Nickolay Mladenov – politics and the new generation in Sofia
Nickolay Mladenov

“If you deny Bulgaria membership you will not help the institutions become more ready.”


Nickolay Mladenov’s biography reads like an applied history of Bulgaria’s EU accession process.

In 1996, as a 24-year old, Nicky began working for the Soros Foundation. With Bulgaria in the midst of an economic crisis, the Foundation was providing medicine and setting up soup kitchens, the sort of activities usually reserved for third world countries. But it was also providing a forum for people who were pushing hard for Bulgaria’s EU accession.

“While I was working at the Open Society Foundation, back in 1996, we were playing around with the idea to try to find a way for the Open Society Foundation to support Bulgaria’s efforts to enter the European Union. At that point we set up a specific budget line to fund projects to publish textbooks on European law, for example, and to provide guidebooks for NGOs that wanted to get funding from the PHARE programme or training or scholarships for people to study in Brussels.”

In 1998 Mladenov left the Foundation and started working for the World Bank. A year later he was approached by Mabel Wisse Smit, then the head of the Brussels office of the Open Society Foundation, who had come to Sofia to see how the Soros network could support Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union.

“We had a bunch of meetings with ministers and NGOs, and proposed that one way of doing it would be to set up an NGO or think tank specializing in European accession: focusing not on big policy issues but on specific topics related directly to the negotiation process … Bulgaria was starting negotiations in January 2000. The ministries were starting to put together various working groups to prepare the negotiations, but they lacked the expertise necessary to prepare position papers and to defend them in Brussels.”

Many of those who had the relevant expertise were working in the private sector, as public sector salaries were very low. Mladenov and Wisse Smit sought to remedy the situation, combing Bulgarian law firms and other businesses for prospective government advisers. This was the beginning of the European Institute, set up with support from Soros and the European Commission. Nicky Mladenov was to become the European Institute‘s first director. Aside from providing technical assistance to the government and publishing its own policy papers, the Institute’s other big aim was building public awareness of the accession process.

“One way in which we did that very successfully was to organise monthly public lectures. We would invite a keynote speaker to talk to a group of 200, 300 people from the media, civil society and the ministries, on various issues related to accession …

The first speaker we ever had was the foreign minister, Nadezhda Mihaylova, who talked about the opening of negotiations. There were no questions when she finished her speech. Years later, when we did sort of the last of these events – which I believe was on Turkey, Turkey’s accession – you couldn’t stop the questions, there were so many. Over these years this community of people had built up their expertise, their understanding of the enlargement process.”

The Institute’s priorities have shifted. After 2002 – the level of expertise inside the administration having significantly grown in the meantime – it has largely stopped providing technical assistance to the Bulgarian government. The Institute now increasingly provides assistance to municipalities (on tapping into EU funding) and countries of the Western Balkans. It has also launched a web portal about Bulgaria’s accession process and the EU in general.

“One of our claims to fame as a country is that a lot of the people who went into government in 1997 were people who actually worked with or in various think tanks. This allowed for a very vibrant policy community to emerge. These people later had very good links to the government and could feed its ideas to it. And the government could, you know, test its ideas within the think tanks.”

After the 2001 elections the trend was reversed and a lot of people went from the government into the think tank community. An American-style cycle (of people moving between government and think tanks) took root, something unusual in Europe. As Evgeni Dainov points out, the influence of Sofia’s think tank community peaked around the turn of the millennium and subsided somewhat thereafter, as the bureaucracy began to accumulate its own expertise. A core group of visible and renowned think thanks remains, however, with no government able to ignore their ideas.

Nicky Mladenov himself went into politics in 2001, at the age of 29, and entered parliament on the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) ticket. He served as vice-chairman of the European Integration Committee and member of the Foreign, Defence and Security Policy Committee. He also became the UDF’s spokesperson, a position he retained until 2005.

After an interlude doing mainly consulting work, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, he returned to politics in 2007 as one of Bulgaria’s first European parliamentarians (for the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, part of the European People’s Party).

In the various positions he has held, Nicky Mladenov has often had to confront scepticism towards Bulgaria’s EU accession.

“Argument number one was that it was a very poor country: that the institutions were not ready, that Bulgaria would not be able to handle the obligations of membership and function effectively at all levels of decision-making in the European Union. Corruption and crime were also major arguments …

The biggest argument against all this was that if you denied Bulgaria membership you would not help the institutions become more ready. If you postponed accession you would not help Bulgaria’s economy grow or its population become richer or its institutions reform, because to a large extent the success of Bulgaria’s reforms hinged on the fact that there was a realistic accession schedule. In 2000, when negotiations started, the government stated that 2007 was the goal, which meant that the public administration could mobilize and work towards this goal. Political parties could support something that was visible and achievable – seven years is not that long of a process. And I think that mobilized people, the fact that accession was a realistic prospect.

To all those who said that Bulgaria’s economy was not ready for accession, that it hadn’t sufficiently converged, you could [argue] that it was in fact integrated with the European economy; that over 60% of its trade was with Europe; and that if you were to postpone its access to regional funds or agricultural subsidies, to all the various instruments that Europe has in terms of raising cohesion, you would … be hindering it from converging to average European standards.

Obviously, crime and corruption was a more difficult case to argue. But I strongly believe that … the criminal elements in society, and those involved in the shadow economy, were the ones who had the most to fear from accession. Because with accession you implement rules, you implement new legislation, and you open up the market to far bigger competition. This is inevitably in the interest of the consumer; this gives you a bigger chance of building transparency, of building accountability and inevitably, of pushing these shady elements out of society. And so again: postponing accession or denying it would not help.”

In 2009 Nickolay Mladenov was appointed Minister of Defence in the new government of Bojko Borisov. In early 2010, after a cabinet reshuffle, he took over the foreign affairs portfolio. After Borisov’s government resigned in early 2013, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed Mladenov in August 2013 as UN Special Representative for Iraq and Head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).

Last updated: 15 March 2010