Iulian Mareș: Romania will try to raise its regional profile and will need partners

Part 3 of the interview with the Romanian who promotes better relations between Romania and the Balkans

Vladimir Mitev, The Bridge of Friendship, 14 January 2024

Iulian Mareș is an independent journalist and president of the Balkan Development Support Association, with a career of over 20 years in international relations, banking and public administration, currently a PhD student at the University of Bucharest. 

The Friendship Bridge approached it in the context of its own editorial project dedicated to understanding Romanian society in the electoral year 2024. As part of this project, we will discuss with several interlocutors who have an understanding of political and social developments in Romania. 

You wrote an article in which you developed the hypothesis that the future Romanian president will deal more with the Eastern Romanians, so to speak, in the areas of Moldova and Ukraine.

Yeah, I expect they’ll do that.

Does this mean that Romania will have a more patriotic president than Iohannis? 

If the future president insists on relations with the Romanians in the region, it will not be out of patriotism. Let’s be serious. Let’s be realistic. At the moment, on the one hand, the election is going well. I’m not just talking about the eastern border. I’m also talking about the Romanians in Serbia. For example, the Romanians in the Balkans. There are plenty of them. So, on the one hand, it’s going well and, on the other, Romania has reached a level of maturity. However, 30 years have passed and Romania’s aspiration at the moment is to be a little more present in its immediate neighbourhood. In other words, there is a natural growth, it has naturally reached this point. On the other hand, there is also the regional and international context, Moldova and Ukraine have an open road towards the European Union, and Romania will play a role in this respect, because we have Romanian communities in Moldova and Ukraine.

What do you expect the concrete results of Romania’s increased presence in the region to mean? Will Romania be more hegemonic or more collaborative?

More collaborative. Romania has neither the tradition, nor the school, nor the capacity to behave as a hegemon in relation to any other state. We don’t have that school, we don’t know how. We don’t know how to do it and we don’t have the intention, because we don’t have that exercise, like other countries that have had colonies. Romania does not have that exercise, so we have no appetite for it. I guarantee it.

It is an insular element in the Romanian identity. If this island asserts itself will it assert itself as a hegemon or not?

Not necessarily. Don’t you remember what they say about Romania – the bologna doesn’t explode? Does that mean Romania is a big country that doesn’t swell? So no, I don’t see a hegemon scenario with the Western Balkans and even Bulgaria as possible. 

Perhaps you have a better perspective on the role Romania can play in the region. What does a more present Romania mean: investments, cultural projects, people-to-people relations…? Won’t Romania need some infrastructure?

Some infrastructure is needed. This is a big problem for Romania, for Romania’s presence in the Balkans: “how to do this job”? Romania does not know exactly this. From my point of view, we don’t know exactly how to be more present in the Balkans. And the lines that have been taken so far, which, for example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken, are the traditional ones, with cultural diplomacy, attempts at economic cooperation. That has been done so far. What I see, looking at Romania’s diplomatic activity in the Balkan states, is simply a greater number of projects. To sum up what I’m saying now: we’re trying to do the same thing, but a bit more.

Do you think that Romania needs sincere and genuine partners, who are more numerous and grow naturally in the areas it wants to work with?

Yes, definitely. Definitely yes. It is necessary for any two countries that want to develop sincere partnerships or sincere collaborations. It needs leaders capable of starting and carrying forward such partnerships. At the moment, my opinion is that, at least in Romania, there is a lack of such leaders. The same in Serbia, I dare say. In Bulgaria I don’t know how things are. With Hungary it’s really not the case, let’s be serious. What is left? Ukraine. Ukraine in the situation where it’s pretty much tried with this war. If I look at it objectively and realistically, the only neighbouring country that Romania can develop with at the moment is Bulgaria, apart from the Republic of Moldova, which is a special case for Romania. 

I still believe that Bulgaria should be a natural partner for Romania. It seems to me a problem that Bulgaria keeps thinking very nationally centric and somehow I think we need more bridges, let’s say bridge people or bridge organisations. I don’t think they are enough when it comes to Romanian-Bulgarian relations.

Yes. Ask yourself what our “national disease” is. With the quotation marks. In the Romanians it’s lack of interest. We don’t care, apart from ourselves we care little about others. With you Bulgarians, it is, as you said, nationalism. Yes, you are too interested in yourselves. We are not interested in others, but that does not mean that we are not interested in ourselves. I don’t know if I made myself clear. There are things that matter a lot to you that matter very little to us.

Talking about Romanian relations with the Balkans, there are now protests in Serbia and the Romanian press wrote that a Romanian woman was involved at a high level in the opposition. How do Romanians perceive these developments in Serbia? My hypothesis is that these protests fit well with the self-perception of Romanian elites as an outpost of the West in the region, from which they advocate a stance against dictators considered “anti-Western”.

I will make three points. One is what you were saying, that the news in Romania said that there was a Romanian woman involved in the protests in Serbia. That’s the height of it. As always, in such situations, if there is a global disaster or something bad happens in some country, we are interested in a Romanian who happens to be there. So it’s a kind of Romanian provincialism in looking at situations like this. If the Romanian press is so capable of capturing what is happening there, in Serbia, the fact that there is a marginal element, i.e. a Romanian woman involved, means that we are not interested in what is happening as a whole, the phenomenon as a whole. The news in Romania is that there is a Romanian woman involved. So this is a first observation about the Romanian perception of the protests in Serbia – the provincialism that characterizes the Romanian press. 

The second observation perhaps concerns the events themselves that are happening there. My guess is that no, they won’t make any difference to the current situation. It’s simply a small show. 

And the third observation, which concerns our perception, the Romanians, about what is happening there, in Serbia, that of people, especially those who are over 50 years old. They are left with this perception, their perception of Serbia is actually their perception of Yugoslavia. People over 50 in Romania have a very good opinion about Serbia and what is happening in Serbia, but it is an uninformed opinion. I mean if you ask 100 Romanians how many of them have been to Serbia to see things over there, one if they went out of a hundred, that’s good, but I don’t think so. On the other hand, I saw among the intellectual elite such an excitement, that, look, finally protests in Belgrade against Vucic’s dictatorship and so on. Let’s be serious. It’s like Erdogan’s Turkey. It’s not the time for change in either Serbia or Turkey. Nor will it be any time soon.

How do you see the geopolitical reasoning of the Romanian elites in an election year?

The Romanian elites, the political elites in particular, want to be in the position of the child sucking on two tits, they want the advantages, but not the obligations. 

Several times this note has been made about Bulgarians. Romanians always ask me why Bulgaria is playing both ends.

Because perception differs, perception differs a lot. Just today I was reading an article that said exactly that – that Romania has no crime. How is that? That’s what it said in that article – “The sin of low crime”. The article says that in Romania there is complicity between the underworld and the state. And things are perceived as less serious, lighter, lighter, precisely because of this.

Several Bulgarians have the impression that Romanians and Hungarians or Hungarians are in conflict, while I personally have the opposite impression. It seems to me that relations between Romania and Hungary, and Romanians and Hungarians are actually very good lately. What do you think about this?

There have been very good and very consistent relations for about 10-15 years now, but that’s because somewhere in the 1990s peace was made and peace was made, because the Americans said so – make peace. Well, things need to be nuanced a bit, because the macro-level relationship between Romania and Hungary is very good, but at the micro-level there are still some problems, because Hungary does not play fair. If you go to Harghita and Covasna, you don’t find many Hungarians who know Romanian, which is not ok, because they complain that they can’t find a job, but they can’t find a job because they don’t know Romanian and they don’t know Romanian, because they don’t learn Romanian in school, because their political leaders think so. At this point I expect Romania to re-examine a little bit the relationship with Hungary.

Will there be some dispute or difference?

No. Only Romania will no longer be willing to say yes to whatever Hungary wants. Until now it has been like that – it was always agreed in Bucharest what Budapest wanted. But at the moment Hungary, or rather Orban, has had a certain “performance” at European level.

Orban or Hungary are very influential in our whole region…

Orban is very influential, but you see, at the moment Romania looks at Orban as an exponent of Russia and you know very well that here, in Romania, there is Russophobia. At the moment, this Russophobia is spreading to Hungary. For Romania, Hungary is no longer just Hungary. It is bundled with Russia.

Romanians voted for Iohannis, also having an idea of the Germans, on which Iohannis’ election slogans were based – “Romania of a job well done”, “A different kind of politician”. It’s an impression that Germans are the opposite of Romanians in a good way. Germany has invested a lot in Romania. 300,000 jobs are in German companies and the number of German companies that exist in Romania seems to be 24,000. This is probably also due to the Iohannis effect, a coupling of the German economy with the Romanian economy. And I see that part of the Romanian elite seems to be very open to Germany. So a lot of modernity enters Romania through Germany. Do you think this will change in the coming year, because Iohannis will leave?

No, no. This thing will stay the same, because these are not things that depend on one person or depend on one president. These things are a reality that has been built up over the last 20 years and is very well anchored in Romania. It is not going to disappear. What you said is not due to Iohannis. It’s just the opposite. Iohannis owes it to this reality.

In Bulgaria it seems to me that, surprisingly for some Romanians, Bulgaria is developing its relations with France lately. So we have this minister and deputy prime minister, Mariya Gabriel, former European commissioner, married to a Frenchman, and she actually seems to be a driving force in the government, even a force behind Ukraine-related policies. A foreign policy strategy is currently being written under the aegis of Deputy Prime Minister and former Euro-Commissioner Mariya Gabriel at the launch of talks about technology transfer with the participation of Bulgarian companies as well. It seems Bulgaria is veering towards France lately and I wonder if that doesn’t explain the Romanian USR. To what extent does this diminished role of the USR mean that the Romanian state or Romanian society is not interested in strong Macronists?

No. They have nothing to do with each other. The French influence, like the German influence in Romania, is very well anchored and that’s a good thing. For Romania it brings stability, it brings prosperity. 

As a small aside, I find this phenomenon of mixed marriages and Bulgarian-French, Romanian-French and so on very interesting. It’s a subject I recommend you to follow. 

On the other hand, there is now a European consensus to bring the Republic of Moldova into the European Union. Probably the same European consensus exists for Ukraine. What I know for sure is that a kind of competition between states is now underway, which will contribute as much as possible to this process of bringing the two states into the European family. Who will show themselves as a champion of bringing Moldova and Ukraine closer to the European Union. Whoever shows himself as a champion at this moment will be rewarded later, including, as you said, Bulgarian companies could be involved in the reconstruction of Ukraine. It is an advantage the position your government has at this moment in relation to Ukraine. It is the same with us. He who has ears let him hear and he who has brains let him understand. If you play the card of a promoter of Moldova’s and Ukraine’s rapprochement to the European Union now, you will gain later. 

I like to give the following example. Think of it this way at the moment: the infrastructure projects that are being launched on the border between Romania and Ukraine, most of them financed by European funds, have reached the amount of more than one billion euro. I am talking about bridges, I am talking about roads which are at various stages of completion between Romania and Ukraine. Since the European Union is investing EUR 1 billion in infrastructure in Ukraine, on the border with Romania, it is clear that, given that Ukraine is a state at war, the decision is made. There is a firm decision, because no one invests a billion euros, only to lose the investment a year later. So it is clear that one way or another Ukraine will come into the European Union in the next few years, and so will the Republic of Moldova. I repeat, one way or another, there are several scenarios being considered.

This is, how shall I say, the big boys game, Major League game. And we’re favored by geography being where we are. Where’s Bulgaria? Where’s Romania? We’re near Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova.

Photo: (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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