Who will make the change in Bulgarian-Romanian relations?

Could Bulgarian-Romanian relation be challenge for theorists and practicians of change (source: Pixabay, CC0)

Among other things, Europe Day 2022 in the Bulgarian city of Rousse was also the occasion for a Bulgarian-Romanian celebration of the 15th anniversary of the accession of the two countries to the EU. In the context of the war in Ukraine, local activists and representatives of institutions developing Bulgarian-Romanian relations gathered on a ship in the Danube, in an event demonstrating the Bulgarian government’s desire for better ties with Romania

Vladimir Mitev

Just a few months before the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, both Bulgaria and Romania formed their current governments and intensified their diplomatic and political relations. A number of diplomatic visits took place between their governments and heads of states. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s visit to Bucharest at the end of April 2022 came up with a decision to open a new border crossing between the two countries at Ruse-Giurgiu which will manage the passenger and cargo flow of the ferry link planned to be reopened between the two cities. Plans for five new bridges between the two countries were also announced, one of them at Ruse-Giurgiu. 

That being said, political relations between the two countries have been less intensive for quite a long time during the era of Bulgarian prime minister Borissov. The spirit of competition between the two countries used to be easier to be observed while cooperation between them at the level of states was not so evident. 

In this context, an event was held on 9 May 2022 on a ship in Rousse to mark the 15th anniversary of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU. Organized by the Austrian Embassy in Bulgaria (with the help of the Austrian Library in Ruse) and the Ministry of Transport (whose minister – Nikolai Sabev – is from Rousse and shows interest in development of infrastructure in Northern Bulgaria), the “celebration” took place on the ship “Rustchuk” in the presence of diplomats from European embassies and local politicians from Ruse. A representative of the Romanian Embassy was present.

The event was clearly part of the public diplomacy that the Bulgarian government is trying to implement in an attempt to promote “change” in areas where there has not been much movement for a long time. For decades Bulgaria and Romania have had difficulties agreeing on the joint infrastructure projects that could link their territories over the Danube. Both existing bridges – at Rousse-Giurgiu and Vidin-Calafat, were built apparently after international pressure, while the two countries’ own internal dynamism and motivation have rarely been sufficient to resolve contentious issues. It is sufficient to recall that the river border between Bulgaria and Romania has been last agreed upon back in 1908 even though it should have been agreed again every 10 years, in accordance with the changes of the flow of the river. 

Importantly, the border regions between Bulgaria and Romania are poorer and more backward than other regions in both countries. This also implies more ‘old thinking’, suspicion and mistrust when someone tries to do something new. But it is these regions that are most in need of dynamism and renewal.

In spite of the economic dynamics between the two countries (close to 7 billion euros of bilateral trade in 2021, but mainly due to activity of foreign multinational corporations trading between their own branches), the two peoples know each other little and for a long time have been treating one another with indifference, suspicion or contempt. In this sense, the idea of the organizers to give the floor to several people from Ruse and Giurgiu, who are developing Bulgarian-Romanian cooperation in areas such as culture, media, education and people-to-people relations, was a really good one. And it is to this “people’s part” of the event that the “The Bridge of Friendship” blog dedicates its report.

Vladimir Mitev explains “to whom it may concern” that Bulgarian-Romanian relations are something too serious to be left only to the politicians (source: Timo Koester)

Speaking on the ship, the blog’s editor, Vladimir Mitev, claimed that Bulgarian-Romanian relations should not remain a matter of interest for political or business elites alone. In his view, the challenge to both nations is for relations with their neighbours to “come from within”, i.e. for Bulgarians and Romanians to have their own curiosity and motivation for them, to have their own discoveries and drive when advancing them. Without such a popular element, it is possible that the efforts of various well-intended political figures be met with resistance and thus remain of limited impact. 

In this sense, the two countries need not only hard infrastructure – such as bridges or energy links – but also human infrastructure: the existence of more organisations and initiatives that lead to the mutual understanding of the peoples. Tourism obviously plays such a role. In 2021, 1.2 million Romanians visited Bulgaria as tourists – the second largest group after Turks. But the two countries have not exchanged cultural centers on a reciprocal basis. There are very few Bulgarian-Romanian media. Both central and local media in both countries have an exclusively national-centric view of their neighbours and the region. 

So both sides have a lot of work to do if they really want to do it. And any such endeavour needs dedicated people who have knowledge and enjoy confidence beyond the limits of one or the other country’s in-groups.

Cosmin Crețu, former director of the theater in Giurgiu, shared his experience on how he encouraged cultural cooperation between the two Danube cities. Under Crețu’s rule, the theater from Giurgiu visited Ruse several times with different performances – a play based on salsa dancing; living statues; and a performance based on Albert Camus using the commedia dell’arte style. In its turn, Giurgiu hosted the Ruse Opera and the Ruse Theater, and the theater offered free tickets to Bulgarians.

This scale is impressive for the conditions of the two border towns, but it also leads to some unfortunate experiences. Bulgarians from Ruse never go to the theater in Giurgiu – with almost isolated exceptions. It is difficult to find partners for lasting cultural interaction. Much of what happens and does not happen in bilateral relations is marked by politics – local and national. And of course, the language barrier remains a limit – as Romanian is a language of Latin origin, while Bulgarian belongs to the family of Southern Slavic languages.

A third speaker, Clara Marculescu, demonstrated what can happen when both sides find individuals and enablers they trust mutually. Marculescu was president for 11 years of the cross-border business center Danubius, an institution that is part of the Giurgiu Regional Council. The Romanian spoke to the ship on behalf of the Euroregion Danubius association and its president Lili Gancheva. The Euroregion Danubius is a joint initiative of the Prefecture of Giurgiu and the Regional Administration of Ruse and has existed for 20 years. Its aim is to develop cooperation in all areas of mutual interest: economic, social, cultural, educational and access to European funds. Currently the association has 37 members – local administrations of Giurgiu County and Ruse County, companies, NGOs.

The organisation has facilitated twinning between localities in the two counties, organised cultural events, joint exhibitions in museums, festivals, sporting events and even fishing tournaments. It has also held tourism fairs. It supports business through a joint Bulgarian-Romanian agricultural commission. And as an organisation trusted by both countries, it facilitates many links between people from both countries and both regions.

Mimi Kornazeva from the University of Rousse spoke about a fourth cross-border initiative – in the field of education. For 20 years there has been the so-called Bulgarian-Romanian Interuniversity Centre “Europe”, which is a joint project of the University of Rousse, the Academy of Economics Studies in Bucharest, the University of Chemnitz and Viadrina University in Germany. It is designed as an initiative to create a link between Bulgarians, Romanians and other students from the region and to promote the spirit of a Europe without borders.

In the media, cultural and educational spheres, Bulgarians and Romanians have difficulty finding their own dynamics in relations with their neighbours. This does not mean that attempts should not continue. But the two nations are too much set up on thinking in regional or national terms, and a cross-border or bridge mentality is more difficult to develop. That is why the people who are eager to implement change in Bulgarian-Romanian relations must constantly explore their positive and negative experiences, renew their understandings and concepts, and always look for creative ways to approach the stagnation in the border and cross-border areas.

It is wonderful that, after years of disinterest, the political authorities in Bulgaria and Romania are finally showing an interest in greater interaction. Hopefully, we will be moving more and more from declarations and nice phrases to real agreements, providing funding and deadlines for completion of different cooperation projects. 

Apart from the politicians, who from a certain point of view have a historic window of change to use for constructing something tangible in Bulgarian-Romanian relations, hopefully changes caused by the war in Ukraine could encourage Bulgarians and Romanians to develop a greater degree of subjectivity in their grassroots relations with the neighbours. Cross-border relations are not meant to just mechanically bring Bulgarians and Romanians together in one place so that they could declare that they are friends. Apparently, there is a soul, characters, sensitivity and experience that are to undergo certain evolution on both sides so that the magic could happen. Cross-border relations and all relations imply transformation, a journey of discovery. It is the great potential of such discovery, and the method of cross-border interaction, that we celebrated on 9 May 2022 on the Day of Europe!

Photo: The Danube Bridge at Rousse-Giurgiu (source: Yavor Michev)

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