What have we not understood in Bulgaria about Romanian anti-corruption?

Episode of the juridical podcast of the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives, dedicated to the Romanian experience in the fight against corruption, the parallels between the Bulgarian and Romanian socio-political development in the 21st century, the comparisons between Romanians and Bulgarians, the state of Romanian journalism and the prospects for the elimination of border controls between Romania, Bulgaria and Greece

Tsvetomir Todorov, BIPI – Through the Labyrinths of Law, 28 March 2024 

Vladimir Mitev was a guest on the podcast of the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives hosted by Tsvetomir Todorov. The two spoke about the rise and fall of Romania’s fight against corruption, the evolution of legal consciousness during its rise and the role of the Romanian secret services in it, the situation after 2018. They also discussed about the current socio-political situation in the country, in which the two leading parties of the transition period are in power, parties, which were also the main target of the anti-corruption campaign of Kövesi. In the meantime she herself has been “promoted” to chief prosecutor of the EPPO (European Public Prosecutor’s Office) in Luxembourg.

Vladimir Mitev explained why even Romanian anti-corruption specialists themselves were not and are not satisfied with what it represented in its golden era until 2017-2018. He also commented on Romanian investigative journalism, the idea of eliminating border controls between Greece, Bulgaria and Romania and made some parallels between Bulgarians and Romanians in terms of public life. In turn, Tsvetomir Todorov was constantly looking for parallels between what he heard about Romanian anti-corruption and the Bulgarian situation.

Maria Marinova: Hello, dear listeners, you are listening to “From the Labyrinths of Law” – a podcast of the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives.

In today’s episode, Tsvetomir Todorov and Vladimir Mitev talk about the successes and the not so successful results of the anti-corruption policy in Romania and draw parallels with the fight against corruption in Bulgaria.

Vladimir Mitev is a Romanian-speaking Bulgarian journalist. He is an editor in the Romanian editorial office of Radio Bulgaria and a correspondent of Radio Romania for Bulgaria. Among other things, since 2015 he has been maintaining the Bulgarian-Romanian blog “The Bridge of Friendship”, which currently has over 1750 articles in English, Romanian and Bulgarian about political and public cultural life in Bulgaria and Romania, as well as about Bulgarian-Romanian and regional international relations.

Tsvetomir Todorov: Hello to the listeners of the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives podcast! In today’s episode we continue the topic of Romania. Romania – our very close and seemingly increasingly distant neighbor in some parameters. This time the episode is in Bulgarian, because we are going to talk to one of the greatest experts of contemporary political and social life in Romania, who is Bulgarian and this is the journalist Vladimir Mitev. 

Personally, I have no doubts that Vladimir is the Bulgarian who knows the most about Romania. Why is this so? Because Vladimir has the rare privilege of being a journalist who is equally present on both sides of the border. On the one hand, he is an editor in the Romanian editorial office of Radio Bulgaria and at the same time he is Radio Romania’s correspondent for Bulgaria. But Vlado is also the author who develops the blog “The Bridge of Friendship”. In fact, this is his long-standing project, which he has filled with thousands of articles and interviews on the subject of Bulgarian-Romanian ties, relations, and perhaps problems. The first question to Vladimir is what is the advantage of this dual perspective on the processes that are happening in our country and in Romania.

Vladimir Mitev: Well, if I have to say very briefly, I think the advantage is that one can get experience from different places and therefore maybe more energy to get a better feel of what is happening not only in our countries and in the world. So I think that if we somehow have access to a second culture, we have a more stable base and maybe we can see even a little bit further.

Yes I agree with that, without being in that situation, that really one of the things that maybe we need to get over is that we need to get out of this exclusivity mindset that we have. Not everything that happens – the good, the bad, the ancient and the future is exceptional. You say that too, don’t you? There are parallels, and there are probably many other things in common between us and the Romanians. In the preliminary conversation you mentioned that your favourite topic is the question of the border and could it disappear between the two countries? My question has to do with our recent actual entry into Schengen. After this limited entry, will the border between Bulgaria and Romania disappear?

Of course, the border between countries remains. The point is that there are trends, there is a desire to abolish border controls, which would be some form of facilitation of travel and access and would perhaps give more opportunities for people in border areas – not just transport companies, but people – to travel.

We see that at the end of last year an agreement was reached that allowed Bulgaria and Romania to enter Schengen for the time being at air and sea borders, but still to become part of the Schengen community. This agreement provided for the strengthening of border controls between Bulgaria and Romania, which is also visible, because our listeners may have heard in the news or seen for themselves that, since the beginning of the year, there have been increased checks on trucks travelling to Austria, regardless of their nationality, at the border between Bulgaria and Romania. At this stage, it seems to me that, however much the people of Ruse, for example, would like this border to disappear, or rather for there to be no border controls, we have to accept the reality that the border is there and the border controls are there.

You are describing a paradox – we are supposedly entering Schengen, things should be easier crossing the border, but the opposite happens at land borders.

The European Union obviously has countries with different interests. I think that the general interest, as I understand it as a philosophy of the European Union, is indeed that borders should disappear, and that is a positive thing. If there is a tendency in some areas to increase border controls, I attribute it rather to something temporary. And perhaps our political elites, our society, civil society organisations should work to make this a short-term trend, not a long-term trend.

Yes, I hope everyone. I think later on in the conversation I will come back to the Schengen issue, but somehow I cannot help asking you one other general question. I’ll use the name of your blog “The Bridge of Comradeness” for the occasion…

I call it the “Bridge of Friendship” because “comradeness” is a bit of an ideologically loaded term. Comradeness is still a form of friendship, but I think the term has an ideological weight from the old days when we were all friends by force because we were on the same block or in the same camp. And I’m tempted to use a word that’s not so ideologically loaded.

Well, I will repeat for the listeners that you have the privilege to live in Bulgaria, in Romania and to work both here and there. And do you really think there is, if not comradeness, at least friendship between Bulgarians and Romanians? In general, how do you find the relations between the two peoples? I’m not talking here about inter-state relations, but about relations at the level of people, at the level of nations.

And I think the trend is positive in recent years, maybe since Kiril Petkov became prime minister. And I’m not saying this to make some kind of advertisement for any party or politician. This is just the trend – these relations have been intensifying since then, not so much due to one politician or another is the explanation. For example, president Rumen Radev signed a declaration on strategic partnership with Romania. The explanation is that there is a war in Ukraine. The countries obviously realise that their interest at this stage is to get closer. But here the picture is more complicated, because I think that for a long time both elites and peoples were somehow used to there not being very intensive interaction, to not knowing each other so well, and therefore to there not being so much trust between peoples and elites on one side and the other. 

Now that they are in a situation where they have to develop relationships, it seems to me that there is a challenge for them: not just politicians or not just diplomats to agree something, but deep down in our societies to have some form of interest, curiosity, desire to do something with the other. And that’s where I see the role of some organizations, maybe even like yours, and civic organizations in general and even people who are exempt from organizations. I think that people themselves, for example from cross-border areas or in general, can make a contribution to developing relations not only with Romania. People can also play such a role in relations with Greece and with various other countries.

I have a thesis, which I have even developed in a study I wrote for the Bulgarian Diplomatic Institute last year – if there is a stronger people’s element, although I know there is a lot of speculation about the word people, but if there is people’s participation in regional relations, they will perhaps have more depth, more density, perhaps the potential will increase. So I would say that the trend is positive, but there is a lot of work to be done, if anybody is willing to do it at all, and whoever is willing has a lot to do to improve relations.

We will see if politicians are willing to do that in the future. In my opinion, at the level of citizens, at least in a city like Ruse, more or less this convergence has already happened. You know best – on weekends Romanians come to Ruse. A lot of people from Ruse work in Bucharest because it is close, so maybe where it is possible and there are logistics for it, it is already happening.

Now, in a podcast like ours, we can’t help but start with the big topic that you and I are talking about today – the issue of the Romanian fight against corruption, the successes, the failures, the difference with what is happening in Bulgaria, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the Romanian judicial reform.

We clarified in the preliminary conversation with you that there are a lot of myths and legends in Bulgaria and I think a lot of people would benefit from debunking some of these legends. And you’re shedding light on things that seem to be on the sidelines. What is the big difference between Bulgaria and Romania? How is it that the anti-corruption reforms are successful there and not here?

I wouldn’t say so categorically that they are very successful in one place and not in the other. I would be happy if the conversation that we are having did not so much offer a complete picture, but rather I would be happy if it opened up a space for us to think in a more sophisticated way about Romanian anti-corruption and about our own in Bulgaria. 

You’re right. We don’t know either one very deeply, I think. And there was an impression that Romania was somehow very successful at one time, almost achieved everything, whereas the people I talk to, for example, similar to you in profile, from the NGO sector, who are involved in good governance in Romania, it seems to me that they have almost always been critical of what is happening in their country in the area of anti-corruption. And we see that this was also perhaps missed in our country: we did not notice that in 2018, Laura Kövesi was ”expelled” from Romania and for some time there were criminal charges against her, so that she was politically neutralised. They were dropped in the meantime, but they were only dropped after a while. She was already head of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office by that time.

We may have missed some of the things that have happened. If we have to start from somewhere, maybe we should say that anti-corruption itself is always a kind of balance between different forces in society. Some define the forces as more technocratic, others are perhaps more populist, and so on. There are different approaches to thinking about exactly what the forces are. But the Romanian anti-corruption has been suspended by the Romanian state itself, and it is only in recent times – in March 2022, if I am not mistaken – that this special section in the judicial system, which was set up to control and investigate crimes in the Romanian judiciary, has been moved or redefined so that, in effect, in some form, this increased control that was put in place under Liviu Dragnea can be removed again. From here on, there is a lot that probably needs to be explained. I was just asked a very, very big question…

I’ll stop you for a moment just to point something out to the listeners. You say that Laura Kövesi – the current European prosecutor general, who in Bulgaria we wait almost every time for to come as a messiah and cut the Gordian knot of corruption in Bulgaria, is actually ambiguously perceived in Romania as a fighter against corruption. This is very interesting, because what does it tell us – that there are no unambiguously good and bad in this process? Or for the balance that you mentioned to exist, the people who are involved in this process have to somehow be perceived in very different shades than black and white. Is that how I understand what you are telling us?

Indeed, I can agree that it is difficult to unequivocally judge the characters in Romanian politics or Bulgarian politics or in the fight against corruption. And I think it is best to refer to what exists in Romanian society as an opinion or what existed at the time when there was very strong polarisation in Romania. Perhaps I should do some historical overview of Romanian anti-corruption.

In general, under Laura Kövesi it was in its golden era, 2015 and 2016 were years with many results and many convicted mayors and many closed cases. It has been said that the effectiveness of the Romanian anti-corruption prosecutor’s office is around 90% or even above that figure. And that was for a period of time when actually many of the people who are considered dinosaurs in the Romanian transition (I think that term is used in Bulgaria as well – people who from the point of view of maybe some younger and more technocratic elites have based their success on some clientelist networks, but maybe from another point of view they are representatives of national capital or of some kind of sovereignist tendency in Romanian politics) went behind bars.

Who are the real drivers of judicial reform and anti-corruption policy in Romania? Where do things start?

Things go very far back in time in 2001, if I am not mistaken, with an act of defiance by Ovidiu Budușan, who was then the head of the anti-corruption unit in the General Prosecutor’s Office of Romania. At that time, he was trying to investigate some donations to President Iliescu’s campaign that were coming from a Franco-Romanian businessman and, along that line, he went to the French Embassy, asking for assistance with information and to set up some kind of Franco-Romanian joint commission to look into this matter.

The Prime Minister at the time was Adrian Năstase, who you know went to prison about ten years later. Adrian Năstase was outraged by the frivolity of the prosecutor, who he said should have reported to the Home Office and acted in a coordinated manner. And as a result, Adrian Năstase set out to punish the prosecutors in the anti-corruption unit, deciding to separate them into a separate prosecutor’s office, which was initially called the PNA. You know that the modern anti-corruption prosecutor’s office today is called the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA). At that time it was called the Anti-Corruption National Prosecutor’s Office (PNA). That was the original version of the DNA.

Năstase singles out anti-corruption prosecutors. However, when this happens, it happens just before the completion of the accession negotiations with the European Union, which is linked to the fact that the Romanian Government is looking to sign the accession treaty as quickly as possible. And, in fact, the European Union took an interest in these restructurings in Romanian justice, particularly at the time when the Minister of Justice was Cristian Diaconescu, a well-known figure in Romanian politics, a very influential politician and, later, Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Which years are we talking about?

Sometime in 2004.

Quite early yet.

Cristian Diaconescu was minister of justice in 2004 and he gave Năstase a message that a justice reform would be good for Romania’s EU membership bid, at which point he got the green light and started the cooperation with an anti-corruption specialist who is from Spain. In the end, a reform was initiated, which was continued by Monica Macovei, who is well known in Bulgaria. At that time, various laws were passed which somehow gave more independence and strengthened the status of magistrates, strengthened their independence. The ANI Act was also passed, which is the National Integrity Agency, the agency that checks the property declarations or conflicts of interest of magistrates.

In the end, the success of Macovei, who many people in Bulgaria praise as a great figure, is perhaps mostly in the fact that she gives magistrates this feeling and self-confidence that they can act without fear that a political element will interfere in their activities, that is, without fear that someone will call them on the phone and tell them to do this or that. At that time there was a change in the balance of power in society, as a result of which the magistrates decided, and they obviously saw it in reality, that if anybody judged their activity in terms of efficiency, in terms of correctness, it would be another magistrate. It won’t be some politician who has suffered.

Over time, this change has gone through different stages as a trend and, as one might say in legal language, the legal consciousness of Romanian magistrates has evolved. Daniel Morar became another figure who also played a role in the consolidation of the anti-corruption prosecution. This is already somewhere around 2008-2009.

In the end, the quality of the justice system’s work evolves. Initially, the sentences are suspended.Then they gradually become effective. Then there is confiscation of assets. And somewhere around 2014 I remember, because I wrote about Romanian anti-corruption back then, that there was talk that the next stage would be not just confiscation of the property of people who had caused damage to the state, but that this property should be used for public interest, for example in the field of education, health, etc.The idea was that anti-corruption would come to the point where it is transformed into some form of protected public interest. And that was really the golden age of the Romanian fight against corruption.

I’ll stop your story here for a moment. We also promised ourselves, the listeners, that I would draw some parallels between Romania and Bulgaria. My observation shows that in Bulgaria similar processes are taking place in the same period, although with different intensity. BORKOR has been set up, the KPKONPI – the equivalent of the Integrity Commission, ANI as it is called in Romania. Then a specialised court was set up. However, although similar processes are under way, nothing similar to the Romanian experience has happened here. That is to say, in this period – 2014-2016 – in Romania, their magistrates apparently managed to emancipate themselves from the political hat. Not only did they emancipate themselves, but they also managed to actually start fighting corruption in the Romanian political elite, whereas in Bulgaria this is not happening. It is really interesting, this emancipation, the lack of fear in the Romanian justice consciousness that you are talking about, how is it happening there? I mean, what protects their magistrates? Perhaps there is some pressure all the time against them?

Perhaps I should continue the explanation of Romanian anti-corruption as it developed with its contradictions. This polarisation that led to its suspension or freezing started in 2016.

The Social Democratic Party got a pretty good result in the parliamentary elections, which were in December 2016. I‌ was in Bucharest at that time to report about the elections. The people I was talking to were expecting a war to follow. I remember Liviu Dragnea saying then that he wanted peace. 

Liviu Dragnea, let me clarify for our listeners, was a leader of the Social Democrats who was accused throughout the period from 2016 to 2019 of developing a kind of Orbanism or a kind of Kaczynism, that is, sovereignism on the model of Hungary or Poland. He was trying to introduce a sovereigntist element into Romanian politics. Then Dragnea explained that he wanted peace and so on, but everybody expected that there would be war.

Our listeners remember how in 2016 there were some parliamentary elections in Romania, which were won by the Social Democratic Party with a big result. Immediately after that, literally January 2017, there were big protests in Romania, which, if I am not mistaken, reached 600 000 people in Bucharest and throughout the country. And these protests unfolded because the Social Democratic Party tried to introduce a limit below which certain crimes related to corruption would not be prosecuted criminally, that is to say, there would be a limit to the damage. I am not sure what the figure was – whether it was EUR 40 000 or something like that, there was some figure below which there would be no such cases. And that was a kind of step towards redefining the fight against corruption, which continued in the following months and years. This process continued in such a way that many international powers got involved.

For example, Rudy Giuliani, who was Trump’s lawyer, wrote letters expressing reservations about Romania’s fight against corruption. There were articles in various Western media. Some of them were positive about the fight against corruption, some were against what was happening in Romania. There was a lot of talk that it was somehow being used by the secret services in Romania. That is to say, it rests on the fact that there is some collusion between the well-known SRI intelligence, the internal intelligence of Romania and, roughly speaking, the judiciary, the various institutions in the judiciary, so that they use the infrastructure and the information of this intelligence. In the course of this process of war that I am talking about, it is precisely these agreements that have been brought to light.

I remember this period because it so happened that I was watching Romanian television at that time and literally every evening on the evening political talk show of the Romanian national television, various new elements of this story were discussed, in which a mass of discontent was accumulating against Laura Kövesi. Accordingly, we have seen how her effectiveness has gradually fallen, and news has gradually begun to emerge that she is losing her nerve, that she wants results and there are none, and so on. Prosecutors subordinated to her prosecutor’s office started to appear publicly, saying some alternative things and critical of what was happening.

That is to say, I would say that to some extent this polarisation, which started with the Social Democratic Party seeking this redefinition of anti-corruption, has led to the fact that, in the end, in 2018, the Constitutional Court of Romania ruled something that may seem like a return to the original state of affairs before the reform that we talked about, that gave independence to magistrates. The Constitutional Court ruled on an interpretation of the Constitution that prosecutors are subordinate to the Minister of Justice. And as a result, the Minister of Justice, Tudorel Toader, who is otherwise a very respected jurist, who came from the University of Iași, received, including from Iohannis, the resignation of Laura Kövesi. And this was accompanied by the creation of the so-called special unit for the investigation of crimes in the magistracy and in the judiciary, which played the role of a brake on the attempts of someone to revive this anti-corruption. It was a kind of body that was really put there so that if anybody was shuffling, they could be put in place. But nobody was actually shuffling after that. The proof is – and our listeners can check if they read, for example, on Free Europe Romania, that when this unit was being closed down or redefined, there was information that only five indictments were made between 2018 and 2022. I mean, his idea was not to indict that many and put someone behind bars. It was just meant to serve as a deterrent.

I’ll take you back to that conflict between Dragnea and Laura Kövesi. In the end, Kövesi was removed from office and then de facto promoted, becoming European prosecutor. Dragnea, on the other hand, went to jail a little later, did he not? So it appears that somebody else is profiting from these trials. And this brings to an end this golden era of anti-corruption trials in Romania. Who is this third person who is winning? And who puts an end to this thing that is happening?

I think there is no end. At least as long as our countries exist, the balance of power between countries is always dynamic, and it must be linked to international balances.

But I like very much what you note as a remark that Laura Kövesi, who was accused of being almost a traitor, of having committed so many crimes, was actually promoted. And I have thought so. That might just be some kind of sign that everybody was just doing their job that the state required of them. And Laura Kövesi was fulfilling the role that the state expected of her. And in that sense, it cannot so easily be said that what she did was wrong.

It has been said that many convictions obtained through these secret protocols of cooperation between the secret services and the justice system are illegal. There were allegations that sentences that were handed down on the basis of these protocols would have no effect. That is to say, there was talk that there could be a huge chaos in the legal system, but from what has happened since then and what I have seen so far, I have not noticed that there has been any chaos. I could be wrong here, of course, but I have not noticed that there have been any cases against Romania or anything like that.

Basically, it was said back then that Romania was one of the countries with the most cases in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This must have been like a tradition of time. And it was linked to the Laura Kövesi era as well. But, despite this, I have not noticed the chaos that was rumoured to potentially arise in Romanian justice. Romanian justice just seemed to move on.

And what happens after that? Maybe we should just see how the situation in society and politics has developed in recent years. It seems to me that a lot of people would agree with me that there is a restoration in Romanian society of exactly those forces that were very much subjected to the fight against corruption. The sovereignists are being restored on the one hand, the old-style clientelist parties on the other. We have the same or similar rhetoric in Bulgaria. These clientelist parties are actually the Social Democratic Party and the National Liberal Party, the two big parties. They, with the help of President Iohannis, have found a formula where they have a rotating government, which our listeners may also know about, because it is believed that the Bulgarian model of rotating government is somehow inspired by the Romanian one and by the idea that in Romania the two main parties swap prime ministers.

And in fact what we see is that in recent years, maybe just since Dragnea’s time, the subsidies that the parties receive have increased a lot. These subsidies go to fund media influence, generally to buy media influence or media silence. Many of the major television stations and media outlets receive such funding, as, for example, the Media Recorder has revealed. This is what is written in the more independent Romanian media. In fact, these two parties, which used to compete and expose each other’s sins, so that they could not in any way carry out many secret or dubious deals undisturbed, are now together, and do not reveal much of their moves or their profits at all.

There are cases at the moment, even from months ago, in which we can see, for example, petrol stations or gas stations operating without a licence, but the owner is a mayor from one of the two major parties, or a fire happening on a farm that has no licence for or no fire safety certificate, but enjoys good treatment from the leadership of the Competition Commission, etc. That is to say, we see cases where the businesses that are of these parties somehow go ahead and are not subjected to much scrutiny. There have been casualties from some of these incidents that I am mentioning. There have been deaths. And a situation arises where it looks as if the country has been taken over by big money.

You narrate very engagingly, but I feel some clarifications are important. I understand that at the moment the Romanian assembly (coalition of the big parties) is working for the politicians. The anti-corruption energy has already been tamed. I understand that we have a new balance of power within Romanian society, which, however, may not be very good for the fight against corruption. On the other hand, if we go back to the golden age that you are talking about, the justice reform and the fight against corruption in general, what statistics do you talk about the results of the golden age of Romanian anti-corruption before 2018? How many politicians with what profile have been jailed? Can you name some of the biggest fish that were caught in the net of the anti-corruption prosecution.

We are talking about hundreds of mayors, many ministers, the brother of the incumbent president, the brother of Traian Basescu, was also hit. Perhaps the most significant figure who went to prison was Adrian Năstase. In fact, the man who made this reform of the judicial system, which laid the foundations for the anti-corruption prosecution, fell victim to his own creation.

Basically, Năstase, I gathered from your words that he wanted to punish the prosecutors, but something else happened in the end.

Yes, because subsequently this creature, the DNA, as we said, got emancipated in a different setting when he was not prime minister.

This could be a warning for politicians in Bulgaria when they create something that seems to be very convenient or something quite their size. We do not really know in time how the magistrates will emancipate themselves, because as we know in Bulgaria, in Romania the public and professional life of politicians and magistrates is very different. In fact, Dragnea himself is also going to prison.

Yeah. He went to jail, if I am not mistaken, on the second day or even the first day after the European elections in 2019. The fact that his party did not get as much support then as it might have meant that the public was behind it, but the Save Romania Union, the anti-corruption force, got relatively good support. This showed a certain balance of power. That is how I explain it. Of course, it has not been said that Dragnea is going to jail because he lost the elections, but I think that the result of the elections was a sign of what the balance of power in society is.

And a corresponding green traffic light for him to go to jail effectively. Well, I find it very difficult to be convinced that the Romanian anti-corruption reform is ineffective, that is, it does not work with all these figures. However, what do the Romanians themselves think about what has happened to them in all these twenty years?

From the conversations that, as I said, I have had and interviews with people who I think are specialists in this field, I would like to quote one interview that exists in Bulgarian and our listeners can read it. It had as its title that the success of the Romanian anti-corruption was false. My interlocutor’s thesis was that it rested on something like a magic shoe or something like Cinderella had to transform a pumpkin into a carriage. That something was the collaboration with the secret service that I mentioned. I have also heard from other people that this anti-corruption, even though it has put a lot of people behind bars and even though it has suppressed the sovereignists in Romania, even though it has contributed to some balances changing in society so that perhaps more foreign investment can come in and somehow strengthen ties with Western Europe, it has nevertheless rested on something that has not lasted and has not been, perhaps, right. And the problem, as I understand it again from my interlocutors, is that there is a balance of power in society that is not so clearly visible at first sight. There is a concentration of power in certain structures or in certain institutions. This balance has not really been changed by the Romanian anti-corruption. These are Romanian opinions from people who understand their society and claim to know the literature on anti-corruption issues.

It is about the strong concentration, characteristic of Romanian society, of power in the secret services or in some non-elected institutions. This is something typical of Romania. Electoral institutions have a very low public rating. The non-elected institutions – the army, the church, the secret services – have a high rating and are therefore somewhat influential in society. This concentration of power has somehow remained intact. There is a view that a genuine fight against corruption should distribute the balance of power in society more democratically.

Yes, I think the point of your Romanian colleague has become clear. But I think you mention the secret services several times for a reason. I think they are one of the big differences between the Bulgarian experience of the anti-corruption model and the one in Romania. My opinion, and I have heard it from other places, is that the Romanian secret services, whatever that involves, I am not very familiar with, actually more or less manage to pull the strings, including at political level. Whereas in Bulgaria, you and I had a preliminary conversation that here things seem to be happening at the level of oligarchs, that is to say, there is an intertwining between oligarchs and politicians. These services are perhaps the biggest winners at the moment from the mutual taming between the judiciary, the prosecution, anti-corruption institutions on the one hand, and politicians on the other. In fact, it may be that it is really the services that are the big winners, and it is they who stand at the top of Romanian public political life.

I have heard a thesis from a Romanian, let’s say, who knows our region to some extent, that in Romania there is a captive state and in Bulgaria there is a captive state, as we say about our government. But different forces have captured the state. Generally speaking, for Romania, this is the thesis that he is developing, that it is the secret services that have captured the state. Whereas for Bulgaria his thesis is really that it is the oligarchy that has captured the state. Perhaps this means that if someone really wants to free the state from captivity, perhaps the solution could be different in the two countries. We look at the other state as a kind of model or as a mirror, but it may be that somehow the solution is in a different direction and model.

In terms of sustainability, you really don’t know which model is going to be better. The future will tell.

Yes, but it will obviously be a model that will be played by our politicians and our society. It is not going to be some model that is just put down and applied. This is my feeling about Bulgaria – whoever wants to do reform has to have people on the ground who know what they are doing and embody it. And so it seems to me that Bulgarian society is not only very sceptical about reforms, political and all sorts of things, and doesn’t like things to change. And if somebody really wants to change something, they have to show it and they have to show in time that it works and they have to show that this change happens in a very smart and conscious way.

Because you had asked me earlier about our reform, I made a disclaimer that I am not a law expert, but this is my feeling about Bulgarian society – it is very sceptical about new things, about changes and everything that will be done. There must be apostles here in general.

I can come to another conclusion about the parallels between the Romanian and Bulgarian fight against corruption or judicial reform. This is something that always strikes me. Ever since I have been writing on these topics, which I think has been since 2012, there have been anti-corruption experts in Romania who I think are really experts. That is to say, I do not see them as having any bias for one party or the other. I see that there is some familiarity, some knowledge of the literature, some critical thinking. They somehow don’t think so pro and anti – that one is good and the other is bad. They think complexly.

The impression I have from the people I have communicated with in Bulgaria at the moment – of course, maybe I should exclude your institute from this, but in general I do not know of a real expert in Bulgaria who has any ability to explain impartially and with knowledge what are the indicators of success, what is the way, what is the experience of other countries. I think that these people who want to do this kind of anti-corruption in our country or judicial reform, they really need to create expertise, in addition to just taking power and imposing some laws. For me, one of the problems of our society is expertise and the fact that there are not many people who pass for experts. Our ‘experts’ are actually faces of one party or another, or a political force or lobby, and they just act as propagandists for the trend. In my opinion, a real expert should be above these things.

You’re very right about this thing. You are absolutely right, especially about the NGO sector. For quite a few years now, we have even seen another process, which is called creating doubles. That is to say, in all fields of public political life, organisations are being created which have the role of being, solely, political duplicates of actually existing organisations. There are also doubles in terms of what they do, but I think that is still part of this struggle for balance.

On the other hand, let me defend the anti-corruption sector in Bulgaria. I am not saying that I disagree with you, on the contrary, this very bold conclusion that you are making, I accept it completely to some extent, but there is also this fact in Bulgaria – none of us actually has the comfort of being able to look from the side. That is to say, the processes are too dynamic, too continuous, and we are constantly focused on the specific moment, on the specific battle, and we seem to miss the big card of the fight against corruption. So from that point of view, you know, I totally support your point. There is a need to work in expertise at the institutional level, at the media level and at the NGO sector level.

On the other hand, something occurred to me regarding the weaker role of the services in Bulgaria. I do not know, you may be aware, that in 1992 Bulgaria dismissed 12 000 – I cannot tell you the exact figure – members of the various security services – not only the secret services, but also various units of the economic militia or, later, the financial police. There is an opinion that these people immediately went over to the other side. That is, in the Bulgarian case, the services were decapitated. And in fact the leaders, former leaders of these services more or less got involved in organised crime, which then grew into economic crime. This is the reason why the Bulgarian secret services are subordinated to these oligarchic-economic and then oligarchic-political-economic circles to this day.

My personal opinion is that in such a period, in which Bulgaria is at the moment – a turbulent period, in which we are ruled by an assemblage, unclear by which forces and how long it will last after a whole series of elections, in my opinion the services now have a chance to emancipate themselves and perhaps their role will grow. I cannot yet say whether this is for good or for evil. So the balance of power in Bulgaria is yet to be found. But I congratulate you once again for this courageous comment you have made about the anti-corruption sector in Bulgaria.

You mentioned the journalist in Romania a couple of times, obviously the investigative journalist in Romania is coping or at least was coping. What I have observed over the years is that she is better than the Bulgarian journalist. We see that there is some emancipation in Romanian investigative journalism as well. You as a journalist can safely compare journalism in Bulgaria and in Romania – especially investigative journalism.

I’m really interested in Romanian journalism and I think I have contacts there as well, including I’ve written for various Romanian media and I even have collaborations at the moment. Really, the fact that there is a developed investigative journalism there is something for me that is not there in our country. In our country, as far as I can see, investigations are maybe only done by one site or two sites by the same people. And we, all of our listeners know who I’m talking about.

But in Romania, for example, there is a media Recorder that makes video investigations. Something that the investigative media do not do here. Recorder does investigations of very good quality, with huge popularity. They have hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of views. This is a media that is funded by the Romanians. It has a budget of millions of euros in turn. This is a media institution that has built itself up from the fact that, as far as I can see, when they do their investigations, they can call anyone, including the police. I just don’t see a distinct person who is untouchable. They did investigations about President Iohannis, about the fact that he, for example, flies private jets for high amounts of money that he hides. Whereas the traditional practice is for state travel to have a budget that is public. They made an investigation about how the parties finance the media and how they buy media silence. They did investigations about customs, which is also telling in the context of the Schengen issue – that customs is actually a place patronised by politicians where money is generated.

But this is just one of the investigative media. It is not the only one. There is, I think, some space that it has carved out for itself where it has a subjectivity and that is felt by Romanians as an audience. So they donate and somehow something happens in Romanian journalism.

But I have to say that there is social journalism in Romania – something that doesn’t seem to exist here. Maybe recently there have been some attempts through some smaller sites in our country, but in Romania there are a few journalists specialized in domestic violence as an issue or on the topic of trafficking of women, etc.

I would also like to add that Romanian journalism is also in crisis and quite seriously, including for the reason I said that in practice many of the media do not publish much material critical of the major parties. Somehow a lot of things appear in some smaller media, if they appear anywhere. There are various problems in Romanian journalism.

As far as I can see, Romanian journalists themselves have this sense of crisis. So I would say it is better that they have investigative journalism. It is better that there are journalists who are an institution. There was a case where a journalist even wrote books about how leading politicians, for example, the Prime Minister of Romania, plagiarised when he wrote his dissertation. And she uncovered several such cases, including with Nicolae Ciuca, Victor Ponta. These are prime ministers of Romania, former senior ministers have also been caught. If I’m not mistaken, the interior minister was caught as well.

I would develop the following thesis – there is some larger space in Romania, that is. There is literally more space where you can be yourself if you have a vision of something. On the one hand there is more space, on the other hand there is more critical mass. I mean, I see in different ways how people are involved in civic organizations, for example, that are fighting for the right to the city or the right to housing, or fighting for some social issues. There are grassroots movements in Romania that are almost non-existent in Bulgaria. Maybe Romanian society or state is built in such a way that people have energy.

Speaking of journalism, I think we can move on to society. My feeling is that in our country, many people are tired of their daily duties. Somehow it seems to me that in Romania more people are doing something that suits them as a job, or suits their interests, or their knowledge, their experience or their moral sense of what is right. And somehow they have the energy to do something, maybe on the plus side, and there are just some formulas by which society is more alive, more vital, and maybe that’s why there are more examples of journalists who are therefore championing a cause that maybe dooms them to hardship. But they do. They don’t feel crushed..

What you are saying right now – the whole last reflection, I don’t know if you realise, but it shows not only a huge difference between Bulgarian and Romanian society, but also prompts me to ask you a question.

I admit I have been to Bucharest twice for the period of a month. I know in some way, some of their institutions and this question keeps coming up. Is the big difference between Bulgaria and Romania not actually one of scale? Because in Bulgaria the feeling is that in every professional field all the people know each other, which makes it very difficult, for example, in the academic field for someone to say “The king is naked”. Journalists are very fond of rewarding themselves in some way. Not all, of course. In the judiciary, we see how things usually come down to ‘a raven does not pluck out a crow’s eye’. Whether the difference between Bulgaria and Romania comes from scale. Romania has a larger territory and perhaps almost three times the population that we have, and certainly younger demographics than Bulgaria. Perhaps that is why things are so different, both in terms of the vibrancy of society and the energy that is there. And ultimately also in terms of outcomes.

I think there is merit to what you are saying because I have made similar comparisons myself. Doing my comparisons it has seemed to me that we are very mixed in Bulgaria and that makes us ambiguous when we go outside Bulgaria. As a people, we don’t express any very extreme positions in many cases, and even somehow it seems to me that the very way we construct our society is more about not saying many things openly or judging within ourselves about how things are.

Maybe I’m wrong about what I’m saying, but it seems to me that in Romania I’ve also seen people swearing more and being much more aggressive sometimes verbally towards each other. And that might again have something to do with the fact that there is more mass, more space, more opportunity to even be rude and not get hurt by it. And that’s where for me some problem arises when Bulgarians and Romanians get together, because we probably in many ways have similar cases and problems. This experience, which I share from Romania, as far as I understand from your assessment, also applies to us as concepts, as realities. But perhaps Romanians are used to moving things forward in their own way. And when we get together with them, some conflicts or differences arise simply from not having the knowledge of the other model. And for example I have been told by Romanians that they find it difficult to define me. Based on their statements that they find it difficult to put me in a certain camp or group I have thought that maybe we do have some ambiguity as a people, whereas they are very insistent on not appearing ambiguous. But then again, so to speak, these are very general conclusions and maybe they don’t apply to everybody, but just as a spirit, as concepts, as principles, as criteria it seems to me that we might keep them in mind and find our own formula or our listeners might find when they think about these things.

Let’s hope. I will allow myself just one more short question, which may actually contain material for another conversation with you at another time. We have separated the Schengen issue from the very beginning. We are not 100% accepted. Some are angry. I think it is perfectly logical, but it was about this mini-Schengen between Bulgaria, Greece and Romania. You are a specialist in this area, monitoring the process. Do you think there is a future for such a formation?

If we look at our state leaders and foreign policy elites, there is no interest in implementing this idea. I have been trying to gather opinions for at least five years, and I have been gathering both negative opinions and positive opinions or looking for opinions. I am open to opinions, but this idea has not taken off in our country and in our society, our elites.

Rather, I think you are wrong, because here our media presented about a month ago that the idea for a mini-Schengen came from Daniel Lorer.

It’s only been recently since January. But I’m talking about the fact that we have foreign policy elites, we have think tanks, we have experts who have been in the media for years and they have never shared a conversation about such an idea. They’ve never explained what the positive and the negative is, and somehow it seems to me from the conversations I’ve had with them both officially and unofficially that they’ve always sort of shied away from this idea. They have been afraid, for example, that this idea would somehow mean something like a Plan B and would rather isolate Bulgaria and Romania.

While, for example, from my conversations with Romanians, interviews that can be read on my blog, there are Romanians, and people with expertise in international relations, who say that when two countries from some peripheral position cooperate, it can bring them closer to the centre rather than if each one separately tries to move towards it. And I find this idea in various Romanians, I find it in Francophones, I find it in Romanians who are connected to German political foundations. Of course, we see that Adina Velian, for example, the Romanian EU Commissioner, has expressed some scepticism towards this idea, but again it seems to me that this idea, even if it is not at this stage taken up by our political elites, it as a spirit also has a certain role to play, and I am rather interested in its spirit, and it seems to me that this spirit to which, apparently, Daniel above has in some way succumbed for good or for evil…

…or tries to ride it…

…This spirit seems to me to be perhaps driving something to change in our region. At least from my point of view, the idea is that people can have more energy to do things across borders and in the region. And I think that’s the positive element. Another thing is that, in general, our state elites in both countries are national-centric. That is to say, they look to themselves at most to control the things that are happening in the state and not to let these things shuffle around too much. They look to keep control because you know, being in a peripheral position, you’re probably afraid that something happens somewhere in the world and somebody will somehow turn your openness against you. Usually people who are in a peripheral position are more closed. But as I said, there are arguments both for and against this idea and it’s worth at least thinking about it and the spirit of it. I think there’s a lot to learn from it.

Thank you for this post. I personally think that in the context of the events in Ukraine, against the backdrop of the project related to the Trimorie and the infrastructure projects that have recently shown signs of being driven in the North-South axis, I think that there is a future, if not in the fall of the border in the near future, at least in the connectivity between Bulgaria and Romania. Maybe for different reasons, not because of people’s energy, but maybe energy will win.

Dear listeners, time has moved on and obviously we will not touch all the topics that concern the Bulgarian-Romanian relations, the corruption in Bulgaria, in Romania, the international relations and the war in Ukraine, which is obviously a factor both in Romanian politics and in Bulgarian politics at the moment. But that will remain for another additional episode with Vladimir. Thank you! It was very very interesting, I hope the listeners did too. Something to finish.

Well, to finish, let’s read and care about our neighbors. This is something you do too. And I’m willing to support any such interests that you have and a future.

It’s a nice educational finale. And for the more inquisitive of you, our listeners, I say that in the description of the podcast we’ll put a link to Vladimir Mitev’s blog. There are thousands of articles and interviews there on Bulgaria and Romania. Thanks again and see you soon!

Photo: Laura Codruța Koveși graffiti (sursă: BabuCC BY-SA 4.0 DEED, Wikipedia Commons)

Subscribe to Cross-border Talks’ YouTube channel! Follow the project’s Facebook and Twitter page! And here is the podcast’s Telegram channel!

Like our work? Donate to Cross-Border Talks or buy us a coffee!

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content