will help eliminate popular clichés about Bulgaria (e.g. “an EU member-state with cheap labor and cheap seaside resorts”) and build a modern and popular image about the country (e.g. “an attractive, alternative and cost-efficient destination for nature lovers, foodies, “digital nomads” etc. who are looking for a genuine and different experience”).
6. What would be the 3 most important events for your Embassy in 2023?
We are planning lots of interesting things. By definition, our National Day reception in March takes a lot of preparation and pride in what we are celebrating for: 202 years since the start of the revolution against the rule of the Ottoman Turks. March, however, this year, started with an unbelievable rail accident in Greece which resulted in tragic loss of life, mainly of young people; we cannot forget. Let me go back to what we are planning. For example: in September 2023 we are supporting with enthusiasm an important exhibition entitled “Raiment of the soul”, to be created by two artists, a Greek and a Bulgarian, whose skills and imagination create a bridge between tradition and traditional art forms to modern ways of presenting the past and the present through photography and embroidery. It will be extremely interesting.
The Embassy of Greece in Bulgaria is also planning its participation in several cultural festivals that will take place in the coming months in Bulgaria, such as the ”SOLEIL” festival in Sozopol, the ”Struma stages festival”, in Sofia, Kustendil and Asprovalta and the ”ΠέτρακαιΝερό” (=Rock and Water) festival in Sofia. Greek artists and institutions will represent my country in the framework of those festivals and we invite you to attend them in order to get in touch with the rich Greek culture!
Furthermore, the Greek Embassy is currently in touch with local authorities in Greece, in order to organize, again this year, press trips for Bulgarian journalists in several Greek cities!
7. What advice can you give to Bulgarians who want to do business with people from your country?
Greece is one of the best locations in our region and in Europe for doing business. It offers an inviting business climate, perfect for foreign investors. Since the economic crisis which hit our country in the beginning of the previous decade, Greece’s economy has now almost fully recovered, the investment legislative framework has been modernized and the country is now open to investors from any country, with the edge of having a propelled framework and a high ground of human capital. Greece offers a set of integrated investment facilitation services that provide a one-stop shop for investment projects, while specialized investment advisors provide potential investors with targeted information regarding investment procedures, according to the best international practices. Bulgarian entrepreneurs who are interested in doing business with Greece should express their interest to our Embassy’s Economic and Commercial Affairs section, which can guide them through possibly complex procedures and put them directly in contact with competent organizations in Greece, such as the “ENTERPRISE GREECE INVEST & TRADE AGENCY” which is our main Investment Promotion body and constitutes an integral part of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Economic Diplomacy Services.
8. Tell us about yourself – what was your professional diplomatic career, how long have you been in Bulgaria and what are the most fascinating places or even dishes for you in Bulgaria?
I have served quite a lot in multilateral fora such as through the Permanent Missions of Greece to the UN in New York and in Geneva, as well as in Rome in FAO, WFP and IFAD. I have also served in the Greek Embassy in Rome, as the Deputy Head of Mission, but I also cannot forget my being posted as Consul of Greece in Istanbul, Turkey and Consul General of Greece in Odesa, Ukraine. The past two years I was in Athens where during these very challenging times –and this is an understatement- I was lucky enough to be Director for NATO & OSCE and Director for Strategic & Operational Planning of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is less than three months now, that I am posted in Sofia, being lucky enough, this time, to represent my country in Bulgaria, such a beautiful and friendly place to be. I feel very welcome and full of enthusiasm to do my best in order to further improve our already excellent bilateral relations by promoting political, economic, cultural and educational relations, and defense and police cooperation, as well as inter alia trade, energy, transport and business projects. In Sofia I had only time, so far, to visit the center of the city, to visit for example the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, this amazing monument, and I am looking forward to visiting, together with my family, the Monastery in Rila as well as cities like Plovdiv and other places of beauty and history such as Burgas, Varna, Sliven, Sozopol, Assenovgrad, Pomorie, Melnik, Belogradchik, Nessebar where I am also looking forward to meeting with members of the vibrant greek communities in many of those cities. I am looking forward also to taste local cuisines. After all, who doesn’t like the banitsa, the pitka or the guvetch?
9. If you must describe Bulgaria in just three words, what would they be?
Beautiful, friendly, pluralistic.
10. How can Bulgarians learn more about your country?
The best way for a Bulgarian to really learn more about Greece is simply by visiting Greece!
My country is full of prestigious touristic destinations that include seaside and mountain attractions, as well as great gastronomy experiences, all this accessible from any Bulgarian city in just in few hours.
So, I invite you to discover the hidden secrets and celebrated beauties that make Greece a destination so vibrant and exhilarating you will want to visit over and over again!
You can also visit the Facebook page of our Embassy, where we suggest alternative, as well as already famous, Greek destinations for Bulgarian tourists, with information in Bulgarian.
11. Recently, Greece reaffirmed its support for Bulgaria’s membership in the Schengen Area. Do you think Bulgaria has a chance to be admitted by the end of this year?
Bulgaria already meets the technical criteria for membership in the Schengen area. Bilateral discussions of Bulgaria with Austria and more recently with the Netherlands show signs of progress in the effort to address concerns put forward by those member states. I think that all parties involved are doing their best to deal with the concerns of Austria and the Netherlands so as to be able to welcome Bulgaria into the Schengen area as soon as possible.