Vessela Tcherneva: Bulgaria and Romania should modernize with Western European support

In the first part of the interview, the conversation focuses on several contradictions that mark politics in Southeastern Europe: between economic dynamics and security as guiding foreign policy considerations, between international and national capital and between Europhiles and sovereignists, between techno-populists and conservative populists

The Bridge of Friendship, 14 January 2023

The contradiction between economic dynamics and security unfolded after the war in Ukraine. It is important for Bulgaria and Romania to continue to modernise their economies through economic contacts with Western Europe, said Vessela Tcherneva of the European Council on Foreign Relations – Sofia, in an interview with the blog The Bridge of Friendship.

According to Vessela Tcherneva, the oligarchisation of the Bulgarian economy determines people’s attitude towards the transition. It creates inequalities and the feeling that the rules do not apply to everyone. Tcherneva believes that Romania, with its anti-corruption fight, has shown that a big push towards modernisation of the political system is possible. “It is telling that at the moment trust in the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office is very low. If we can talk about bypassing this institution, the European prosecutor’s office (headed by the former head of Romania’s anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, Laura Köveși) “is seen as the alterantive,” Tcherneva is convinced.

The political elite in Bulgaria seems unchangeable because of the oligarchic influence on it, she says. This allows all kinds of undue outside interference. In a state of information warfare, the environment in Bulgaria is very susceptible to Russian influence because of this corrupt background. When there is no foreign investment in media, when foreign investors are treated more like a foreign body, Bulgarian institutions create a state within the state and so foreign interests can easily be pushed through, Vesela Tcherneva explains.

Ms Tcherneva, I invite you to a discussion about Bulgaria and Romania in a geopolitical context and a discussion that will perhaps examine concepts and contradictions through which to think about relations in our region.

I would like to start with the fact that our region – Bulgaria, Romania, South-Eastern Europe – has attracted a lot of European investment in the last two decades. This is a source of economic dynamism that our countries definitely need. At the same time, however, the war in Ukraine reinforces another element in the politics of these two countries – security. Why do I contrast them in this way? Perhaps it is somewhat strange that they are opposed, but economic dynamism in general, at least from my point of view, is linked to an integration of the region outside the European Union into our region. And we can see that, in Romania, foreign investment is mostly from Germany, France and Italy – countries that, before the war in Ukraine, had good relations with Russia, including economic cooperation with it. The war in Ukraine has actually changed this and forced a break in the strong economic ties, for example, in the energy sector with Russia. We see a contradiction between economic dynamics and security. How do you see this balance between economic dynamics and security in our region? How has it changed since the war in Ukraine?

Perhaps we could start from this contradiction – as you call it – this tension between economic growth and security considerations. It came to light last year after the start of the Russian attack in Ukraine and the subsequent hostilities. It has not only manifested itself in our region, but has played out with much greater clarity in the industrial heart of Europe, namely Germany. It has also unfolded in other central and western European countries. That is to say, all those plans that Europe was making to base its economic growth on cheap Russian energy have, in fact, proved impossible to implement. Firstly, because, of course, Gazprom has phased out supplies to Europe, except, in fact, for Turkish Stream, which continues to operate, and partly for the old pipe through Ukraine. And the other big reason was that the countries realized that dependence on Russia and dependence on one supplier in general could not provide sustained growth, or at least that dependence made the countries very vulnerable in a way that they have not been perhaps since the end of World War II. European economic growth over the last six or seven decades has had to be rethought and this is a major transformation.

If we go back to our region, here, although growth rates are higher, they are, of course, from a much lower base. And in that sense to say so is more painless by falling from a low than by falling from a very high. And that’s why a sudden halt in Russian energy supplies can be overcome relatively easily. In the sense that, for example, Bulgarian gas consumption for industrial purposes is relatively small, the volumes are relatively small. Romania, on the other hand, has its own sources. For Romania, the challenge has been more of a regional one, particularly in relation to Moldova. A big conclusion that I think both countries drew was that diversification is possible in practice. It can happen quickly, and even the old Soviet pipes can be used, which, instead of supplying energy from north to south, can be reversed and used from south to north.

In my view, this is the future of energy transformation in our region, together, of course, with the green transformation and the modernisation of our economies, which I think will lead to a return to this increased economic cooperation with high-tech countries in Western Europe that you mentioned at the beginning. The moment that our two countries begin to implement, intensively, the green recovery and modernisation plans in practice, these policies will also have their effect on foreign investment. Of course, the big variable is still and will continue to be the war in Ukraine.

Green energy is linked to a more technological capitalism, and in this respect I see another contradiction that is also specific to our region. On the one hand we have so-called corporations or foreign capital. These are companies that operate in many countries in the world and they usually have divisions in our countries that trade, supply goods and so on. On the other hand, we have the so-called national capital, which is perhaps associated in Bulgaria with the so-called parties of corruption. There is a legend that the oligarchy in Bulgaria is deeply corrupt and that this elite that it has created in politics must be purged. In Romania, in the same way, there was a contradiction in the time of the fight against corruption and of Laura Kövesi between these tendencies, and in the end we saw that. In both Romania and Bulgaria, the attempts of the corporate sector to take power in politics and modernise or purge the political scene of the so-called dinosaurs of transition seem to have had limited success. How do you see this dynamic between these two big business sectors in the economy of each country in the region?

I absolutely agree with your comment that the oligarchization of the Bulgarian economy has largely marked the quality of the transition in Bulgaria and the public’s assessment of the transition. To this day, this evaluation somehow seems to be becoming more and more negative, because people do not accept not only the great social division that was created as a result of this oligarchisation, but they also do not accept the lack of fairness, the understanding that the rules do not apply equally to everyone. That is why Romania is, in a sense, an example for many people in Bulgaria, because there it was seen that politicians are not untouchable and that the oligarchy cannot simply own the state or cannot seize it to use it.

If I may make one remark, in Romania the fight against corruption has been stopped by the state itself, by the Romanians themselves.

Ultimately, yes. But there was still a big push, a big attempt. The fact that Laura Kövesi became a European prosecutor proves many things in itself, at least from the Bulgarian point of view. It is telling that at the moment, the credibility of the Bulgarian prosecution service is very low. If we can talk about some kind of shortcut or some kind of circumvention of this obstacle, then undoubtedly the European Public Prosecutor’s Office is seen as such an alternative. How quickly, with what scope and so on is another matter, because we know that its prerogatives are limited to the use of European funds.

But let us return to the question of national capital and foreign capital. In a captured state, as Bulgaria largely is and has been in recent decades, this oligarchic elite, or this soldering between the oligarchy and the political elite, has largely created a corrupt background at the high levels of power that seems almost unchangeable. In my opinion, the other aspect of this background, apart from public distrust, is that Bulgarian institutions are becoming very easily accessible to all kinds of, let us say, malicious or unlawful external interference. Both in a state of hybrid warfare and in a state of information warfare, we see that the environment in countries like ours, especially in Bulgaria in recent months, is very susceptible to Russian influence because of this corrupt background. In other words, when there is no foreign investment, including in the media, when foreign investors are rather treated as a foreign body, the Bulgarian institutions create a state within the state where it is very easy to be able to insert, to push foreign interests.

This contradiction is somewhat related to another one, which has many faces. On the one hand, we have more pronounced Europhile tendencies in some of the political forces in society. On the other hand, there are some tendencies that are more linked to a kind of conservative populism, techno-populism versus conservative populism. This is perhaps one of the faces in the Biden era of this contradiction.

There is also a third category, who claim to be Europhiles, but who act in the opposite way. And actually this category I think it’s the most difficult to assess. In fact, we have in recent years been living in precisely an environment in which, apart from the extreme national populists who are on the far left and the far right, the middle is largely dominated by a, shall we say, pseudo pro-European majority whose main motto is: ‘We will do what we want, we will say what needs to be said’. And, in fact, this is, in my view, the basis of a potential Euroscepticism that is developing, because people see that somehow this type of behaviour, including finds acceptance and approval in European political families. And not only that. The pathos that we are going to do our petty shenanigans while the Europeans turn a blind eye to us, this becomes an example of behaviour for society as a whole. So to me this is actually in some ways even the more dangerous category than that of extreme national-populists.

Let me remind you that after the overthrow of GERB or during the protests, there were publications, including a report sponsored by the European Left Party of Albena Azmanova stating that the European Commission itself was complicit in the violation of the rule of law in Bulgaria. This is perhaps another contradiction – between ideals or standards on the one hand and political expediency on the other.

Expediency or opportunism, which finds its practical dimension in talks about funds in fact. What we seem to have forgotten is that when Bulgaria applied for membership of the European Union in the 1990s, the main motivation and driving force of both the public and the elites then was that of rules, that we wanted to be part of a community of rules and of rights. And yes, of course, also of economic catching up. But now we seem to have forgotten much of that motivation. We talk about the European Union as a cash cow. And that is precisely the material dimension of this expediency.

Photo: Frankfurt is the financial heart of the eurozone (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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