Iulian Mareș: The Balkans do not have a culture of cooperation, but they have a special energy of revival, which we must use

Interview with the President of Balkan Development Support on Romania’s foreign policy in South-East Europe: Moldova, Turkey, Bulgaria and the Western Balkans, rhetoric and facts in Romania’s regional relations

– The spirit of collaboration is not very characteristic of the Balkan region in a genuine or sustainable way. We don’t have this historical exercise. And I think that is compounded by the example set by Turkey in the region, which is precisely an example of insular thinking. There is this temptation to copy what Turkey does and how it does it, ignoring the fact that smaller or less developed countries do not have all the resources of all kinds that Turkey has, especially human resources and know-how – says Iulian Mareș is the city manager of Fierbinți-Târg and president of Balkan Development Support, an organisation that develops human relations between Romanians and Montenegrins. He sat down with Bridge of Friendship, offering a beyond-cliché perspective on international relations in Southern Europe.

Mr Mareș, you are involved in an organisation that promotes Romanian-Montenegrin relations. What are the considerations or benchmarks of Romanian foreign policy with regard to the Western Balkans and Montenegro? What does Romania seek to achieve in this area, what does it perceive as a danger and what does it perceive as an achievement?

Our organisation is called Balkan Development Support and is a non-governmental association set up by Romanian and Montenegrin friends. We don’t have the express aim of promoting Romanian-Montenegrin relations, if this happens, it is collateral to our objectives. We founded this association … somehow to make up for an insufficient involvement on the part of governmental organizations, as we have felt and observed on many occasions. By statute, our association aims at bilateral collaboration, but at the level of local communities, where there is a real need for progress, in the economic, educational, cultural sense. And not only between Romania and Montenegro, but between any of the Balkan states. 

As regards the benchmarks of Romania’s foreign policy towards the Western Balkans, in particular with regard to Montenegro, I can only have the opinion of an outside observer, in which capacity I can say that Romania is not seeking to achieve much in this area, since it is limited to having an economic advisor who is simultaneously responsible for representing Romanian interests in four states. It is unrealistic to think that anyone can perform under these conditions. Hungary has two economic advisers in Montenegro alone, unlike Romania, which has one responsible for four countries in the region.

If I have to support my opinion with an additional argument, then I would add that all the proposals for projects and cooperation that our association has sent in the last three years to both the Romanian and the Montenegrin authorities have remained unanswered.

On the other hand, we have noticed that the Romanian embassy in Podgorica has become much more active in the last two years, since there are new people there sent by the MFA, a new ambassador, a new minister counsellor …

What he perceives as a danger and what he perceives as an achievement … again, I am speaking as an outside observer: the danger is the same that the entire European Union perceives, I am referring to Russian influence, from this point of view Montenegro is a special case. As far as achievements are concerned, I am not aware of any notable ones as a result of Romania’s involvement in the Western Balkans region, so I don’t think it is something to be perceived.

To what extent does Romania’s foreign policy have the same benchmarks and considerations when it comes to Turkey? Turkey has recently emerged as a mediator between “West” and “East” amid its strategic ambiguity. What does this assertion and approach mean for Romania? Will Romania itself become more ambiguous as it develops relations with states that are Western in nuance or even ambiguous in their geopolitical choices? What does Romania seek to achieve with regard to Turkey and why is it shying away?

Romania’s relationship with Turkey is incomparably more consistent. However, there is a strategic partnership between the two countries, if I remember correctly, and it is a concrete one. I don’t know how ambiguous Turkey’s “strategic ambiguity” is … it’s debatable. I was in Istanbul this year and I can say without a doubt that it is one thing to perceive the reality on the ground, it is another to perceive it from a distance. For example, I found that the industrial park business in Istanbul is more integrated with the economy of Germany and other European countries than is the case in Romania. There are big differences in terms of volume, I am referring to the delivery of products from Turkey to the European market, I am referring to the number of Turkish engineers working in the European Union and other aspects of this kind. There is certainly a strategic ambiguity in Turkey, but it is only in the form of foreign policy experiments, with relative results in my opinion, and these have a limited margin of the economic reality I mentioned. Returning for a moment to Montenegro, the volume of Turkish investment in this Balkan state is remarkable, especially the speed with which it has been realised.

To explain better … beyond the external prestige that President Erdogan wants, the real Turkey wants something else, it wants to make money. I counted 14 Turkish companies that have applied for tenders for large road infrastructure projects in Romania and another 3 Turkish companies interested in participating in the construction of new metro lines in Bucharest. I dare say there is no ambiguity in this situation.

I don’t think Romania could become more ambiguous in its geopolitical choices, there is no such risk. On the contrary, I am of the opinion that the Romanian governmental institutions that formulate or participate in Romania’s foreign policy have been in a comfort zone for a long time and will not be coming out of this comfort zone any time soon. Thirty years have passed since the fall of the communist regime that existed in Romania and we still do not have foreign policy initiatives leading to the recovery of areas in the world where there was Romanian influence before 1990. I am referring to the Middle East, to Africa, to South America. Other countries in Central and Eastern Europe have returned to such areas, by which I mean Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Relations with the Republic of Moldova are the main regional vector of Romanian foreign policy. Romania also seems to be aligning its European foreign policy towards Chisinau, for example through the so-called Moldova Platform (together with Germany and France), but also through its other activities. But Romania also has a more populist current towards the Republic of Moldova, which appeals to Romanianism, to fraternity between the people on both sides of the Prut, and one of its representatives was even George Simion of AUR. To what extent does this tension between the European approach and the more autochthonistic and nationalist/populist approach towards the Republic of Moldova negate each other and to what extent do they affirm each other as if they are two hands of the same body?

Here, things are more mixed … indeed, the Republic of Moldova is the major subject of Romania’s foreign policy, which is natural for multiple reasons. What is not natural, however, is to neglect other subjects or to use them as leverage in the file that says “Republic of Moldova”. There have been situations where Romania has made its support for European projects in the Western Balkans conditional on receiving support for the Republic of Moldova in return. Theoretically, it is not wrong to negotiate, but with discernment. Not everywhere and at all times is it appropriate to invoke the special status that the Republic of Moldova has for Romania.

There has been a long period of time in which Romanian interests towards the Republic of Moldova have been sacrificed for the sake of this state’s European trajectory, and Bucharest has promoted the European Union’s vision more than its own. And after all those years, the results of the European approach have been modest, to put it politely. The reality is that Western European states have long had interests that were not necessarily congruent with Romania’s with regard to the Republic of Moldova, which they saw more as a buffer zone between the European Union and the Russian Federation. It took more than a decade for western EU countries such as Germany, France and the Netherlands to be convinced that there was a prospect of European integration for Chisinau. And all this time, Bucharest has been soft on Moldova, the very idea of promoting Romanian interests was self-censored.

George Simion is a character cast in various roles and I believe that as he appeared, so will he disappear. AUR had disastrous electoral results in the Republic of Moldova, let’s not forget. That says everything about how “successful” a possible nationalist-populist approach from Romania would be there, although I firmly believe that such a thing is not coming from Romania, if it exists at all. Looking at the agenda that AUR is promoting in Romania, I would say that it seems to be a Russian-inspired Trojan horse, rather, a horse that tried to cross the Prut as well, but drowned.

I would like to make one thing clear: as far as the Republic of Moldova is concerned, there is no European approach that is antagonistic to a Romanian approach. I would even say that the two have never been more convergent than now. So, the tension you refer to no longer exists and in any case it was not between a so-called nationalist-populist (bad) approach and a European (good) approach. Let’s look at the 30 years of young democracy in Romania, we see that nationalist parties with extremist agenda are not to the liking of Romanians, they only lasted if they kept their electoral ambitions to a niche quota, practically the moment they approached the 2nd or 3rd places they collapsed in the elections.

You are the manager of a city geographically close to Bucharest, where an administrative innovation recommended by the World Bank and the European Commission – the so-called “functional zone” – is developing. What does “functional zone” mean in theory and how does it apply in practice to you? To what extent does this innovation allow for regional interaction, for example with administrative areas in Bulgaria?

In short, a functional area is a smaller metropolitan area set up around a city that is not a municipality. It is a new form of organisation that the European Commission is proposing, with the aim of stimulating the integrated development of several localities, usually a city and the surrounding municipalities. Basically, it’s about taking a unified approach to public investment projects and even pooling resources to achieve an aggregation effect.

As well as what is a functional area, it also matters what is not. It is not a change in the administrative-territorial situation of the respective localities. It is not a radical step like what the emergence of metropolitan areas has meant in other countries. Unfortunately, in Romania there is a reluctance to take such a step forward. Probably for political or electoral reasons, they are delaying the administrative integration of small or smaller localities around large cities into fully-fledged metropolitan areas, because it would mean the abolition of dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of town halls.

You ask me whether this concept of a functional area could be applied in an administrative interaction between Romania and Bulgaria … in theory, yes. But, you see, here they are hesitant to apply them even within Romania’s borders, so … it is a long way to go before we have Romanian-Bulgarian functional areas. I can honestly tell you that I thought about this in the summer, when I travelled to Balchik and drove through Vama Veche. I was struck by the fact that the landscape is almost the same between the Romanian and Bulgarian sides, including its modern elements, such as the wind turbines present in both countries. But there are differences in infrastructure development, there are differences in consumer power, in the circulation of goods on the market. All these differences can be bridged to the benefit of both sides. 

In our part of Europe, there is an emerging alignment between Poland and Ukraine on the one hand and Russia and Turkey on the other. How do you see the current state of Romanian-Bulgarian relations in this context? To what extent do both countries have the infrastructure to develop a deepening of relations at a time when they are probably only recently considering the issue of a mutual opening and overcoming insular thinking?

The alignment of Poland and Ukraine is certain and I believe it will lead to spectacular development in the long term. But I do not believe in the alignment of Turkey and Russia, this can only be on matters of conjuncture. The scope of Turkey’s foreign and economic policy is wide enough that an alignment with Russia would more confuse Ankara than help. Besides, Russia has many domestic problems that Turkey does not. There are too many differences between the two countries for a supposed Turkish-Russian alignment to be realistic.

However, I note the idea of insular thinking that you talk about. It does exist. And it will continue to exist. You know that the spirit of collaboration is not very characteristic of the Balkan region in a genuine or sustainable way. We don’t have this historical exercise. And I think that is compounded by the example set by Turkey in the region, which is precisely an example of insular thinking, if I may say so. In the logic of the state policy that Ankara has now, Turkey can only be alone and above everyone else.

There is this temptation to copy what Turkey does and how it does it, ignoring the fact that smaller or less developed countries do not have all the resources of all kinds that Turkey has, especially human resources and know-how. With regard to the latter in particular, I am of the opinion that Romania and Bulgaria have a know-how deficit, in the sense of making effective use of the knowledge accumulated over time and the valuable human resource.

I am convinced that cooperation between Romania and Bulgaria, and between Bulgaria and Romania respectively, must be developed. I have recently noticed some initiatives to boost the dialogue, but it is a late start and it does not seem to be more than a tactful exploration of the interest that is or is not on both sides. I mean… there is still a long way to go, as they say in Romania.

You know, I feel like saying that we are, in Romania and Bulgaria, specialists in seeing things darker than they really are, some even whiter than they really are. We should realise that both countries have, to varying degrees and with varying nuances, too many politicians who are happy to beat about the bush. Unfortunately, public opinion in both countries is swayed by all sorts of stories and mystifications, which prevents us from realising the speed at which things are changing or preparing to change in other parts of Europe. Having fallen behind, we risk widening the gap rather than narrowing it.

Romania has a traditional friendship with Serbia, which has its historical basis in different eras. Lately, however, it seems that Serbia is turning towards Western competitors such as Russia and China, while from a Euro-Atlantic point of view Bulgaria is emerging as a regional ally. How is this development viewed in Romania? Shouldn’t Bulgaria and the Bulgarians be more clearly open towards the Romanians? And couldn’t Bulgaria and Romania together play a positive role for Serbia in the current circumstances?

… you have too high questions for me 🙂)) I say let’s see things from the perspective of ordinary people.

I have come across paradoxical situations, such as when Serbian friends of mine have been in Bucharest for years as employees of multinationals from Western Europe, from which they received salaries far higher than what they could have received in Serbia and, despite the evidence, often criticized the West and the European Union. I cannot understand such attitudes.

No one can play a more positive role for Serbia than Serbia itself. And so far the reality on the ground in Serbia says otherwise.

From my point of view, the foreign policy that Serbia is pursuing now and has pursued for the last ten years, let’s say, is just a poor copy of the champion position that Yugoslavia had in the movement of non-aligned countries. I understand that Serbia suffered a trauma with the NATO bombings, but I also do not see that the political leaders that the Serbian people later elected would want to find ways to heal this trauma. I have had the opportunity to research what happened before the bombings and much of the blame still lies with Serbian politicians, not exclusively of course. If the whole thing was a geopolitical trap, as some claim, that Serbia was tricked, was betrayed … well, then it was a trap that was jumped into headlong and without regard for the consequences.

Without regard for the consequences either for itself, Serbia, or for the other states of the former Yugoslavia. What I believe is that Serbia killed Yugoslavia and killed the spirit that founded the Yugoslav federation. There were decision-makers in all the republics included in the federation who hoped until the last moment that Yugoslavia would hold on and fought for it, but they were too few compared to the decision-makers in Serbia who hammered nails into the coffin of the federation.

Yes, Romania has a traditional friendship with Serbia, with deep historical roots and embodied in many great projects carried out together during the communist period. After 1990, however, the paths were very different. I believe that Serbia could do more to honour its traditional friendship with Romania and not remain just a memory in the history books. I also believe that in today’s strategic, political, economic and cultural context, it is more realistic to propose a deepening of Romanian-Bulgarian and Bulgarian-Romanian relations.

You have had experiences with the Bulgarians and other Balkan peoples – from the Turks to the peoples of the Western Balkans. What is the common denominator of the diverse interests in our region? To what extent does it have untapped resources that our states and societies can turn into dynamism and development? What are the main obstacles to deepening regional relations?

The common denominator that all of us in the Balkan region should have is to reduce the economic development gap with the western part of the European Union. However, there is no major policy to this effect in Romania or Bulgaria. We still have the false modesty to avoid admitting that we are lagging behind. It would be good to take the example of post-war Japan, the political realism from which reconstruction in that country started.

Reducing this gap is, beyond the obvious benefits it would generate, a tool we need to reach a second common denominator: our affirmation as a bloc, as a group of Balkan states that are members of the European Union or NATO. The Baltics have their geographical solidarity, the Scandinavians too, the Central Europeans certainly do, even if it is not so visible.

However, we are together at one edge of this world. We have a unique cultural identity, the Balkan one, from which I am convinced great things can come. The Balkan energy is special, how good it would be to put it on clear and common lines …

I believe in the transformative power of culture, I believe that solid material things can come out of culture. The challenge for us is to realise once and for all, in a serious way, the cultural value of the Balkans, the power of reinvigoration born here over the centuries and the trajectories on which we should place our capacity for effort. What I say is not utopian, it is within our power.

Let’s start from what people want. What I have seen in Bulgaria, in Romania, in Serbia, in Montenegro … is people’s thirst for better. I have seen their need for hope. I have seen the hopelessness of many. When a person tearfully tells you something about his or her country and his or her life in that country … that is worth much more than anything a politician says. I say let’s make it better for all of us in the Balkans.

Photo: Iulian Mareș (source: Iulian Mareș) 

This text has been first published on Vladimir Mitev’s blog The Bridge of Friendship, dedicated to the development of regional cooperation and mutual understanding in the Balkans, on 25 November 2022.

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