Vladimir Mitev: Cross-border media in Three Seas Initiative region could offer a path out of polarization

Cross-border Talks’ co-founder spoke during the Three Seas initiative summit 2023 in Bucharest on the need for cross-border journalism and funds for cross-border media in Central and Southeastern Europe

Vladimir Mitev spoke at the side event of the Three Seas Initiative Business Forum 2023 in Bucharest, organized by the National School of Political and Administrative Sciences and the Romanian Ministry of Education, dedicated to challenges to democracy in the Three Seas Initiative region. 

His speech revolved around polarization in Bulgaria and in Bulgarian media. He explained why polarization is a challenge to Bulgarian society in the conditions when the voter turnout at the 2 April 2023 parliamentary elections was only 40%, and much less have voted for the current government formula. In his view, when societies are polarized, reforms face great constraints, because any attempt at modernization falls into the schism of society and can generate adversity not only to the policy, but also to the tendency that promotes “the democratic” or “the EU” option. 

Bulgarian media also tend to be unable to form an independent fourth estate and be arbiter in the ongoing polarized public debates. Instead Bulgarian media are taken over by the same polarization and solidarity between journalists of different media is limited. As people of the press tend to reproduce the political, economic and geopolitical powers in Bulgarian society, some of the colleagues are being accused of being grant holders (being on the payroll of Western foundations) and others being called “ruble takers” (because they presumably advance Eastern interests). 

Cross-border media could be an escape of polarization, because by their nature they are with one leg outside of the national polarized social life. They also can give chance for knowledge, experience and energy from other countries in the region to be internalized, thus helping readers and authors alike to be more independent and have a greater level of agency, in a society where every attempt to do change turns out to be co-opted by one or the other pole.

At the end, Vladimir proposes that the Three Seas Initiative should consider not only having innovation or investment funds, but also to create a media fund or procedures and practices for support of cross-border media and cross-border journalism. It is a big discussion how media supported in such a way could avoid becoming part of the polarized public discourse, but in Vladimir’s view there is a principle of thinking that should be taken into consideration – not “either… or”, but “and… and”, regarding the poles in society, whose acceptance could allow for their transformation.

The opening words belong to the moderator Ioana Melenciuc, president of the National Institute for Administration (Romania) and the final words of gratitude for the cooperation between Vladimir Mitev and the Romanian academic community belong to SNSPA’s rector Remus Pricopie (SNSPA being the abbreviation for National School of Political and Administrative Sciences).

Ioana Melenciuc, National Institute for Administration (Romania): Well, we are going to the last expert. Last but not least, of course. He is Vladimir Mitev – a journalist from Bulgaria, from Cross-border Talks, a dear friend of ours. Please, Vladimir, you have the floor.

Vladimir Mitev, Cross-border Talks: Thank you. And thanks to the organizers for this invitation.

My speech will deal with some issues which were already touched by others, especially in the first panel: the polarization issue and as well as the European public sphere.

In my view, Bulgaria is suffering a strong polarization right now. And of course Bulgarian society is being marked by an in-group form of social life. In Western Europe this type of society usually is called tribal. The issue of tribes has been traditionally raised before there too. And in the case of the Balkans, usually it’s called mafia, maybe not obligatory in the criminal way, but in the sense that people somehow live through these in-groups and lose their individuality, etcetera.

However, in today’s specific conditions of our world, we have a situation in which the American president divides the world into democracies and authoritarian regimes. And we have a situation in which the Russian President attacks Ukraine. And inside the European Union the contradiction between pro-European Commission and sovereignist forces has been also strong recently. So in the current international context all these contradictions certainly strengthen the culture of mutual domination, which exists in Bulgarian society. And in my view, it raises some challenges, if not even problems, for democracy.

First of all, let me start with this, that at the last parliamentary elections, which took place on 2nd April 2023, the voter turnout was only 40%. And that means that the government, which was eventually formed, has the support of maybe 20% of all the voters, or even less, because, in fact, the voters of these groups of parties who formed it, voted out of desire to vote against the other partner in the coalition, which was formed. So that is maybe one issue – that in the conditions of polarization, many people become apathetic and disengaged from politics. They leave it to some very engaged and influential propagandists or inciters in social networks. And that is a potential danger because at a certain moment, maybe international conditions would change. And then what the pro-European or pro-democratic option stands for could be attacked from some mobilization out of these disenchanted people.

Secondly, we are in a situation in which our region undergoes modernization, and there has been this so-called National Plan for Recovery and Resilience, which aims at certain reforms. However, when you have polarized society, any attempt to bring some serious reform, such as green transition or in the case of Bulgaria, the efforts to move the country closer to the euro zone, gets immediately immersed in these polarized contradictions between, let’s say, Western Europe or sovereignists or whatever you call them, pro-European commission and autochthonous elites. So in that situation, the energy for change and the ability of the government to promote change in society is limited because you don’t work with the whole society and maybe you work with only a part of it. And if too much effort is put into certain reforms and resistance is strong, there is a risk of breaking the society.

However, for me, maybe it’s my specifics, but I am mostly interested in the third negative aspect of this polarization, which is related to the media space. In the case of Bulgaria, it’s very obvious that our media are unable to form an independent and so-called fourth estate form of existence. They’re also taken over by this polarization. We have some media who are maybe more professional, but also tend to be funded by foundations such as America for Bulgaria or some oligarchs who were considered on the good side. And we have some other media, which are maybe somehow appealing more to populist tendencies or autochthonous tendencies and national capital, etcetera. And as a result of that, we journalists don’t quite have a strong solidarity between one another, and we tend to label one another and to reduce our colleagues to either grant holders, which means that people are taking their money or salaries from Western foundations or so-called rouble takers or people who are promoting, let’s say, Eastern interests. And I think that is of course, a negative aspect, as journalism and media are supposed to be an independent space which could be critical of any party. And once again, if we look at the idea of reform and change, there is a need for more media and more journalists or more voices to be able to speak to all the parties of societies and not only to one selected group, which is their echo chamber.

In the case of Bulgaria, this is also seen in in the case of professional organizations of journalists, with one of them, the Association of European Journalists, being apparently very well linked to Western media organizations and the other – the Union of Bulgarian Journalists, which is more appealing to the old generation, is more open to countries such as China, Vietnam and Russia.

I see here some potential for the Three Seas initiative and for regional cooperation initiatives to bring change in such a situation of great polarization. And I believe it could happen through more projects and more support for so-called cross-border media.

I was presented as one of the voices and editors of Cross-border Talks, which is a media published by a Polish foundation called Naprzod Foundation. But this in fact is a Polish-Czech-Bulgarian-Romanian cooperation between journalists. And I am also involved with a second media, which is Bulgarian-Romanian in its essence. It publishes materials in Romanian, Bulgaria and English. It’s called the Bridge of Friendship.

In both cases, these media allow me as an author and journalist, to somehow stand a little bit outside of our strong polarization, to open to the region and learn from it. And I think that could be one way to promote a more democratic, tolerant and modern way of thinking in our societies. When we are aware of what is going on in our region or in our neighboring countries, when we are able to be a little bit detached, a little bit, looking with certain buffer to our national strong passions, maybe we will be able to really grow in peace and become more sophisticated in our thinking, which I think is one of the ideas of what some of other speakers discussed about European citizens So my entry or my proposal is that the Three Seas Initiative could think not only about innovation funds or investment funds, but maybe it could also discuss internally the idea of some media funds or some possibilities for cooperation between media in the region. However, it’s important that, in my view, at least, the principle of support for this media should be not the one that is promoting polarization. So for me, it’s very interesting to choose in a way not “either… or” – one side or the other, but to choose both or any poles in our societies and be able to change them. Thank you.

Remus Pricopie, rector SNSPA: Thank you all. Thank you, everyone. I would have loved to have enough time for interruptions, especially in the academic world where we love to put back and forth questions. I would love to speak about Walter Lippmann and the public sphere and many other topics. We have the chance to do this day during lunch, but also in our future cooperation. Because I’m happy you mentioned you have been close to our academic community for many, many years, and we are proud and honored to have you here.

Also, I will take a pessimistic stance. You know, an American diplomat told me: “You academics, are trying to explain everything and to find a logic in the event when in fact the society sometimes is not coherent and not necessarily there is a logic behind it.” Maybe this diplomat friend of mine is right, maybe he is not. And for this reason we tried today to combine different perspectives and to have politicians, diplomats, academics, researchers, journalists.

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