Southeastern Europe’s affirmation: neither technocracy, nor sovereignism, but people’s agency

Vladimir Mitev’s Maynooth University take on the people-driven Europeanization in Southeastern Europe as way of its people to have agency amidst polarization between technocrats and sovereignists

Cross-border Talks’s Vladimir Mitev spoke at the event Further EU Enlargement: the view from Southeastern Europe, which took place at the Maynooth University. In his speech entitled Practice oriented view on Romania and Bulgaria geopolitical / regional ambitions Vladimir spoke about the need for people’s Europeanization in Southeastern Europe, which is different from elites’ Europeanization. He demonstrated how Bulgarian-Romanian relations need a grassroots element, and how inability for having a successful dialogue between nations in the region or within the nations leads to polarization that prevents the countries from moving towards the core of the EU. Cross-border media could be a way for people of the region to be more synchronized and life to be affirmed in conditions where strife for power leaves people without hope.

John O’Brennan: We now turn to our final speaker of the day.

Miruna Troncota-Butnaru: The hero.

John O’Brennan: He has heroically waited all of this time to speak. We’re thrilled to have Vladimir Mitev, who is a Bulgarian, who is, I guess, strongly vested not just in Romania, but in Bulgarian-Romanian relations. And he is the founder of a very well known blog called The Bridge of Friendship – Bulgarian-Romanian blog. He is also an expert on Persian culture and history and has another blog which unites Bulgarian, Romanian and Persian elements. He is a correspondent for Radio Romania for Bulgaria and works for a Bulgarian national media. 

Vladimir, I think, has a unique kind of sensibility about what cross-regional cooperation looks like and might look like because he lives in the city of Ruse, the Danube and city of Ruse, which is closer, I guess in some ways to Bucharest than it is to many Bulgarian cities. So welcome, Vladimir. And the topic of Vladimir’s talk today is practice-oriented activity on Bulgaria and Romania, geopolitical and regional issues. So thanks very much.

Vladimir Mitev: I am also thankful for the invitation, and I need to say that I very much like this idea, which was coming from the organizers, to speak about a practice-oriented view. Indeed, it’s a final presentation. It makes sense to be a less expert-like presentation and maybe more related to experience. And experience usually takes place when you’re without armor. I can say that for a long time in my efforts to travel in Romania to do something, I have had this feeling and now I even have it in Bulgaria. So really, I like the title of Alan Sillitoe’s autobiography – Life Without Armor. So I think this idea of going without armor could be useful in our region if one is resilient enough. Maybe I can explain later what I mean.

There is another part of the title of my speech, which is about geopolitical and regional ambitions or relations between the two countries. And I need to also start with an introduction here, because many experts, which I have discussed with over the years, have the opinion that both countries are not agenda setters, they are agenda takers. Some even argue there is no such thing as foreign policy of these countries.

Miruna Troncota-Butnaru: Good that the diplomats left.

Vladimir Mitev: Yes. I was thinking of saying that.

The thing is that apparently foreign policy is going and it’s a foreign policy which is related to the EU. And we are now in a situation in which both the foreign minister of Bulgaria and that of Romania have strong ties to the European institutions, which immediately could mean transfers in the fact that when the EU renews its push for enlargement in Western Balkans and the three EU-inclined countries of Eastern Partnership, that means that Bulgaria and Romania will play a role. What is this role?

I have been doing some interviews over the last time, trying to hear something more concrete. Somebody knowledgeable in Romania on Western Balkans told me that maybe Bulgaria and Romania could be important in keeping Serbia away from Russia and China, as it was also discussed by other speakers here. An opinion I got from Bulgaria was that Bulgaria even now plays some important role in trying to overcome these contradictions or conflicts which constantly appear in the Western Balkans. But to be honest, most of the answers I get, I interpret them more that Bulgaria and Romania are just expected to be of support, which translates into not creating obstacles.

And now this is the thing which I guess everyone who is dealing with the region is aware of. You also spoke about the fact that some parts of Bulgarian society have this issue with Macedonian ideology, if I may say, as this is how it’s framed in Bulgaria and they see it as anti-Bulgarian. But that’s only a part of the society. And also in the case of Romania, even recently, there was this open demonstration of denial of Kosovo state by Romanian sovereignty at a football match.

Once again what I say is some kind of a context for what I will be speaking now, as politics in our countries, just like in other European countries, seems to be recently more clearly divided between the technocratic and the sovereign tendency. And in the case of Bulgaria, I think it’s very obvious we have a government which is having foreign policy closely tied to the European Commission. We see that in a number of decisions, including regarding Ukraine. Suddenly Bulgaria turns out to be more pro-Ukrainian than Poland, if I may simplify, of course. It is because Bulgaria voluntarily lifted its ban on Ukrainian agricultural imports while other countries in the region chose even to keep this ban continuously. And Bulgaria also provides arms to Ukraine in some recent decisions. While I understood, Poland, for example, chose not to provide new arms. That’s my information.

So that is one line of Bulgarian politics. The other is the sovereign tendency, which has different players or different people who try to appeal to it. Usually the president is quoted as being of that tendency. There are also some smaller parties which try to appeal to it. And in the case of Romania, there is also something similar, but not exactly the same. Of course, Romania has these elites who are strongly aligned to euro-atlantic institutions. But now everyone I meet in Bucharest when I go discusses how the 2024 elections would bring greater presence in politics of sovereign tendency. Last time, when I read or discussed, it was about 25+% of Romanian voters. That is the sovereignist tendency in Romania as a whole, not one party. But this is what I got as information. Maybe my Romanian speakers could correct me if I’m wrong about that.

It’s true

John O’Brennan: And now in Bulgaria, it’s a little bit less?

It’s less, yes. Because usually our Revival party represents this type of party while other parties are still “ambiguous”.

More ambiguous in all kinds of ways?

Yes. So I just marked that sovereignist in Bulgaria right now, at least from my point of view, are more busy with rejecting any attempt for reform which comes from the government. So any attempt to do policy that maybe changes some vested interests is resisted by the sovereign tendency and there are always some protests, then negotiations, then some amelioration of what the governmental policies. Sovereignists are also usually against the pro-European view in Bulgaria on the North Macedonian future.

And in the case of Romania, the sovereignist tendency is anti-Ukrainian and anti-Maia Sandu in the Republic of Moldova. In fact, as far as I know, once again, I can ask my Romanian colleagues to correct me if I’m wrong, but this AUR party, which is the most representative of the sovereign tendency, also has some members from the Republic of Moldova who have become citizens of Romania, and in fact, they are competing on Moldovan grounds with Maia Sandu.

Once again, everything I say until now is some kind of a context, because I’m trying gradually to reach the issue of change, which is related to, in my view, to having ambitions in foreign policy. And I think that I have to start with what I’m maybe most familiar with – the Bulgarian-Romanian relations. We have known that these countries belong to the same integrationist circles in the West – NATO, European Union, maybe others. But in spite of that, my feeling is that there is a traditional reluctance for their both population and allies to interact with one another in spite of all the tourists travelling and other positive things. But somehow there is a feeling that change happens slowly in these relations. I mean change for good, which means dynamization of these relations.

We have a trade turnover of around €8 billion between the two countries, which is significant. But most of this trade is being done by foreign corporations who have presence in the two countries and they either trade with one another or trade with their partners in the other country. The real dimension of Bulgarian-Romanian trade, if we look at it through Bulgarian capital, Romanian capital firms which are owned by citizens or entities of the two countries is much smaller. That is one example that foreign sources of dynamism are greater in the interaction between Bulgaria and Romania than the local ones.

Another example could be seen in the fact that in March 2023, the two presidents of the country signed a declaration for strategic partnership, which was a good sign, of course. However, this declaration is not followed so far by actions which are framed by it or are under its edges. And some people I discussed with in Romania and Bulgaria have the opinion that our foreign partners have requested this declaration from our leaders and it was done. But at the lower level, let’s say, level of administration or bureaucracy or medium level of leaders, people who really do the things have not assumed it as a policy.

And I believe here comes some kind of proposal or solution. I even argue about it in a study which I did for the Bulgarian Diplomatic Institute and will be presented soon publicly. There is a need for a people-driven dimension of these relations. I even try to call it populism, Bulgarian-Romanian populism, which I know sounds terrible, especially among expert circles. But sometimes provocation is necessary. 

I mean, there is need for, let’s say, more common people, not these people who are diplomats, politicians, not these people who are placed in some hierarchies and stick too tightly to national interests, there is a need for common people to act. And I believe that the action of such people could bring depth to the relations, and could increase their potential. And I think this is in deficit, because when you don’t know your neighbor, you have a feeling of distrust. You are either too careful with him, or maybe some shocks appear, something unexpected happens or some abuse happens. And this is why I try to promote or encourage engagement on people’s level. And I think the change will come from there rather than from elites. I believe elites are generally too much sticking to procedures and maybe in the case of Bulgaria, procedures sometimes are often too strict.

And also there is this obsession in the periphery of the EU with some strict interpretation of national interest. I can give an example, for example, the last time Bulgaria and Romania agreed on their Danube border was in 1908. The agreement was that every ten years their governments would meet and renew the border or renegotiate the border, because you know that as a result of the Danube’s activity, islands appear or disappear or go to another place and the border has to be renewed every ten years. But after 1908 there was never agreement. They were coming to a meeting, they were discussing. And in fact, agreement means often having some kind of compromise, letting the other take something, losing something. And when the elites are too much obsessed with a kind of hegemony or not losing, not having compromise, agreement is not reached.

Examples such as this one make me put my faith more in common people who maybe are not so much invested in notions or in concepts, but who have greater versatility, I believe. So that’s something I am suggesting and I will be trying now to expand.

We were speaking about Bulgaria and Romania. But you understand that our big issue is Western Balkans. And even though I have not had great experience with Western Balkans, I can imagine Balkans from their European dimension, Bulgaria and Romania. Usually in the Balkans, when you first meet with somebody in an unmediated context, which means that there is no authority which somehow negotiates the relations or guarantees for them, too often there is abuse at the first meeting. This is the Balkans, of course.

And usually that is even kind of a first step to forming a friendship. You have to pass the abuse. And if you are not too angry or disappointed, maybe some real relationships start after that. I know it’s a little bit funny, but it’s also, I think, very real. And everybody who has dealt with the Balkans, I believe has had such experiences.

And why does this idea of human agency or human relations in our region matter? Because I think that the classical EU-centric approach has limits, and maybe EU decision makers are also aware of that. There is a criticism that EU corporations appear where there are resources and they take over the resources. That’s good. I mean, we have investments. But the problem is that investments either in resources or in new production, often go to places where there is already some social capital or resources. They go to big cities. And as a result of that, a super concentration of capital and money happens in these big cities, which are very few in Bulgaria. Large parts of Bulgaria, for example, get unpopulated. Villages are dying.

Cities are doing really well like Sofia.

Sofia is doing really well. But other cities, even to the extent of a population of 100 000 people, like many cities in northern Bulgarian are in decay. So that’s why in my study, which I referred to, I advanced this idea of relations with the neighbor because I believe they can generate some sense of living and some dynamism in northern Bulgaria. As far as I remember from the last census from 2011 to the 2021 census, many cities lost 20% of population. I refer to the cities’ counties.

So this is a problem which Bulgarian decision makers are not quite discussing or offering solutions. Southern Bulgaria is well developed and many of the European investment, including in new railroads, go to southern Bulgaria. Northern Bulgaria somehow remains undeveloped. It remains for it to die out.

John O’Brennan: So I just ask you, one of the things that’s kind of curious to me is that there hasn’t been enough cross-border cooperation on infrastructure development. Are there still only maybe three bridges across the Danube or two in fact?


And the governments haven’t been able to work together to do joint projects that might help create economic development along the Danube.

Yes, I’m not sure I have the exact answer about that, because Bulgarians have the feeling that Romanians are delaying things, and Romanians claim that Bulgarians are delaying things. So sometimes in some interviews I have had, officials claim that on a political level there is agreement, but experts need to agree too. And the agreements of experts takes a lot of time. So a lot of things are announced.

For example, last year in the summer, a ferryboat had to be opened between Ruse and Giurgiu. And it’s still even now not open. And the same thing with the new bridge at Ruse-Giurgiu. It was discussed that the agreement for it would be signed in the last autumn and now one year later it’s not signed. Only there was an announcement that some feasibility studies are going on.

I don’t know what is the reason for that, but I tend to think that as far as I know from a communication with state functionaries in Bulgaria or maybe even Romania, maybe there maybe a little bit of psychology in all that. In the sense that there is some distrust, or lack of ability to communicate correctly. Maybe I’m not seeing it rightly, but I’m aware of a strongly national-centric approach in some state elites in our region. And I guess that creates tension when you meet with each other.

Maybe I can return now to my standard speech. Many people would say that we can have Balkan federation. There have been such fantasies and many people say on table for example in some inn that we are all “Balkan”, we like Balkan music, we like Balkan drinks, etcetera. But, in my view, a problem of these relations, including Bulgaria, Romania or others, is that many people go into them with certain baggage. There is an accumulation of certain power over being. People get easily frustrated or imagine some fantasies that the other is very bad, they are suspicious, etcetera.

I think if such human relations are to be built and such dynamism is to be searched on human level, there must be a certain process of unlearning. Maybe people who deal with social sciences are aware of this term. The German Hanno Burmeister is promoting this term of unlearning. There must be some unlearning of what we have learned wrongly in our transition times so that new lessons and new experiences can be integrated. And this inability to have normal dialogue between people in groups, in my view, is not only plaguing relations in the region, but also it leads to polarization, which we observe now in a number of countries in the region, from Poland to Bulgaria. And it is because people seem to be unable to lead dialogue with one another. They enter in dialogue with their baggage. So they kind of know in advance that the other is wrong or evil. And the discussion too often affirms that notions, insults or blame games happen.

Both in relations in our countries and in relations in the region, we have this challenge of somehow finding a way to think or talk in a way that doesn’t encourage polarization. And I think the media play some role in that. I’m slowly moving to my point. I know it takes time.

I think the problem in polarization too often is that choosing a side is not always the best solution. And from my point of view, it’s more interesting to somehow be on the sidelines and if possible, to somehow transform the conflict or the contradiction, or to be able to somehow upgrade it to a greater level of complexity. I know that it sounds too abstract, but I have the feeling that in every country in Europe there is this division in some way between technocrats and sovereignists. But you see that some countries are in the core of the European Union, and other countries are even outside the European Union.

Sometimes I just dream. Can’t we just switch off the contradiction for some time? Because I think that these conflicts, this polarization keeps us at the same level. We grow in peace. We don’t grow in war. And I just want us somehow to switch off for some time, grow, get the experience which integrates us or leads us to the European Union rules and standards. And then if we wish, if somebody so much wants to have contradiction, let’s switch on the contradiction again, but already in a different context.

I think cross-border media could be playing some role in such a redefinition of the contradictions which you have or looking at them from outside. Because cross-border media somehow, by definition are with one leg outside of what is so much plaguing the national elites and cross-border media are also able, if they are done well, to bridge the experience of one country with the experience of another country.

And I thank you for introducing my media activities. Indeed, I started my Bulgarian blog, The Bridge of Friendship, in 2015. And you can imagine, of course, that I was younger than now and it took some overcoming of suspicions, distrust, and challenges as from my point of view, I was moving in uncharted waters. But as I was affirming, various people in the two countries and beyond them started seeing sense in the messages of a media which appears to be overcoming the national centric-approach to bilateral and regional relations. And this led to the establishment of what I refer to as dynamic identity. That is an identity which doesn’t have a border between Bulgarian and Romanian spaces, an identity in which the elements are not playing a game of domination, but rather somehow mutually empower each other and are in a dialogue with one another.

In this study, which I mentioned to you, which is about to be published by the Bulgarian Diplomatic Institute, I argue that the establishment of a Bulgarian, Romanian or regional dynamic identity and the activity of people and organizations who are trusted by the various parties in some contradictions (I call these people bridges of friendship) is the way of forward in our region, in southeastern Europe.

With the establishment of Cross-border Talks which took place in 2021, an even more courageous, dynamic identity is in formation as it is a Poland-based media where me, a Polish and a Czech journalist write in English, Polish, Czech, Romanian and Bulgarian about international relations and social issues. So we have an interest towards cross-border realities. For example, we wrote about cases where there are twin cities divided by the EU border, and there is even an organization which unites such cities. And we also invite leading experts from the region beyond and beyond to comment on international politics with a humane and progressive perspective. And we also do with some contentious issues such as green transition, migration, feminism, workers’ rights.

Right now, my colleagues are completing their project for study of the Turow mine case of green transition – a mine, which is on the border between Poland and Czech Republic. And I think it’s very interesting. It is a Journalism Fund-supported project and more such investigations or works are to come.

Finally, I understand my presentation was a little bit in multiple directions, but I asked myself what would the agency in Southeastern Europe look like? And having in mind that I started with the claim of some people that Bulgaria, Romania don’t have a foreign policy. I’m a little bit tempted to ask myself if that is true, wouldn’t some kind of agency of these countries be somehow human or people related? Not so much institutional or hegemonic, not even technocratic or sovereignist as these are the usual poles… Maybe if somebody is able to resist this contradiction and somehow overcome it, maybe then some real life start happens.

And I’m interested in studying at this agency. I did a podcast with one of the leading Romanian experts from the NGO sector called Codru Vrabie about agency in Southeastern Europe. And I’m interested whether a truly transformative and engaged EU with the region should not be interested not just in taking power and dominating stagnancy and failure, but to create conditions where local and regional agency could appear and get strengthened. I know it’s a little bit complex phrasing, but I’m somehow interested, let’s say, in life, not only in power. And I end with a quote from a famous movie. It’s the start of this movie. I should have been able to say it in a Scottish or Irish accent because it’s the famous movie Trainspotting, but I can see it only in an Eastern European accent.

John O’Brennan: Do it in the Scottish accent!

So I end with the message, which with the film starts: “Choose life, Choose your future”

John O’Brennan: I knew there would be one person who would end on a positive note right at the end of the day. So Vladimir did absolutely that. I was thinking, as you were talking about, to tell you privately about this, about Ireland and Northern Ireland. We barely know each other even after 25 years of peace. And we have a center based in Armagh called the Center for Cross-border Studies. And it does a lot of the kinds of things that you’re talking about. We now have a shared island university network. So for the very first time, we’re actually cooperating on specific strands of research. And there’s a lot of work there to do as there is in the Bulgarian-Romanian case.

I want to bring the proceedings to a close with apologies about questions, simply because of timing. We will have to vacate the building or else…

Firstly, I want to thank a series of people, but particularly to start with Miruna, who was the best possible colleague to cooperate with this venture and it would not have happened without her. So thank you very much for bringing on board all our Romanian friends and colleagues. It’s been really fantastic. I want to also thank my colleagues here in the Institute and Hamilton, our technical virtuoso, who has made all of this possible.

From the beginning of Covid, we managed to actually do a lot of activities precisely because Ham was so extraordinarily good at arranging, setting up and then managing complex online events and then hybrid events since then. So thanks very much indeed to our and to our colleague Orla Dong, who is the logistics manager of the institute here. Thanks also to Shamsoddin – my PhD student and all around assistant extraordinaire. The last conference that we held was a really, really big one in May, and even before I mentioned his name, the whole audience started clapping, saying he had won them all.

I want to also say that thank you, obviously, to all our speakers, especially to people who have come from Bulgaria, Romania, North Macedonia and Ukraine, and in one case, England as well. It was a very rich conversation which we are going to continue. And to our keynote speaker, Antoaneta Dimitrova, who couldn’t be here with us, but she set the tone, I think, for the day by framing the issues in such an intelligent way.

Thank you also to our ambassadors, I should say that this is the very last event or the second last event in the Jean Monnet Center of Excellence Project. Adrian, you mentioned yours, and I’ll be very interested to talk to you more about it. We are coming to the end of our three-year period here and it has been extraordinarily worthwhile for us. So we thank the Jean Monnet unit in Brussels for their help and support with doing the best part of it, of course, is always bringing together people who share their experiences and exactly the way that both of you have described in our final session. So thanks again to everybody.

And we shall conclude by having a well-earned drink and more in the roost and elsewhere this evening. So I’ll say goodbye and thank you to everybody, who has turned up our student focus.

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