Vessela Tcherneva: Trust is what can make Bulgarian-Romanian strategic partnership unfold naturally

A talk with ECFR Sofia’s Vessela Tcherneva about polarization and sovereignism in Bulgaria, about Bulgarian-Romanian strategic partnership and mini-Schengen, about the Open Balkans initiative in the Western Balkans and change in Bulgarian-Romanian relations

Vladimir Mitev, The Bridge of Friendship, 26 July 2023

European Council on Foreign Relations’ Vessela Tcherneva discussed with The Bridge of Friendship’s Vladimir Mitev about the current state of Bulgarian-Romanian relations: the recent visit of prime minister Nikolay Denkov in Bucharest, the lack of visible action under the aegis of the strategic partnership between the two countries, which was signed in March 2023, the pros and cons of a Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen.

The talk started with a reflection on the rising polarization in the region as a result of the war in Ukraine and on the ever more clearly visible fault line between supporters of the EC and sovereignists in the region. Tcherneva explained the level of threat that Russia interests in the current situation. She also said that in the last years Bulgaria very visibly has been aligning with France in its foreign policy orientation.

Vladimir Mitev asked Tcherneva about his favorite twin concepts of bridge of friendship and dynamic identity as concepts that could bring change to Bulgarian-Romanian relations, if applied by common people. According to Tcherneva, governments of the two countries should create organizational infrastructure for various forms of engagement between the people – including cultural and grassroots ones. It is also very European to have solidarity and commonality between nations.

War in Ukraine and its effects on Southeastern Europe

Hello to everyone and welcome to another Cross-border and Bridge of Friendship Talk, where we will host Vesela Tcherneva, one of the leading Bulgarian foreign policy analysts, head of the Sofia section of the European Council on Foreign Relations and former adviser to Prime Minister Kiril Petkov on international politics. I proposed this talk and she agreed that we take on Bulgarian-Romanian relations in particular and on the context in which they unfold with some emphasis on what more could be done.

So first of all, the war in Ukraine has been a fact for more than a year and a few months, and it certainly changed a lot of things in our region. And I may even point out some of them – there is increasing polarization, not only geopolitical, but maybe also cultural. We see that some political or economic disputes are dressed in cultural terms as if traditional family or Istanbul Convention or other issues which deal with human rights become an issue of contestation between different tendencies in society. We also see that recently the foreign ministers of Bulgaria and Romania were changed and now they are both somehow connected strongly to the European institutions, which may mean something. And maybe it is worthy to reflect on what does this mean, what does it change. We also see that there is a rising discussion rather than action so far on infrastructural connection in the region and many, many other issues. But let me ask this thing first in this context. What changes did war in Ukraine bring to Bulgaria, Romania, to South-Eastern Europe and to their foreign policy?

Very practical changes. Of course, this is a major security issue for the whole region. And Bulgaria and Romania are both very close to the frontline and to the action. Even in the last couple of days, we saw the bombs falling in Odessa. There was also a bombing not many hours ago in a Ukrainian port near Danube. I mean, all of that is really if you look at the map, very, very close geographically. But this is a security challenge that is probably growing rather than diminishing. Also, there is a challenge vis-a-vis the safety of the nuclear power plants, environmental issues related to the Black Sea and so on and so forth.

But the other, I would say, sort of challenge is actually one that is within our societies. And it became as you mentioned, a source of divisions, a source of polarization. There is a clear effort by Russia in Bulgaria, but also in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe to destabilize governments, to basically shake up and to put in question the pro-European consensus in the societies and and think this is an ongoing challenge that we will have to grapple with as we go forward. We see polarization, of course, elsewhere. We don’t need to mention Trump or the protests in France to think about big contexts. But in our societies, as you said, this also goes through cultural clashes of various sorts that are used by the pro-Russian groups to create more polarization and to create more fears and to infuse conspiracy theories.

Sovereignism or russophilia in Bulgaria?

Okay. We have been hearing about disinformation and fighting against the Russian tendency for a long time. But I have the feeling it’s more complex and maybe at least for me, the more correct division maybe is between the sovereignist tendency and another tendency which is more linked to the European Commission or the Western Europe. And I have the feeling we are in the EU and NATO and any tendency which is in our region somehow is subordinated to the West. But there is always this division in every society, especially in the region, but also in Europe, between national capital and international capital, or between this sovereignist and more globalist or more Western Europe connected tendencies.

So we hear a lot of accusations against our president Radev, for example, that he is a russophile, but I have the impression he is also on good terms with the Polish governance, which is not russophile. It is soveraignist, however. So I want to ask you in this sense, I don’t know if you accept this division between Europhiles and Sovereignists, if it’s working for you, but these two big tendencies which we see and which certainly have support in the state. They are not foreign to Bulgaria. They are part of the state in different levels or institutions. And different interests in the state could lean into one or the other tendency. What are the divisions between these two tendencies in terms of foreign policy? What does the more Europhile tendency have as a vision and what does the more sovereignist tendency has as vision in our region if we look at regional politics?

Okay, maybe let me first disagree slightly with this with this division. I think you’re right that there are sovereignist tendencies. They have always been there. During the strive of Bulgaria to come back to Europe in the 90s, which was underpinned by a very, very solid public support, these sovereignist tendencies had basically stepped back. They reappeared soon after the membership. And, you know, in some ways they channel the unwillingness of some local institutions to be checked by Brussels or to be monitored by Brussels. I think, for instance, a lot of the pushback against Bulgaria’s membership in the eurozone, comes from these kinds of very populist slogans: that the euro is going to make things more expensive, which proved to be wrong with every country that joins the eurozone.

I think there might be parts of the elite, which may be pushing back against Eurozone membership. They’re pushing back again exactly because of their unwillingness to be checked by outsiders in terms of our insurance businesses, in terms of some of the banks, in terms of the way business is done, evading a certain level of transparency and so on. So if you ask me, however, how the war has impacted that, I would tell you that the war has made very clear that on top of those sovereignist tendencies, we have a very big Russian push to meddle in our societies, which is not to be explained simply by the sovereignist forces. We have institutions who clearly play in Russia’s interest. We have political parties like the Revival, for instance, who are clearly defending the pro-Russian line. It has nothing to do with sovereignist politics.

And we come close to things that look paradoxical. Nationalist parties which are pro-Russian at the same time, meaning that they defend the interests of a third country. And you have also said that national institutions do the same. So I think this is why this division works only until a certain point. And frankly, if we talk about the region as a whole, you can see this in places like Slovakia, probably to an extent in Hungary. Although I think this is also Orban’s organizing principle for establishing and keeping his own power intact. So here probably the Sovereignist element is an even higher dose. And as far as Poland is concerned, because you mentioned the Polish leadership. I do not believe that they are really close to Radev or that they think that they are close to Radev, especially given the fact that Bulgaria’s president pro-Russian position has become, I think, very well known in Europe in the meantime and Poland. I mean, the Polish leadership can be accused of many things, but not of that one. And I think this was the reason why there is a certain distance of Warsaw from Budapest. That is quite visible and which is why the Visegrad Four don’t work anymore, at least not in the same way.

So I think that what Poland is trying to do is to present itself as a leader of Central and Eastern Europe within the EU, which sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. And I think they do believe in variable geometry and in changing alliances on various topics. For instance, currently, as far as the Ukrainian grain is concerned, there are five countries that are clearly going together and led by Poland. But I don’t think this is the case on too many other topics.

It is actually quite remarkable that Bulgaria’s foreign policy orientation or, let’s say, orientation within the EU because (let’s not consider it really foreign policy) is actually very much led by France these days rather than Germany. On the nuclear file – related to North Macedonia, France was key to creating the so-called French proposal that to basically the relevant decision of the Bulgarian parliament vis a vis North Macedonia. France is the country that is basically currently also driving the agenda on a couple of other portfolios which are important for Bulgaria and has in a way displaced Germany from its central role. Macron’s speech in Bratislava was also a way to signify this this growing role of France for our region. And maybe this is one thing coming back to our topic. This is one thing that actually could bring Bulgaria and Romania closer, because Romania has been traditionally much more, much closer to France within the Central and Eastern European bloc than probably anybody else.

The Bulgarian-Romanian strategic partnership declaration so far is only a piece of paper

Thank you for this transition. I really wanted to approach the issue of Romanian-Bulgarian relations, and we just saw recently the visit of Bulgarian Prime Minister Dinkov to Romania on 14 July 2023 – a few months after on 15 March 2023, Declaration for Strategic Partnership was signed between the presidents of the two countries. And I don’t know what you think about this visit and about this strategic document. I want to ask you about that.

My own impression is that the visit of Denkov was just another of all those well known visits of high-ranking politicians in Bucharest or in Sofia, where they always discuss what they have spoken about, but very few documents, not any deadlines, not any money or provided for strategic or infrastructural projects or other issues. So I have had the feeling for a long time that there is this tradition in Bulgarian-Romanian relations to advance very slowly or not to advance at all, just to be some forums for discussion. So that is one thing.

And the other thing is about this strategic document. Some people say it’s not sufficiently bold. On the other hand, some people are very happy that even the countries reached this level where they signed such a document. But even if it’s signed, it remains on paper. We don’t see any activity, anything under its aegis going on. We have a paper which is signed, and my guess is that those administrations or those elites who have to make this document alive are not assuming for the time being its text or its promise. Maybe they have inertia, maybe they don’t trust the other party. Maybe they have some logic of their own, which is different from the logic in the document. But these are some impressions of mine that even though the tendency maybe is good, maybe there are some signs the two countries realize their relations should be better, much more remains to be changed. And in fact, we still don’t have real action.

I have a very clear recollection from the visit of Prime Minister Petkov in the spring of last year to Bucharest. This was a very practically-oriented and results-oriented visit. Basically the two sides agreed that they will start with infrastructure, and the infrastructure that connects us is clearly the river Danube. So we need to have many more bridges, roads, ways to connect and to trade and to exchange. And they agreed that there would be five bridges built, and that they would start the feasibility study on at least one of them immediately. The ferryboat Rousse-Giurgiu would be launched in the fall. And the deepening of the Danube is also going to go forward.

Then the government fell in Bulgaria. And the caretaker government of President Radev doesn’t seem to have moved an inch on any of those very practical steps for the past year. I was really very surprised to learn that and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that not even the ferryboat plan has moved on. Not to mention the bridges.

I think this is why Denkov now, as the prime minister of the first kind of the first regular government again a year later, went to Bucharest to pick things up again after they were left off. And frankly, I find it good that there are no big announcements because I think the announcements and the plans are already there, one needs to execute them. It was probably also a trip to reassure the Romanian side that the regular government in Bulgaria is really serious about those plans. And now let’s see how they execute them against this background of basically non-action for a year. The paper, which was signed by the two presidents and declared strategic partnership looks let’s say, meaningless, to put it mildly.

Can you explain more?

If you don’t have any practical steps, if you don’t bring substance to this partnership, how can you call it a strategic partnership? It is only possible, when on the very practical, tactical level it is already being realized. And then the two countries can look together for some more faraway, strategic horizons. But unfortunately, the two caretaker governments which Radev had appointed, had not really made any of those steps. And it seems to me we have basically wasted the whole year. This is a lot of time, if you think about it, if you think about it in European terms and if you think in strategic terms. There is a war not far away from us, as we said. Not being well connected means also we have much less options to react to outside shocks.

People as agents of change in Bulgarian-Romain relations

Okay, maybe there are reasons for this lack of assumption of the strategic document or strategic intentions. And at least for me, one of the reasons is that maybe the people of the two countries don’t know where each other are, in spite of so many tourists traveling in both directions. And maybe they have not learned very well or how to interact with one another. Maybe there is still some distrust at the level of state elites or some competition, maybe unspoken. If you look at the media of the two countries, they are very national centric media. There is not so much the feeling of mutuality. It’s often more the feeling of us against them, against the neighbors, not only Romanians or Bulgarians. In my view, Romania maybe knows Hungarians much better. Bulgarians maybe know Turks or Turkey, much better. There is some tradition that the two countries tend to ignore each other. So I wonder where change could come from if what I describe is true. At least for me, change is more likely to come from the bottom, from the people on the ground who are maybe more flexible and maybe they don’t have this burden of the state elites. State elites always think in some political, national interest terms, which makes them maybe more static. They have difficulty making some large decisions because it’s complex to take large decisions in such relations. And I have the feeling the people maybe could do some change.

They need roads on which they could cross the Danube river that divides them, for instance. They would need bridges to be able to trade because trade is the best way for two peoples to communicate. They would need government policy that encourages cultural exchanges. Because as we know, culture can really, you know, sustain itself on its own. So we have to have governments say – “These are our priorities as a society, let’s work on them together.” Look, I don’t believe that people genuinely are not interested in each other. But you have to create the means through which they could communicate.

The Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schegen

Okay. Another issue which exists in Bulgarian-Romanian relations and has often been discussed recently is the Schengen issue. There has been a lot of passion about the vote in December 2022 which effectively put a veto on their accession to Schengen. And I also want to ask you about this. There has been this idea floated by the unions of the transport companies in both countries. It’s being advanced by some local councils in northern Bulgaria. It’s been advanced by some experts. I can name academic experts, NGO experts in both countries, which is the idea for so-called mini-Schengen between Bulgaria and Romania. Maybe I need to explain a little bit more. It’s usually believed that if border control is taken down and if there is common policy, Schengen-like policy, it means that state institutions like police and other institutions collaborate more and they have common registers, for example, maybe visas, which are issued together.

This also leads to greater economic exchange between the countries, greater experience with one another, greater tourist flow, etcetera. And of course it eases the travelling not only for Bulgarian and Romanian cargo trucks, but also for any European or any other which travels from Hungary to Greece, etcetera. So these are some pros, let’s say, some advantages maybe of this idea. But we see that even Prime Minister Denkov commented about that when he was in Bucharest. He said that no discussion for an alternative to Schengen is being made. So the state elites of the two countries, the foreign policy experts in the two countries, remain interested in joining the big Schengen. They see it as a realistic possibility which should be followed. And the mini-Schengen, as I understand, is seen as some kind of replacement, which may in the view of some people lead to further peripherization of Bulgaria and Romania. So in this context, what do you think about this idea for a Bulgarian-Romanian mini-schengen? How viable is it and when could it become more possible or meaningful to be followed?

I think maybe a couple of years ago when the membership in Schengen looked like a distant future that would have been more of a possibility. Currently, both countries are looking at getting into Schengen as soon as possible, probably already this year. And I think this is why it’s crucial for them to put their efforts in that direction now. Membership in Shengen means also having all these easier border crossings and procedures and cooperation with the other neighbors from the Schengen community. So in practical terms, I think it’s going to go in parallel tracks. Bulgaria and Romania will be working together, but they will be investing their political capital and efforts currently into joining the big Schengen realm, the big Schengen Agreement.

Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen: more periphery or more center?

Okay. There are different arguments. If we have a look at the point of view of periphery versus center when they join, the big change needs to move to the center. But some people think that if they make a Schengen of their own in a way they would recognize they will not soon join the big Schengen in and that may make them more peripheral. However, there is also this opinion, including by I can quote an important French-speaking Romanian foreign policy expert, Sergiu Mișcoiu that countries of the periphery rarely cooperate, and such a cooperation like a mini-Schengen between Bulgaria and Romania, would in fact be a logic of the center, which, as I understand, would even allow for better and swifter integration into the big Schengen, as both countries would demonstrate they can manage a free border between themselves. So where do you stand in this division?

I just think this is an old debate. I think currently since the Schengen membership is very close. I think, again, we cannot expect governments to go on a parallel track as far as periphery versus center is concerned. I mean, if you ask in Warsaw or maybe even in Budapest, they will tell you that the center is not what it used to be. And so I think it will depend a lot on what issue we’re talking about. And as far as Schengen is concerned, there will be more weight given to the frontline countries as we go forward. Countries like Spain, like Italy, but also like Greece, like Bulgaria – you can call at least some of them peripheral. But I think the more pressure is coming through the Balkan route, the more it will become important to have those countries in the center of the discussions.

And if you look at the EU-Turkey relationship, which is starting to revive, to be revived again, there was a Foreign Affairs Council debate on Turkey last week. This is also because of the migration issue, which is very closely linked to Schengen. So I would say for Bulgaria this is additional security in terms of not becoming a buffer state or a pre-chamber of the Schengen space. Being part of it with all the positive sides that has access to its database, to its tools. I think this is too important an issue for the EU, which is why Bulgaria and Romania are again kind of getting back on the agenda and close to getting accepted into Schengen.

Open Balkans: The mini-Schengen of the Western Balkans

Okay. You’re knowledgeable on Western Balkans and we have a mini-Schengen there trying to be implemented. I mean, the Open Balkans initiative, how successful is this initiative a few years after it was started?

This is one of those regional initiatives that have been criticized quite a lot. Open Balkans has been seen by many as an attempt to recreate Yugoslavia, minus Croatia, plus Albania, but also on Serbia’s terms, so to say, keeping Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina out and Montenegro kind of in, but not quite.

I am doubtful that something that does not encompass the whole region and that is not very closely coordinated with the other initiatives which are EU-led is really going to have a meaningful impact. Having said that, there are things that have started working within Open Balkans that could not work previously within other regional initiatives. I still believe that the Berlin process should be the regional initiative that has the biggest reach and has the highest support. Also in terms of the EU institutions access to some funding and so on. Having too many parallel initiatives is not ideal either. I think it confuses people in the region and it gives politicians space to evade things that Brussels may be asking them to do in terms of reforms. So my short answer is – yes, we should definitely support regional cooperation, especially in the Western Balkans, but we should not lose sight of the end goal, which is to bring the Balkans closer to the EU. And all those initiatives should actually serve that purpose first and foremost.

Bridge of friendship and dynamic identity: tools for transformation of Bulgarian-Romanian and regional relations

Okay. We are entering the final part of our discussion. I have been advancing in Bulgarian media, including through a study which I have written and which will be published soon by the Bulgarian Diplomatic Institute the idea that the Bulgarian-Romanian relations need some kind of dynamization which comes from the bottom or from the grassroots implication of common people. And I advanced some concepts which I’m curious to be tested from a European perspective, not only from Bulgarian, but also from European ones. You seem to know both these perspectives.

So one thing is that I discuss the so-called bridge of friendship type of people or organizations. These are people or entities who are somehow trusted by both countries and their ability to bridge and connect this barrier between nations should be used for dynamization of relations. In a situation in which I’m very sure that there is no likelihood that Bulgaria and Romania will really change what their national interests ask them to do. There are different positions, usually in their relations with the world and the ability to transform somehow this relation between Bulgaria and Romania should come from this type of bridge of friendship. So that is one important thing, because it would lead to better knowledge, etcetera, more trust, etcetera. So this is one thing.

And the other thing I discuss about is the so-called dynamic identity, which may sound peculiar to many people, but the idea basically is that our societies in especially Bulgaria, beyond Sofia, needs greater energy, needs transformation, which in my view, have limits if we rely on our own resources in the country. I know that Sofia is a very dynamic, thriving city. Many foreign investments go there. Many people flow to Sofia. It’s a young city. But I am physically placed in a city of the country- Rousse. It’s a larger city, but I am aware that large areas of northern Bulgaria are depopulated and they don’t offer perspectives to their young people, etcetera.

So I see that dynamic identity for me basically means some ability to overcome stagnation, both in personal terms within an individual, within a person and within society. We need some kind of dynamic element which provides this, let’s say, energy or knowledge experience, which somehow transforms us. Otherwise, I fear that a large part of the Bulgarian population, especially maybe people who are older or somehow excluded from social life, would remain a burden and they would be suffering. Bulgaria and Romania should offer perspective to these regions which are cross-border regions or border regions. And I see dynamic identity as some kind of thinking or reality which allows for this connection and bridge type of connection. So it’s a very philosophical, maybe an abstract discussion, but I am curious, how do these ideas look from both a Bulgarian and European perspective as far as you are aware of these perspectives?

Look, if you talk about regions in the north of the country which are not well-connected to the center and because of that are being depopulated (this is, by the way, a trend also in other peripheral regions of the country). you’re right, we have to immediately zoom out the map and see that, just 80 km away from Rousse, across the bridge is Bucharest, which is a big metropolis with a lot of industries and opportunities and, and so on and so forth. In many ways this is kind of the natural, I would say, magnet for many. I know a lot of people from Rousse go and take the plane from Bucharest rather than traveling all the way to Sofia. And this is only normal.

So again, coming back to the point about the role of governments, they should create those connections which would make northern Bulgaria really closer connected to investments from both sides, from the center of Bulgaria, but also from Romania and other parts of Europe. Now, if you ask me about the European perspective on that, I think this is the core of the European idea. I don’t know whether I would call it dynamic identity. And frankly, I don’t believe that those identity issues should be looked at in that abstract way, because we can easily go into this field of symbolic politics where people discuss other people’s identities. And frankly, I’m not in the business of that.

But the very heart of the European idea is that. While you have your national identity and while you have your national culture, traditions and so on, as a European citizen, you can be part of something bigger or something greater and you can take advantage of the investment of the exchanges, of the educational opportunities. All of that, of course, is much more valid for the younger people, for those who travel, for those who are in need of education, for those who are economically active, in need of investment and so on. And it is true that the whole demographic picture of our region is unfortunately stagnating, meaning that you have a lot of elderly people who feel kind of lost that world of exchange and internet and so on. And think here is very much the role also of of of the state and and how solidary our society is. So those who really can take advantage of of the more opportunities, new opportunities, how much they’re ready to give back to the older generation. And I think this is a very important conversation. I don’t know how this looks like in Romania, but in Bulgaria, definitely we we still owe this conversation to the previous generations because we still believe that it’s fine to live in our bubbles, to pay the 10% tax, to live in our kind of world and not care that much about the rest of society. And this is why I think getting politicians or getting people from those technology fields enter politics is actually a good sign that more and more people of the younger generations, more modern, younger people are interested in what they can give back to society. But again, as you said, this is a philosophical conversation, which is, which is probably going to take us much more time than we actually have.

(Lack of) trust in Bulgarian-Romanian relations

Okay. Let us finish with maybe a more practical question and more concrete, but still, somehow, general. I have the feeling there is an issue of trust in Bulgarian-Romanian relations, which remains unresolved, at least, maybe to some extent. There is trust, of course, but I have the feeling a wider challenge in the wider society exists with regards to trust. How could that be changed? Where could the change come from in this regard? The positive change, I mean.

I think this is something that is the underlying reason for the way our transition went, for the way our politics look like this general lack of trust in societal interest, so to say. There is no idea that we can imagine the society as a whole having a common interest and a common goal. And I think this is something that has been very much cultivated during communism. We have been basically brought up with the idea not to trust anything that institutions, government and society as a whole can produce. And after 1989, we grew even more individualistic, believing that our own security, our own success, our own faith is the only thing that matters. And that, of course, also translates into, you know, relations with neighbors and in general attitude towards the world. This is very often also at odds with the European idea of solidarity. And here we kind of think about it in one way as a one way street. We expect others to be solidary with us while we prefer to look after our own interests only.

I am optimistic that this is also a bit of a generational issue and that the more we develop our democracy, the more trust we are going to gain both in our institutions, in each other, but also in our friends in terms of foreign policy, in terms of our direct, immediate neighborhood. We know from the 90s that, when politicians were saying that we were an island of stability, that meant that everything around us was actually not well and this was not good for us either. So being actually tightly integrated with each other is exactly the way also gaining more trust and and then only then I think we can really have strategic relations and and look together towards, you know common goals that are going to also make the connections between our societies better.

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