By Erisa Dautaj Şenerdem
Turkey and Bulgaria, two neighbours with a historically troubled political relationship, are now looking to co-operate in commerce and trade, with the two governments discussing pipeline projects, new investments and future prospects.
The numbers speak for themselves, as bilateral trade has been on the rise despite economic woes in the eurozone. Turkey’s exports to Bulgaria increased five fold between 2001 and 2011, to 1.23 billion euros ($1.62 billion). Similarly, imports from Bulgaria to Turkey have increased 6.3 fold in the same period, hitting 1.89 billion euro ($2.48 billion) in 2011. Between 2010 and 2011 alone, Bulgarian exports to Turkey jumped 45%.
The rapid growth has left businesspeople optimistic about future economic relations, with new trade and investment opportunities on the horizon.
Stoyan Stalev, deputy chairman of the Turkish-Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TBCCI) in Sofia, told SETimes that Turkey has untapped potential for trade and investment.
“Despite the geographic proximity of Turkey’s business capital, Istanbul, Bulgarian products have so far largely failed to reach the huge market of this city of 18 million people. Very few Bulgarian companies have managed to step firmly on it,” he said, adding that Bulgarian entreprenuers are not fully aware of the opportunities in Turkey.
Due to the economic downturn in the eurozone and rapid economic growth in Turkey, Bulgaria has gained an advantageous trade position compared to Turkey in the past couple of years, with Bulgarian exports to Turkey increasing faster relative to the latter’s exports to Bulgaria.
“The trade between the two countries was balanced up to [two years ago], but Turkish exports have fallen as the EU economic crisis has hit Bulgaria’s economy… Our target is to bring this situation to the previous state [of balance],” Yalcin Egemen, chairman of the Turkey-Bulgaria Business Council at Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK), told SETimes.
Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov visited Turkey in March and signed 17 agreements, including those on economic and energy co-operation. Bulgaria expressed its intention of joining the Trans-Anatolia gas pipeline project that will carry Azerbaijani gas to Europe via Turkey.
Borisov said at a press conference during his visit that efforts for the construction of a natural gas pipeline between Turkey and Bulgaria could be finalised before May, with the consent of both countries’ governments.
In a related development, Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece have decided to hold a set of business meetings where co-operation and exchange of information on business and investment opportunities, especially regarding various tenders, will be discussed, Egemen said.
To date the largest Turkish investment in Bulgaria is the Sisecam glass production factories. In 1997, Sisecam bought the Bulgarian Sodi facility for $35m through privatisation and has increased the capacity of the factory. Sisecam’s current total investment in Bulgaria is worth about $500m, according to Egemen.
However, despite these promising business deals between Turkey and Bulgaria, some experts say relations are based on a shaky foundation. Muzaffer Kutlay, a researcher at Turkey’s International Strategic Research Organisation (USAK), says Borisov has tried to ban Turkish publications and limit the voting rights of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. “All these issues reflected on the economic relations and … the trade volume stands well below the potential of two countries,” she said.