What does the dance between the US and Russia in Eastern Europe reveal about Bulgarians and Romanians?

Biden and Putin are poised to realign the balance of power in Eastern Europe in a series of summits that has echoes of Yalta. Bulgaria and Romania both have convinced Euro-Atlanticist politicians at the top. But their peoples continue to look at each other with stereotypes instead of unleashing the potential that communication and cooperation with their neighbours offers.

Who will lose if more bridges are built over the Danube such as the one between Vidin and Calafat (where this photo is taken from)? (source: YouTube)

Biden and Putin are poised to realign the balance of power in Eastern Europe in a series of summits that has echoes of Yalta. Bulgaria and Romania both have convinced Euro-Atlanticist politicians at the top. But their peoples continue to look at each other with stereotypes instead of unleashing the potential that communication and cooperation with their neighbours offers.

Vladimir Mitev

Rumours of a war between Russia and Ukraine are greatly exaggerated. For months now, the fans of Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin have been expressing the usual rhetoric against their geopolitical “adversary” on social media and in the media. The tougher they appear in defence of justice, the clearer it becomes that we are not witnessing a prelude to war, but the famous Russian-American dance that has marked modern human history.

On 10 January 2022, US and Russian representatives will meet in Geneva to discuss security in Eastern Europe. Jill Dougherty, CNN’s former Moscow bureau chief, trails the talks thus: “They will discuss whether there is a way to reorganise security in Europe. Can the US offer anything to Russia? Can Russia give something to the US? I mean, de-escalation. I think that’s the hardest thing right now. The United States and the Biden administration want de-escalation.” (the interview can be heard here around minute 9:20). Two days later, on 12 January 2022, a NATO-Russia meeting is scheduled by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. On 13 January 2022, there will be a meeting of Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe – which includes the US and its European allies. A meeting between the EU and Russia has not been announced.

These talks are being announced after Russia made “unacceptable” demands to the West in December 2021 to secure its interests in the near abroad – no entry of the former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia into NATO and the withdrawal of NATO troops from Central and Southeast Europe. NATO and US leaders, as well as the Western media, have criticised Russia’s demands. But alongside rhetoric about possible consequences and conflict preparedness, there has been a constant call for diplomacy. The West’s hesitant response to Russia’s demands inevitably evoked hints of a new Yalta, the summit of 1945 that charted new balances in Europe for the time. And the prospect of a new realignment in Eastern Europe or the Western Balkans could be very important for Central and South-Eastern Europe – for countries like Romania and Bulgaria, which border disputed territories and are NATO and EU outposts in the region.

The governments in Bucharest and Sofia 

From the end of 2021, both Bulgaria and Romania have new governments, which can be seen both as a reflection of the internal political forces in these countries and as their response to what is happening in Europe. In Romania, the government has been formed by the so-called old parties – the National Liberal Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Hungarian minority Party (UDMR), which are often accused of relying on a clientelistic model of policy-making. They themselves call their governance philosophy “the development of national capital”, whose fundings come from the state budget and the European Recovery and Resilience Plan. Their government enjoys a large majority in parliament. It rejects the anti-corruption Jacobinism of the Romanian Macronists of the Union Save Romania – Plus and the anti-vaccine, orthodox and conservative incitement of the Alliance for the Unity of Romanians. Both formations form the opposition in the present. Thus a coalition has been formed that can provide stability. It was born with the approval of President Klaus Iohannis and has the necessary support in Europe so that European funds are not stopped and flow into the local business circles of the governing parties.

In Bulgaria, until April 2021, the model was precisely that of the development of large national capital through European funds delivered to businesses by the GERB party-state. The weakness of this model was not so much corruption, which has been talked about a lot for years, but about which we know very little today. It was simply a government set up for Donald Trump’s times. It increased military spending significantly, bought US weapons and the prime minister received an audience with the previous US president. Under the third government of Borissov, a discourse against NGOs, Soros, the Istanbul Convention was unleashed. The coalition partner were Bulgarian nationalists who promoted Trump’s ideology and the interests of big capital (just like GERB did).  

Biden’s entrance in the White House has brought GERB leader Boiko Borisov into opposition. And that brought two Harvard-educated entrepreneurs, Kiril Petkov and Asen Vassilev, to the fore, with the backing of President Rumen Radev. Apparently, the US and their European allies were betting on a renewal of Bulgarian politics – a new political generation, made up of people connected to corporate, foreign capital rather than the local mafia and oligarchic business. The emergence of the charismatic Harvard couple sparked international and Romanian media interest, and Bulgaria’s traditionally negative image seemed to start changing for the better as Kiril Petkov declared himself a fighter against corruption.

Bulgaria and Romania’s reaction to a likely ongoing security reset 

There are many signs that a possible rebalancing in Eastern Europe may not, at this stage, directly affect Bulgaria and Romania, which are part of NATO and the EU. The countries’ positioning towards what is happening in Eastern Europe and the closeness of their leadership to their Euro-Atlantic partners are telling.

Romania’s prime minister is General Nicolae Ciucă, who is even said to be the first Romanian general to have fought in combat since World War II – in Iraq occupied by the “coalition of the willing” (to align with the US in the controversial war) in 2003. He is a military man with numerous American decorations and recognitions. Starting from  2017, Romania allocates more than 2% of GDP to military spending. And NATO’s deputy secretary general is Romanian Mircea Geoana. 

On 21 December 2021. Nicolae Ciucă visited Brussels, where he met Jens Stoltenberg and leading European politicians such as European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. In his talks with Ciucă, the NATO Secretary General gave assurances that NATO is “doing everything necessary to ensure the security and protection of all allies”, but added that NATO remains ready “for a meaningful dialogue with Russia”. During the meeting, Stoltenberg announced that he would convene a NATO-Russia Council meeting. “Any dialogue with Russia must be based on the basic principles of European security and take into account NATO’s concerns about Russia’s actions. This must take place in consultation with NATO’s European partners, including Ukraine,” Stoltenberg added. For his part, Ciucă stressed the need for a united European approach to the security problem in Ukraine and the Black Sea region and a strong signal against aggressive and destabilising actions in the region. 

The Bulgarian government particularly stressed the need for “ambivalence” towards Russia – to simultaneously demonstrate a tough approach to escalation and an openness to dialogue, as do Euro-Atlantic partners. In December 2021, Stefan Yanev, the Defence Minister, whom NATO and Euro-Atlantic partners seem to trust, expressed the view that there was no need for new NATO troops in Bulgaria. Prime Minister Kiril Petkov added a little later that Yanev’s position was a “personal opinion”, that Bulgaria was coordinating its position with NATO and the EU and that a solution to the problem was being sought through “maximum use of diplomatic and peaceful means”. These short phrases, personal opinions and Facebook posts were accompanied by heated discussions on social media in Bulgaria by people who sounded the alarm that Bulgaria could be drawn into a military conflict with Russia. 

In November 2021, Petkov had already said in a meeting with Stoltenberg in Brussels:

“Our position is fully in line with that of NATO and the EU, as we have made very clear. We truly believe that a diplomatic and peaceful approach to potential conflicts is the best way forward. And I am glad that you have confirmed this to me.”

Asked by a journalist about Bulgaria’s military spending, Petkov said in Brussels that if infrastructure for civilian and military use – for example, a new bridge between Romania and Bulgaria at Rousse – were included in military spending, the military budget could exceed more than 2% of GDP.

At the moment, it seems that both Bulgarian and Romanian politicians are saying the right things – both from the point of view of their Euro-Atlantic partners and from the point of view of the people in their countries. Western politicians also seem to be handling the ‘crisis’ with measured and diplomatic words. There is room for a dialogue with Russia on security in Eastern Europe, and at the same time, if diplomacy fails, responses may take different forms.

Whether this dialogue will lead to concrete results, and what they will be, will probably become clear in the course of future negotiations. It is logical to assume that forces absent from future negotiations will be disadvantaged by what is agreed. 

Bulgarian-Romanian relations in a world of change

What would a US-Russia security agreement in Eastern Europe mean for Bulgaria and Romania? Is closer interaction between them possible in the context of a possible shift in the balance of power in the region?

At this stage, miracles are hardly possible. On the one hand, the governments in Sofia and Bucharest seem to have differences in governing vision. When the anti-corruption party left power in Bucharest, a government with an anti-corruption agenda came to power in Sofia. While Romania was attracting a lot of foreign investments for years, now a shift to development of national capital is announced. Bulgaria made that in the opposite way – having little foreign investment for many years, and only now trying to improve its image before the world so that investment increases – for the time being only with rhetoric. 

The Bulgarian government claims to fight corruption, which is generally associated with oligarchy, and to seek development through foreign investors. But Sofia’s governing formula is also contradictory – it has both anti-corruption and oligarchic parties, indicating the possibility of future political tension.

Apart from that both states needed 13 years to build the second bridge on the Danube between them (at Vidin-Calafat) and both existing bridges were built only after outside geopolitical pressure. The level of trust or cohesion between the states and their elites has been poor for decades.

However, the most important problem is not the mutual passivity of the two states. The two nations still regard each other with stereotypes. In the Romanian press, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov is seen positively, but this is so far largely due to his symbolic capital – he has charisma, graduated from Harvard and says the right things, while in Romania the intellectual level of current politicians is low and anti-corruption has been frozen since 2018. Beyond Petkov’s talk of new bridges across the Danube and beyond a meeting with a Romanian-American financial fund when he was economy minister in the summer of 2020, there is currently no concrete action related to Romania. 

The Romanian press gives the impression that it still thinks of Bulgaria in terms of “Russia”, as this article shows (which attracted a lot of attention). It argued that Kiril Petkov and his ally Assen Vassilev are pro-Western and fight corruption – but then writes at length about the Russian spying scandals in Bulgaria. The Romanian reader could be left with the impression that there are only two types of forces in Bulgaria – pro-Western and pro-Russian, the anti-corruption current and the corrupt current.

Romanians need to find in Bulgaria something more than “eternal Russia”, their encounter with it unleashing the irrationality of some of them. It is remarkable that Romania has a strategic cooperation with Hungary – despite Hungary being actually Russia’s main partner in the region, –  while there is still indifference towards the Bulgarians because of their supposed “Russophilia”. Bulgarians, Romanians or any other people should be and are interesting not because they are pro-Western or anti-Western, but because they have an essence whose understanding enriches all sides and leads to change. Knowing and accepting the other in his completeness could help us know ourselves too and be more adequate to the changing world.

Unfortunately, international and people-to-people relations in our region rely too much on realpolitik, on power relations and hegemony. This prevents the emergence of a neutral middle ground between people, states and powers. The existence of such a space could allow mutual knowledge, cooperation and evolution. At the end, life and its change are the opposite of accumulation of power. They deal with transformation. 

Such a transformation is likely to be taking place today in relations between the American and Russian ’empires’ in Eastern Europe. Bulgaria and Romania, with their national-centric perception of their state interests, risk remaining static again because of their tendency to see their foreign policy as one based on power relations. Will the Euro-Atlantic partners encourage their interaction? Possibly, but transformation occurs when it springs from within, when it reflects the existential nature and need of its doer. To the extent that we pursue only external stimuli and agendas, we remain internally stuck.

While waiting for the series of meetings between the West and Russia, the people of South-East Europe may or may not have a unique chance to see a change in the world around them. It would be wonderful if our peoples had the power, in a changing world, to be not just proxies but subjects of their own destiny.

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