Radko Vlaykov: Bulgaria has a worthy place in Romania’s future intentions
The Bulgarian ambassador in Bucharest spoke to Radio Bulgaria about the new stage in Bulgarian-Romanian relations and the Bulgarian communities in our northern neighbour
From February 2022 Radko Vlaykov is the Bulgarian Ambassador to Romania. He is born on 29 April 1956 in Sofia. Previously, between August 2016 and December 2020, he was Ambassador to Serbia. He was Ambassador for Special Assignments at the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (May 2021 – February 2022) and Spokesman of the same Ministry (March 1994 – July 2001). He speaks English, German, Czech and Russian.
Ambassador Radko Vlaykov gave an interview to Radio Bulgaria on a number of topical issues in the Bulgarian-Romanian relations: the upgrading of their rank to a strategic partnership, the development of common infrastructural projects, the cooperation for the accession to the Schengen area and the ideas for a Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen, the current situation of the Bulgarian communities in Romania, the issue of reciprocal opening of cultural centers and the opening of a tourist information center for Bulgaria in Romania, etc. The Bridge of Friendship blog published the full interview, which can be heard in an abridged version here (in Bulgarian). The conversation with H.E. Ambassador Vlajkov took place at the end of March 2023, when it was still unknown exactly when the Giurgiu-Ruse ferry would start operating. In April 2023, it was announced that it would be operational in one month.
Mr. Ambassador, Thank you for accepting the invitation for this interview. Let us start first with a general overview of the state of Bulgarian-Romanian relations at the moment. During the reception for Bulgaria’s national holiday in Bucharest in early March 2023 you mentioned that the two nations have rediscovered each other. What is the current state of Bulgarian-Romanian relations in all the important aspects related to politics, economy, culture, defence, etc.?
I will start with this expression that I used and that you quoted about the rediscovery of the two peoples. I am convinced that something happened in the last 25-30 years after the beginning of the changes in Bulgaria and Romania. At the heart of this reinvention was a change in the mentality of each of our peoples. We have returned to our European roots in mentality. I suppose people are clearly aware that the changes that have taken place in Bulgaria, in Romania, in the 20th century, in the last 20 or 30 years, have been very much linked to a change of mentality, a change of mindset, a change through discovering and embracing European values. This change has brought the two peoples closer together. We no longer look at each other with prejudice and we look at what binds us together. I am talking about relations between ordinary people.
It is natural that when ordinary people want and need more contact, politicians respond. In recent years, we have begun to reinvent ourselves as countries and as potential partners for developing our cooperation. Relations after the changes in Bulgaria and Romania, and especially after the entry of the two countries into the European Union on 1 January 2007, have always been good, but they have never been intense enough to exploit their potential, which could be in the interests of the people of both countries. I believe that in recent years this has been realised and work has begun to be done in this direction.
The political relations that you asked me about are at a very good level. Of course, in recent years there have been periods of decline and periods of more active political dialogue, which has also depended on the internal political situation in Bulgaria and Romania over the years, which have sometimes diverged in time. One side of the situation has been more stable, while on the other side there have been big fluctuations. However, when we talk about these political relations, I think it is clear to everyone now that the political dialogue between Bulgaria and Romania, regardless of who is in power, depends on the conscious struggle of politicians for good relations between Bulgaria and Romania.
Here I cannot miss to mention the excellent contacts that exist between the presidents of the two countries – Klaus Iohannis and Rumen Radev. Their active contact and their concern for the hitherto untapped opportunities between Bulgaria and Romania have recently contributed to these relations being noted as very good and positive indeed.
As far as economic relations are concerned, we are very satisfied with the level of development of these relations. Trade between the two countries is growing steadily. Last year, according to various statistics, trade was over EUR 8-8.5 billion. Romania is definitely Bulgaria’s second largest foreign trade partner, and Bulgaria ranks between third and fourth in Romania’s foreign trade partners. And now very serious signals for people who understand economics can draw very serious conclusions from these figures. Of course, this is a wonderful basis for moving forward. These excellent economic results have been achieved in a context of transport connectivity problems between the two countries – with only two bridges and two land border crossings. This is a very good result. But, again, I say this is a great basis to move forward. The other relations you are asking me about are in the field of culture, in the field of relations between universities and between municipalities. They are really developing according to the activity of the individual actors. My ambition as ambassador is to work together with the embassy team in Bucharest to have more of these direct contacts that will contribute to people-to-people relations.
In mid-March, the presidents of the two countries signed a declaration on strategic partnership. What content will this declaration fulfil? What projects and initiatives are next so that it can take on a life of its own in practice?
On 15 March 2023, during an official visit of the President of Romania Klaus Iohannis to Sofia, the Presidents of Bulgaria and Romania signed a joint political declaration on strategic partnership. First, a few words on the importance of this document. Bulgaria is in the group of countries to which Romania attaches the greatest importance in its relations: the United States, France, Spain, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Japan and several other countries. You can see for yourselves that listing these countries shows that Bulgaria occupies a very worthy place in the future intentions of our neighbours. Romania, of course, occupies a very serious place among our strategic partners and geopolitical priorities.
It is important for me to know that this declaration is based on the 1992 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighbourliness between the Republic of Bulgaria and Romania. Last year, we celebrated with joint initiatives on both sides and a concert in Sofia and Bucharest, a joint exhibition and so on a series of initiatives mainly under the aegis of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, in addition to this treaty, we also jointly celebrated, within the framework of these initiatives, the 15th anniversary of Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union.
So the current declaration of strategic partnership is based on a solid foundation. This foundation has provided a framework for 30 years. Now we are building on that framework. It is very important to note that several factors have led to an agreement in principle between the Presidents of the two countries on this declaration of strategic partnership. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs then agreed on the final text, which was signed by the two Presidents. I would say that the declaration, and the strategic partnership established between Bulgaria and Romania in general, has in a sense overcome the lag of the past in developing this huge potential in various areas, such as transport and infrastructure connectivity. This strategic partnership not only takes into account, but also gives a new direction to increase this path of these wonderful results that we are talking about in the area of trade between the two countries. The responsibility of Bulgaria and Romania is constantly increasing, not only for the joint relationship, but also for the interaction between them within NATO and the European Union. This responsibility is shared by both countries.
The point is that the war in Ukraine acted in a sense as a catalyst for this relationship and for the understanding of this responsibility. Our cooperation in the Black Sea region and especially on the eastern flank of NATO is particularly important. The two countries clearly not only share this common responsibility, but also agree to take concrete action.
I would also like to underline that the political declaration on strategic partnership, in addition to the general guidelines for the development of relations for a long period of time ahead, contains the firm intentions of the two countries to work on some issues that I would say are of a short-term nature. One of these issues relates to Schengen. The two countries have confirmed, both as a declaration and in the statements of the two Presidents or other declarations by politicians from both countries, the common desire to continue to coordinate in order to achieve the joint priority objective of full membership of Schengen, and both countries start from the understanding that our permanent contribution, both Bulgaria’s and Romania’s, must be recognised, and ensuring the security of the external borders of the European Union.
As is known, for more than 11 years both Bulgaria and Romania have met the technical criteria for Schengen membership. Both countries share some disagreement and disappointment with the fact that, in addition to the technical criteria, political criteria are being applied which have so far delayed our Schengen membership. However, what is also important for me is the desire expressed by the Presidents and contained in the declaration for Bulgaria and Romania to continue to defend their Schengen membership together. This is a very important area of our cooperation with a short-term character against the background of the strategic dimension of the operation of the issue of signing two agreements, which are in fact both ready.
This is the Fast Danube project, which enables year-round navigation on the river and the construction of a new railway passenger bridge in the Ruse-Giurgiu area. I can emphasise that we expect both documents to be signed within the next few months, and they will indeed be a new impetus in the cooperation between the two countries and a practical development of our common philosophy that the Danube should not divide us. It should connect us, so in this sense, it is very important that the intentions noted in the declaration to build further fields for further transport and infrastructure connectivity between the two countries. I might also point out that the moment that has arisen, not only for our two countries, but for the whole world since one year ago, is related to the war in Ukraine, has presented us, without wanting to use this cliché, but obviously I do, with new challenges. The declaration pays very serious attention to the common understanding of Bulgaria and Romania with regard to the war in Ukraine.
Both countries condemn Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and the assessment that this is one of the most serious violations of the principles of international law. Bulgaria and Romania will go forward in their strong and full support for the independence and sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders. There is a clarification here, including territorial waters, and its right of self-defence. These are important messages, as Bulgaria and Romania reaffirm their commitment not only to support Ukraine and its people, but also to help create such preconditions within international organisations so that such aggressions are impossible in the future. An important element of the declaration is military-political dialogue at all levels and enhanced bilateral defence cooperation. Virtually the entire declaration is imbued with an emphasis on the practical value of such cooperation in addition to purely political intentions. But as I have already mentioned in the area of defence and security, the intentions of both sides are very important. The declared willingness to cooperate in the area of internal affairs on preventing and countering cross-border crime, joint efforts to facilitate cross-border trafficking, improving emergency response capacity and so on.
The two countries clearly and firmly state that they will continue to work together to have a strong and sustainable European Union. The intentions of both countries and their willingness to work towards joining the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development are marked. Here again, like Schengen, the intention of both countries to consult, to support each other, to cooperate in this process in general, is noted. Mechanisms of cooperation are listed which are appropriate to both very close neighbours, partners and allies. Naturally, the list of the fabric of cooperation areas in this strategic framework is very long. But what I want to emphasise emphatically is that we welcome this document and see it as a new phase of our relations over a long period of time.
You mentioned that Bulgaria and Romania will cooperate more in the area of defence and security, including in the context of the war in Ukraine. What is the current level of cooperation in these areas and what more is envisaged now that this declaration has been signed?
Both in the framework of bilateral cooperation and within NATO, defence and security cooperation between Bulgaria and Romania is constantly expanding with new forms. This is the participation of Bulgarian servicemen in leading positions in the NATO structures being built up in Romania. We need to increase the number of joint exercises, including in the Black Sea, various initiatives relating to different aspects of security in the Black Sea. Both countries must actively work to contribute and assume their responsibilities on NATO’s eastern flank. This is extremely important and it is this declaration that allows them to assume their responsibility. It has that practical dimension that I mentioned – much more concrete cooperation, much more participation in joint exercises, in building up and modernising the armies of both countries. These are issues that are really strategic, both for each country and in the aspect of our cooperation.
Another topic we touched on is that an agreement is about to be signed for a new bridge at Ruse, Giurgiu and Fast Danube. A ferry between Ruse and Giurgiu was expected to be operational as early as last summer, and the signing of this agreement on the Ruse-Giurgiu bridge was also expected, as I recall, as early as last autumn, to happen. What is the reason for the delay in these initiatives?
As for the ferry between Ruse and Giurgiu, it existed in the past. It ceased operations in 2007 and about 5 years ago the two countries resumed their intentions to make this ferry operational. After many discussions, we have come to the common understanding that a new agreement should be signed. The two countries had a different approach. The Bulgarian understanding was that this ferry simply had to resume operations, because the infrastructure existed and still exists on the Bulgarian side, and therefore there is capacity suitable for ferry vessels. Whereas, on the Romanian side, this no longer existed, which is why we accepted the offer of our Romanian partners. And last year, on 29 April 2022, an agreement was signed for a ferry connection between Ruse and Giurgiu.
I can say that one of the reasons to rush with this agreement is the continuous need for major repairs that are being done on the Bulgarian or Romanian side of the existing bridge between Ruse and Giurgiu. The ferry link could absorb some of the enormously increased truck traffic. Around a quarter of the average number of trucks that pass through this bridge could be accommodated by this ferry, so it is in the interest of both sides to make this ferry operational. I could say that I personally went on three inspections in Ruse. But on the Bulgarian side, again, I say the infrastructure is there and for us it is really a question of getting the computers installed and starting real work. On the Romanian side, construction work is being carried out on the ship building itself. They have started dredging the approach for the ships, but I could not say exactly what the delay is due to. What I have been told on the spot are problems relating to the provision of electricity at the station. The need for new cables to replace it anyway, however, this delay has already been too long, because the three times that I went, it was last summer in May, June and September, and all three times I was assured by the Romanian side that within a month and a half the ferry would be operational. That period has now passed and we now expect our Romanian partners to show understanding that the summer season is approaching and that an additional obstacle is being created for the tens and hundreds of thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian tourists who use the bridge, which can be avoided in advance.
You asked me about the reasons for the delay of the agreement on the new Danube bridge in a second and of the project. I would like to express my great satisfaction that we have come to a political agreement, because this is an extremely big step in our relations. If we talk about the fact that the declaration on strategic partnership will go down in the history of modern relations between Bulgaria and Romania, in the same way, at the moment of signing the agreement on the new bridge, it will also go down in history between Bulgaria and Romania. I hope that this will happen within this year. There is often a discrepancy between the clearly expressed political will of the two presidents, prime ministers and ministers and the more bureaucratic approach of the experts. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing in this particular case is one such discrepancy, which is slowing down the whole process and giving the impression that you journalists obviously have, too, since you are asking me about the delay. I hope that this thing will be overcome. Of course, it is of great importance that there are governments in both countries that are prepared to sign these agreements. But again, I underline for me the achievement of an agreement in principle for such a bridge, which was reached on 26 September 2022 in Bucharest at the meeting of the position of the prime ministers of the two countries and the ministers of transport, Sorin Grindeanu and Hristo Alexiev. For me, this agreement is a breakthrough in our contemporary relations.
Another topic that is also addressed in the strategic agreement, and you have also mentioned it, is cooperation on joining the Schengen area. What more can the two countries do together so as to overcome the barrier and join Schengen? How do you view the declarations announced by some municipalities in northern Bulgaria calling for the abolition of border controls between Bulgaria and Romania, that is, some form of mini-Schengen between Bulgaria and Romania?
I think I mentioned at the beginning about the very active Schengen cooperation between the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice, Bulgaria and the Netherlands. And these three ministries of each of the countries have a bearing on the subject of Schengen. I can assure you that there is very serious coordination in our efforts, and this coordination is aimed at solving the specific problems relating to the position of Austria and, specifically, in the case of Bulgaria and the Netherlands.
However, this is not only a matter of our relations with Austria, but also relations with other Member States of the European Union. Common approaches are being sought, information is being exchanged and each of the two parties, I speak on behalf of Bulgaria, each of the two parties at each meeting lobbies for itself and for both parties.
I will give the example of the Austrian Chancellor’s visit to Bulgaria at the end of January and the tour he made of the border with Turkey. At that time, President Rumen Radev spoke strongly about Bulgaria and Romania being accepted into Schengen. The President of the European Council also visited here recently. Then, President Klaus Iohannis also mentioned the desire for both Romania and Bulgaria to be admitted.
So these are very important political gestures and political messages that show our partners that we are united, that we want to work together, that there is no competition between us as to which country comes first. Our common interest on both sides.
Let us imagine a hypothesis that one of the two countries, no matter which one becomes a member of the Schengen area before the other, let us imagine then the need to build a Schengen border along the Danube. That would make connectivity between the two countries extremely difficult. I firmly believe that the efforts being made by both Romania and Bulgaria will lead to this issue being finally resolved within this year. Naturally, this depends both on our own diligence and on the will of individual Member States as a whole to assert themselves this spring on the Ukrainian constitution and on other Member States.
It would indeed be unfair if this approach towards Bulgaria and Romania were to continue. We have shown extreme loyalty in protecting external borders, including towards Ukrainian refugees and refugees coming from the Middle East. Let me remind you that Bulgaria has also made concrete human sacrifices. Several police officers lost their lives protecting the borders of the European Union. If this is not appreciated, then there really is a problem with solidarity in the European Union.
New funds have been allocated for border security, which is something positive, of course, a moment, but it is also necessary to appreciate these sincere efforts of both Bulgaria and Romania, which are also related to human sacrifice, to the workload of the border guards and the other police officers who cross the migrant flows.
Let me note one fact that is very significant. After the great effort made by the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior and the Bulgarian police to stop the migrant flow and to apprehend the organisers of the migrant flows, we have very recent data. There are representatives of more than 18 countries involved in this illegal traffic. To make accusations against Bulgaria alone would be really frivolous, given that, of these 18 countries, more than half are from the European Union, citizens of the European Union. Now, of course, we should not link individual criminal acts and their perpetrators to specific countries.
But let us also reflect on the fact that Bulgaria cannot be blamed alone. Bulgaria should now be encouraged for its efforts to stop this organised crime, which is not Bulgarian or not Bulgarian, but is international criminal activity. And our police officers are doing a great deal in this regard. I would like to make a strong point about the excellent cooperation we have in the area of internal affairs between Bulgaria and Romania, including on such topics as migrant flows and the implementation of various joint operations relating to organised crime and the shaping, prevention and disruption of it. So these are all factors, in my opinion, which show the effectiveness of joint actions, which I hope will lead to our accession to Schengen very soon within this year.
I also had another question. To what extent is this idea of abolishing border controls between Bulgaria and Romania valid or discussed and can it contribute when it comes to the big goal of joining Schengen?
I missed that part of the question. Look, I really appreciate the drive of people on both sides to have a seamless connectivity. This is something that should really be understood by politicians in Bulgaria and Romania within our European Union. All these initiatives, ideas and decisions of specific municipal councils sound and look very good in general. The question is how they can be put into practice without jeopardising the fulfilment of the great objective, namely the accession of the two countries as full members of Schengen. From a practical point of view, such ideas are quite difficult to implement, because there have alw
ays been some problems, but with goodwill they could be implemented. At the moment, in my opinion, this issue is not the subject of the clear desire expressed by Bulgaria and Romania to resolve the common membership issue of the two countries within this year by the end of this year. In the meantime, let us start with initiatives and actions for a local Schengen – let us call it Schengen – this agreement is not on the agenda. What is on the agenda is to continue and to bring to a successful conclusion all those actions in Bulgaria and in Romania and in the relationships that I have listed so far.
You have many visits in different cities in Romania. I can point to visits and meetings with municipal councils and local authorities in Danube cities, with universities and chambers of commerce. What are the results of your visits, which take place throughout the country?
The list of all the major cities I visited with the clear intention to intensify or establish concrete partnership relations with Bulgarian municipalities and districts is very long. The general impression that I have is that good relations have developed between Bulgaria and Romania at the level of local authorities and relations that have, in a sense, been ahead of the overall level of bilateral relations. All these meetings that I have had really show the common understanding that this type of partnership is good for business. It is good for tourism.
It is useful for the implementation of common projects funded by the European Union. I can highlight separately the visits I have had to the Danube municipalities. In these seven Danube municipalities on the Romanian side, in which I was accompanied by the mayors and governors on the Bulgarian side. I can say that in these seven municipalities, especially in some of them, local relations have really outstripped bilateral relations at national level in general. But at the same time, there is a clear understanding on both sides of the need for new ferry bridges, for example, as is the case with Oltenița and Tutrakan.
A ferry between Oltenița and Tutrakan has been in the works for 20 years. There is no such ferry. The arguments of the mayors and municipal councillors of both towns are more than clear that such a ferry would not only create connectivity between the two settlements, but would shorten the journey from the Turkish border to Bucharest by 128 kilometres. This is a very serious number.
In Silistra-Călărași there is probably the best partnership, but not fully implemented given the lack of connectivity between them. The two ferries there are not sufficient to facilitate communication. They do not have the effect that a new bridge would have. We have talked to the mayors and the people of Silistra and Culerac about how many opportunities there are if a bridge is built. First of all for the business. Secondly, how many jobs would be used on both sides, because in one city there are industries that need people or specialists from the other city and vice versa. There are specific examples, but I would not like to prolong this interview.
The overall assessment of these meetings of the Danube municipalities is that connectivity is needed. This wish was expressed everywhere. Ruse and Giurgiu are waiting with great anticipation for the construction of a second bridge. In the case of Vidin-Calafat, the existing bridge has been well solved. A new organisation of the crossing is being sought there so that congestion is reduced when entering the other side.
I would like to emphasise that the information and my personal impressions are that the traffic on the Vidin-Calafat bridge and the difficulties that exist are worse than those in Ruse-Giurgiu, where the people of Ruse and Giurgiu consider the situation to be very difficult. So, speaking of these Danube municipalities, I can also remind you of Svishtov, Zimnicea, Turnu Magurele, Nikopol, Oryahovo, Bechet. Everywhere where people were, they want to be connected, and they want to be connected because they see the concrete practical benefit for business, for the workforce.
It is my intention, and this was the purpose of the visit to all these municipalities, to have a joint meeting of the leaderships of the Danube municipalities of Bulgaria and Romania under the auspices of the two Presidents, with the highest possible participation of the executive, at which all these issues can be discussed. Some initiatives could also be taken by the European Commission.
I don’t think it’s any secret that the mayors of Silistra and Călărași have the intention, but don’t expect quick development and action from both governments, to approach the European Commission for assistance to build a new bridge. Of course, this is a very ambitious intention, but it deserves full support as an initiative and a willingness to do everything possible to speed up this construction of a new bridge. What are my impressions of the major cities in Romania?
You mentioned my visit to the University of Cluj-Napoca, and I would add my visits to Timisoara, Sibiu. The other day I was in Iași. Everywhere in these cities there is a presence of Bulgarian companies and at the same time there is a desire from the local leadership of the county town for a more active presence of Bulgarian business. But the issue is related to concrete investments and tourism. There are many, many opportunities that it is a question of willingness and energy to be able to realise and to connect the most suitable in the business sphere companies in the business sphere, organisations and students in the academic exchange sphere or to find partners of specific municipalities. There should be a very direct connectivity along this line and this is our ambition.
At the last census in Romania 6 000 people declared themselves ethnic Bulgarians. How do you assess the state of the Bulgarian minority in Romania and to what extent is there interest in courses and teaching of the Bulgarian language locally and in big cities?
I admire these 6 000 people who represent the historical community in Romania, because we could talk about Bulgarians who have been here for about 300 years, Bulgarians who are over 150 years old and Bulgarians who have been here for 10-15 years, this modern diaspora. But talking about historical communities, I have really made a lot of effort in this one year that I have been here. I’ve been to Banat four times, which I think you gauge what that means. I have been to all the places with a compact Bulgarian population here in southeastern Romania. And I do these things from the bottom of my heart, because these people deserve enormous respect.
They deserve respect in that over the centuries they have not lost the connection with Bulgaria. They have preserved the language, of course, archaic, with few peculiarities, but a Bulgarian language. They have preserved the costumes of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers, they have preserved the songs, they have preserved the dances and our folklore. They have kept Bulgaria in their hearts. Well, how can one not meet these people often, not visit them, not express one’s support?
Speaking of the historical community, I can stress that the Romanian state has an extremely well-developed legislation on national minorities and it is a good policy, fully in line with the highest international standards. Our national minority has its own Member of the Chamber of Deputies, Mr Georgi Nakov, who is also Honorary Consul in Timisoara. What I have found here, when I came, and what we have been working towards recently, is the intention of the Union of Banat Bulgarians, and specifically of Georgi Nakov, to work towards greater community cohesion, because this part of Banat and that part which is from Eastern Romania traditionally have serious differences.
What was done in the second half of last year, and which is now being established as a permanent practice, is that the subsidy received from the Romanian State in the person of the Union of Banat Bulgarians should be distributed among all. And here I congratulate Mr Nakov on being very aware of this fact, that this subsidy is not for one individual organisation, but for everyone. So what the Union of the Banat Bulgarians is doing – to conclude contracts for the implementation of specific projects by other organisations, but also to finance these projects, is for me the truest path to the unity of the Bulgarians.
I can tell you that in March, when it was Horse’s Easter in Targovishte – this is a traditional celebration of the Bulgarian community in the Romanian city of Targovishte, Bulgarians from all over Romania gathered there thanks to these initiatives to materially support the initiatives of the Bulgarians and the various holidays. I was extremely impressed by this Horse’s Easter in Targovishte, how people from different parts of Romania are together, how they dance together.
There was a wonderful common choir, which was an emanation of the whole celebration. Everyone was showing their customs and dancing just such a unique atmosphere. You asked me about my impressions of the Bulgarian minority. The Bulgarian minority needs the opportunities given by the Romanian state to be opportunities for everyone. And this is mostly related to funding. In this respect, I would like to reiterate that the policy adopted by the Union of Banat Bulgarians and, in particular, by Georgi Nakov as a minority MP is commendable – that the subsidy can be distributed among all and that they can benefit from it together.
As for learning Bulgarian – yes, there are such desires in places. Of course, it is very difficult to organize different types of courses. But we are thinking and working on that too. The interesting thing is that there are people who know a little Bulgarian but want to learn it better. There are places where Bulgarian is taught in schools, but there the children are willing and the parents are willing for their children to learn. A very important point that needs to be understood with regard to the Bulgarian language, and I am developing this point with our Romanian partners, is that at the moment, with this extremely intensive economic exchange between Bulgaria and Romania, which is going to grow, there is an extremely great need for Bulgarian specialists.
There are several Bulgarian websites here where every few days there is an advertisement saying ‘I am looking for a young specialist with Bulgarian and Romanian. That is, learning Bulgarian is no longer just a necessity for the minority to preserve the link with Bulgaria, which is being done in the best way. Learning Bulgarian would be a profession for some Romanians. And in this respect are also our efforts related to the opening of Bulgarian lectorates and the study of Bulgarian in schools, but above all to rely in a long-term aspect on Bulgarian teachers.
What you are saying also fits in with your idea of reinvention, because it makes more and more sense to reinvent Bulgarians and Romanians. And in this sense I think I will ask you the last question of our interview. A declaration has already been signed for a strategic partnership, a domestic opening between Bulgarians and Romanians, but it is noticeable that Bulgaria and Romania do not have exchanged cultural centres, whereas they have this practice of exchanging cultural centres on a reciprocal basis with many countries in Europe.
At what point exactly can we expect this ongoing rediscovery to make sense and be supported by such a practice – to have a Romanian cultural centre in Sofia, Bulgarian in Bucharest?
I will be as frank as possible. The embassy’s agenda does not address this issue at the moment and these are not the specific objectives that we are setting ourselves. Rather, what is important for me is what has been done in terms of the opening of the BTA press office in Bucharest, because it contributes enormously to the exchange of information and, in particular, to more adequate information about Bulgaria, and the activity that it is developing with the opening of our editorial office is also a very positive example of this orientation for this information.
I would say that our efforts would rather be directed towards information centres and what this press club exists could be, in time, linked to the creation of a tourist information centre. At the moment, Bucharest itself needs a lot more information about tourism opportunities. As far as cultural centres are concerned, they have a slightly different function, and I think that this function is constantly being fulfilled by the exchange of theatres, of ensembles, of performers who visit the minority. That is why I stress that it is not exactly the cultural centre in the classical sense that is somehow on the agenda.
But the need for more information, especially, I stress, tourism information, is extremely important, and I hope that we will be able within this year to organise for Bulgaria to send a special diplomat to our embassy, who will be fully responsible for tourism. That would be very, very valuable indeed. I would like to point out, when we talk about tourism, that, just as Bulgarian tourists to Romania are in first place, so, of course, Romanian tourists to Bulgaria are in first place, or have been in first to second place for the last few months, and their numbers are increasing all the time.
Tourism will be an exceptional focus. Tourism has two aspects. On the one hand, this rediscovery spoken of between Bulgarians and Romanians has happened thanks to tourism. Conversely, tourism is developing as a result of this rediscovery. I am very much betting on this. Here now for Easter our information that more advance bookings for Romanian tourists in Bulgaria have increased by more than 30% compared to last year. And last year was at the end of the Easter pandemic and then the data from previous years was that there was a very substantial increase in revenue than expected.
So tourism is something that I personally think makes a huge difference. And talking about centres, a tourist information centre would play a much more adequate role in terms of what people want. The cultural exchanges there are quite good.
I can tell you as an example I was on Sunday night at a very emotional event for me personally was the premiere of the opera “Il Trovatore” at the opera house in Iasi, which is the second largest city of Romania. Wonderful opera as a building as a production of an extremely high level of artists of the chorus of the ballet. And this premiere guest was the young Bulgarian opera star Anna Maria Spataris.
Here is an outstanding example of cultural diplomacy. What Anna-Maria did tonight with this was her debut by the way on stage, but the performance that she did, her stage demeanor, it was something magnificent. All the time there, the local media was talking and writing about the Bulgarian Anna-Maria. That’s the kind of thing you don’t need in a formal bureaucratic building in the centre of Bucharest. These things should not be done on the spot. I also hope that around 24 May there will be some more serious Bulgarian presence, but we are planning some other events within this year that will be important. Theatres, operas are also very active.
I can give you an example – on 10 March 2023 in Ruse was the premiere of a Romanian play performed by artists from the Ruse Theatre. Its scenography is Romanian, its direction is Moldovan. This play, its performance in Ruse is also one of the examples. I gave the analogous example of Ana-Maria Spataris. This kind of cultural exchange is going on all the time, both exhibitions and performances, and this is getting stronger and stronger. Understand the role of tourism! Tourism has opened up Bulgaria and Romania from one to the other.
Subscribe to Cross-border Talks’ YouTube channel! Follow the project’s Facebook and Twitter page! And here are the podcast’s Telegram channel and its Substack newsletter!