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Either visas or EU deal, a ‘false dilemma’

By Kristen Shane      

Bulgarian ambassador spent career shuttling between defence and foreign ministries.

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Bulgaria’s new top diplomat in Canada says it’s a “false dilemma” that there will either be a European Union trade deal or continued Canadian visa restrictions for Bulgarian citizens.

Ambassador Nikolay Milkov says Bulgaria may, and should, have both visa-free travel and a ratified trade deal, the text of which is currently being wrapped up.

Working with Canada to lift the visa is one of his main priorities, since starting as ambassador to Canada in October 2013. 

Bulgaria is one of only two EU member states whose nationals still need a visa to come to Canada for business or tourism trips. The other is Romania. 

Neither has been added to a list of so-called safe countries whose citizens are fast-tracked through Canada’s in-land asylum claim process, which is seen to be a first step to visa-lifting. When that list was created in 2012, the immigration minister argued that too many asylum claims were being accepted for the countries to qualify.

The envoy says “some misperceptions and some right perceptions” are keeping Bulgarians from visa-free travel.

In an interview at his Sandy Hill embassy earlier this month, he didn’t dispute that Bulgaria has a higher rate of visa application rejection than Canada would like. He’s not sure how off-base his country is though now, because the situation recently changed. 

Last August, he said Canada opened a visa application centre in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. Previously, Bulgarians had to send their applications to the Canadian Embassy in Romania, which Mr. Milkov said meant applications were more likely to be denied for technical reasons because there was no official available to help applicants correctly fill out the forms in person. 

He hopes data to be released soon will show that the new Bulgarian processing facilitation centre is lessening the number of technical denials.

In the realm of “misperceptions,” he said he’s heard questions about why Bulgaria and Romania should be given visa-free travel when they are not members of a European border pact called the Schengen agreement.

Most EU countries are part of the Schengen area and some non-EU members. They have gotten rid of internal border checks and instead use a single external border. They also have common rules on visas for short stays, asylum requests and border controls.

When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007 they were given temporary restrictions that left them out of the Schengen area. Those restrictions were set to be lifted in January, but older EU members prevented entry in 2014. Nevertheless, Mr. Milkov pointed out that certain countries’ labour restrictions on Romania and Bulgaria were lifted in January. The two met the technical requirements for Schengen membership years ago, he said, and they’re just being kept from joining for “purely political” reasons.

Mr. Milkov argued that the continued Canadian visa restrictions on Bulgarians could create two tiers of EU members if a Canada-EU trade deal is put in place. Bulgarian businesspeople would not be able to take advantage of the new opportunities in the same way as their visa-free counterparts.

The visa issue will obviously be raised if the EU deal comes up for debate in order for ratification in Bulgaria’s national legislature, and “it will be an unpleasant discussion,” he said. 

But he said he’s confident it won’t get to that point.

The Canadians want to scrap the visas too, he said. A Canadian official is set to travel from the Canadian Embassy in Brussels to Bulgaria this spring to evaluate its progress, he said. 

His government stands ready to update the official on what it’s doing to tackle issues like securing national travel documents, dealing with minority rights, the Schengen zone, and the fight against organized crime.


‘Much to be done’ economically

The Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement forms part of another of Mr. Milkov’s main priorities in Canada: economic co-operation. 

“Here, there is much to be done,” he said. 

“Bulgaria is not too visible from Canada,” he said, adding that Canada is concerned with economic relations with the EU as a whole—not specific countries, and especially not the smallest ones. Trade between the two countries last year amounted to $245 million, according to Industry Canada statistics.

CETA should boost trade, which should prompt more investment, greater recognition of professional qualifications, and more student and labour exchanges, said Mr. Milkov.

In the political realm, the last of his main priorities, he said the two countries are close. They both sent soldiers to fight and be trainers in Afghanistan.

If there’s any area Mr. Milkov knows as much as foreign affairs, it’s defence. He’s shuttled between the two fields since starting to work for the Bulgarian government in 1992 after earning his PhD in international relations.

He’s pursued a career of trailblazing. He was among the first civilians to work in the defence ministry after the fall of the communist system in Bulgaria. The only civilians to work there before were “probably only the cleaning ladies,” he said with a laugh. 

He became the first desk officer for NATO just as Bulgaria was aligning itself with the Euro-Atlantic system. The next year he became international relations adviser to the defence minister. 

“We didn’t have at that time many well-prepared persons for doing this job. It was a pioneering job in the ministry of defence, so it became really possible for people to be promoted,” he said, displaying his modesty with a chuckle.

He later became deputy head of Bulgaria’s military intelligence agency, dealing with analysis of political information.

In 1997 he returned to his IR roots by switching into the foreign ministry. He became ambassador to Romania and later consul general in New York, during which time he visited Canada twice with his wife Nevena Mandadjieva and two daughters.

One of his highest-ranking jobs before coming to Canada was as permanent secretary of defence, the equivalent of a deputy minister in Canada, the highest-ranking civilian in the ministry under the political leader. 

It’s good to have officials skilled at both political and military analysis because they go hand in hand in blocs like NATO, he said.

With his defence hat on in his new Canadian job, Mr. Milkov visited Jill Sinclair, assistant deputy minister for policy with the Department of National Defence, amid his round of introductions. Out of that meeting came a decision for Bulgaria’s defence attaché in Washington, Brigadier General Stefan Yanev, to be co-accredited to Canada. Mr. Milkov hopes all the details will be sorted out by spring. 

He had other introductory chats with a bevy of Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development folks, including: Foreign Minister John Baird; Matthew Levin, director general of the Europe and Eurasia Bureau; and within that bureau the director of the Institutions, Policy and Operations Division, Olivier Nicoloff; and on the economic side Martine Moreau, director of the EU/European Commercial Relations and Advocacy Division.

When he’s not busy with work, Mr. Milkov enjoys cross-country skiing with his wife, who is taking lessons at the Nepean Sportsplex. His daughters, 21 and 14, are back in Bulgaria studying. 

And, as any loving dad an ocean away would do, he said he misses them and hopes they will later pursue studies in Canada.



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