Unlearning hegemony: an optimistic theory of international relations in Southeastern Europe

The sight of Macedonians protesting against the opening of the Bulgarian cultural club “Boris III” is part of the years-long controversy between Bulgaria and North Macedonia at the political level. Similarly, the Bulgarian cultural centre “Ivan Mihailov” in Bitola was burned down shortly before its opening. In both cases, the names of the centres show that Bulgaria associates itself with the right-wing tendency in its political history, with personalities who were allies of Germany under Hitler. As a result, the impression is given that Macedonia is extremely loyal to its socialist and Titoist heritage and slogans are launched against the Bulgarians for being “fascists”.

One could argue that both initiatives are private, supported by the philanthropist and patriot Milen Vrabevski. But the presence of the then-prime minister Kiril Petkov and the opening of one such club speaks of the Bulgarian state’s lack of critical thought or unwillingness to distance itself from politics of division in Macedonia.

Bulgaria is a member of the EU and has managed, with the help of the so-called French proposal, to force North Macedonia to accept the demands of the 2019 framework position of the Bulgarian Parliament, which should neutralise Macedonist ideology. Sofia clearly feels its power. It could have named as patrons of its cultural centres personalities who have been bridges between Bulgarians and Macedonians.

It could have preferred cultural personalities, Bulgarians from Macedonia, who are revered in both countries and are part of their common cultural identity. Instead, the impression is created that division is sought through the play of symbols. Bulgaria can afford to behave hegemonically in the Western Balkans and it does. 

I draw attention to this approach used by Bulgarian foreign policy because, in my opinion, it has obvious limitations.

Drawing a front line, the hegemonic approach might, perhaps, work in countries outside the EU. But it hits a wall when we try to impose our will on our EU neighbours.

Where one force ends, another begins. I think this is exactly the case with the Romanian-Bulgarian relationship.

Bulgaria and Romania, at the country level, traditionally position themselves differently in relation to the winds blowing in the region, even though both countries are members of NATO and the EU. Before the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2016, Romania wanted to create a NATO Black Sea Fleet together with Bulgaria and Turkey. Sofia rejected this proposal. A year later, senior Bulgarian diplomats floated the idea of creating a European macro-region in the Black Sea, an initiative that would reduce tensions with Russia. Romanian foreign policy elites ignored the proposal, with the only comments in the Romanian press pointing out that after Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis met with US President Donald Trump in 2017, Romania began to break away from the group with Bulgaria and its importance in the region grew.

A rare moment when Bulgarian and Romanian leaders look into the same direction: presidents Rumen Radev and Klaus Iohannis attend Three Seas Summit in Bucharest, 2018.

Romanian foreign policy often seeks integration with Euro-Atlantic partners and fits into their vision of the region to make Bucharest a regional subcontractor.

An example of this is the Moldova Platform, which brings together Germany, France and Romania in an attempt to support Moldova’s reform and development. Another example is the B-9 group, which brings together NATO member states from Central and South Eastern Europe in a single format. A third example can be seen in the joint visit of the President of Romania and the heads of state of Germany, France and Italy to Kiev, a few months after the start of the war in Ukraine. As far as the Western Balkans are concerned, Romania has not suddenly changed its policy and has traditionally declared its support for reforms in this region and for their accession to the EU.

Bulgaria has shown that, when it comes to its national interests, it can take a specific position on North Macedonia and enforce it.

But Sofia seems to take particular positions in several areas. For example, it has not supported Ukraine’s NATO membership, which several European countries, including Romania, have called for, at least in a declaratory way. Bulgarians in the audience hardly knew that a Bulgarian representative attended the conference in Crimea conferw.ce calling for Crimea’s return to Ukraine. And so on.

Only recently, in the context of the war in Ukraine, have Romanian-Bulgarian relations intensified.

An agreement was reached, for example, on a third bridge between them in the Ruse-Giurgiu area. But the two peoples do not know each other, which creates mistrust and makes relations between them difficult. And state elites, or at least some of them, view their counterparts on the other side with suspicion, scepticism or as competitors.

In other words, the impression is created that Romanian-Bulgarian cooperation is less intrinsically motivated and more imposed by the geopolitical context and the Euro-Atlantic partners. Similarly, bilateral trade, which according to various data will reach 6.5-7 billion euros in 2021, is largely the work of foreign corporations from both countries and, to a lesser extent, the result of the successful interaction of national capitals.

What could be an optimistic theory for Bulgarian-Romanian relations under these circumstances?

How can these two peoples overcome scepticism, mistrust or indifference towards each other and find energy and ideas for something new in their relations?

In my opinion, the relative equality of Bulgarians and Romanians in international relations opens a rare opportunity for normal, human relations between them. But conditions must be created for mutual acquaintance between them. And here I see the important role that people must play as bridges of friendship.

A “friendship bridge” is a type of relationship that allows the relationship between two parties or realities to become dynamic, provided that they are aware that each will remain on its own shore.

Neither Romania will accept Bulgaria’s national interests as its own, nor Bulgaria – Romania’s. What countries, let alone peoples, can do is to set in motion a process of getting to know each other – through shared media, cultural and academic cooperation, local and cross-border community initiatives, etc.

The significance of such interaction can be multidirectional, but mostly linked to finding energy for development in their more backward and poorer cross-border areas or to discovering new resources and opening up new horizons for the inhabitants of big cities. 

Romanian Masca theatre performing in Rousse, Bulgaria, September 2022. An example of cultural, human diplomacy bringing two nations together.

Despite their hegemonic ambitions in the Western Balkans or Bessarabia, Bulgaria and Romania are unlikely to expand their geographical territory any time soon. Paradoxically, however, their peoplw can achieve, on individual level or as a group, a community in which language and cultural borders are not an obstacle to communication and cooperation.

A Greater Bulgaria-Romania is achievable through bridges of friendship

leading to the formation of a dynamic identity between the inhabitants of the two countries – i.e. their existence and development in dialogue and connectivity. The role of states in this case would be not to hinder, by forceful approaches, and to encourage the natural process of interaction between peoples.

Bulgaria and Romania found a way to solve the Dobrogea problem in 1940 and it is a solution that is clearly sustainable. However, it is important to move from a negative peace – from the absence of confrontation between them – to an active peace, to cooperation and reciprocity in relations. In this respect, states seem to evolve less smoothly than ordinary citizens because state elites are expected by their job description to think and act with force. 

But it is precisely this approach that does not work in Romanian-Bulgarian relations. The last time Sofia and Bucharest agreed on the border between them on the Danube was in 1908, after which they had to take account of its changes every ten years, so that some islands became Bulgarian and others Romanian. The fact that two countries could not agree on this border for more than a century is an indication of the culture of non-confrontation between them. If someone cedes a few square kilometres of uninhabited islands, he is likely to be considered a traitor when the hegemonic mentality reigns in the state. 

In this situation, negative impressions and stereotypes accumulate among the elite. Instead of looking at what new things they can implement, they focus on the few issues where there has been a deadlock for years. They only see the negative, forming a frustrated attitude. And they look for ways to gain bargaining power to impose their will.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the strength in dealing with a neighbour like Romania (or Bulgaria) comes from learning not to accumulate power, from the process of unlearn.

Not the accumulation of more and more power, but the ability to redefine our desires, flexibility and distance from domination are the approaches that can enable the birth of a new Romanian-Bulgarian relationship. In this way, the other side can see that there is a new way of thinking on the other side, oriented towards creating opportunities rather than holding back.

The motivation for relations with the neighbour across the Danube or on the other side of Dobrogea depends on each person seeing in these relations an individually defined potential and meaning. For me personally, neighbours offer an opportunity to experience something that is hard to find in our country. Because at home we are inevitably placed in a social cage, built through our socialization. And if we don’t have the opportunity to redefine ourselves or our social role, relationships with the world “beyond” can come to our aid. They can be helpful, including in escaping or limiting the hegemony within us, the sense of hierarchy and dominance characteristic of many organisations and structures. After all, relations with neighbours represent an opportunity for change, including social change. 

Bulgarians or Romanians know their neighbours better than they know each other. The obscurity that they represent for each other can be transformed into an opportunity for something new, if there is will and understanding for the window of opportunity.

The Friendship Bridge between Rousse and Giurgiu.

There is something wrong in understanding that there are eternal Bulgarians, Serbs, Macedonians, Romanians etc. who have no eternal friends, but have eternal interests and respectively repeat the same geopolitical games constantly. Thus, geopolitical understanding in our region is based on power relations, on hegemony. My thesis is that we are not eternal and fixed. And before we impose our will on our neighbours, we must first understand who we are. And it is good to understand this in the context of an ongoing process and to build ourselves together with our neighbours, not as an island surrounded by enemies. 

If we decide that we are an island, it will mean looking for a big brother to subcontract with in the region, fighting against the subcontractors of other big brothers. The history of south-eastern Europe in the 20th century shows that too much energy is spent on dominating each other and entangling each other. Today we are not just pawns of our own state or someone else’s global rule.

We also have our own private, personal subjectivity. And this is where I expect us to slowly build bridges of friendship and dynamic identity. Practically, relations with neighbours allow a continuous effort of redefinition and becoming that can bring us closer to the centre of knowledge – Europe/West. This is also the way to make Bulgaria-Romania and our regions great again, in a modern, peaceful and non-hegemonic way!

This article was first published on The Bridge of Friendship – Vladimir Mitev’s blog devoted to peaceful and fruitful Bulgarian-Romanian relations.

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