Sofia view: Enter the dragon

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A stream of news from Europe’s East. Out of the blue, EU-hopeful Serbia decided not to attend the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony and honour imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Facing Brussels’ ire, Belgrade then mde a U-turn and dispatched the ombudsman, Saša Janković.

“This had nothing to do with a payback to China over Kosovo?” was the question The Economist’s Tim Judah shot to Prime Minister Mirko Cvetković.  Cvetković: “No, nothing to do with Kosovo”.

The premier’s answer was probably disingenuous, but only up to a point. Back in February, Beijing and Belgrade struck a deal to upgrade the thermal power plant at Kostolac (Serbia’s second largest), with China’s EXIM bank offering a loan to cover 85% of the 1.25 bn dollars project.  On 7 December,  Energy Minister Petar Skundrić and Chinese officials  endorsed a follow-up agreement for the first tranche to  the tune of 345 m dollars.  Back in April, the two governments had unveiled plans for a bridge over the Danube at Zemun-Borča, not far from Belgrade, to be built by China Road and Bridge Corporation. Being a friend of China pays off, especially in times of economic stress when cash is in short supply. 

And it is not just Serbia. I am jotting these lines in Athens – and Wen Jinbao recently offered cash-strapped Greece the prospect of Chinese purchases of government bonds. Last year, ECFR’s Power Audit of EU-China Relations found out that lots of EU’s new member states favoured pragmatic engagement with Beijing. These days everyone in Central and Eastern Europe is scrambling to be the gateway for Chinese investment and trade. Even China-sceptic Czechs are following the Polish example and inviting Chinese contractors to bid for large EU-funded infrastructure projects.  

The view from Sofia? In October, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Xi Jinping endorsed an 80m dollar joint venture between Bulgaria’s Litex and Great Wall Motors. Keep an eye on China as the great wall is looking for gateways!

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