Why do we Romanians not cooperate with the Bulgarians? We don’t consider each other relevant enough

An interview about current issues in Romanian-Bulgarian relations at the level of the people and the state elites: the grade of mutual interest between people and the media in the two countries, the non-existing cultural centres of each of the countries in the capital of the other, the competition between the countries for the attention of the West, the similarities and differences between life in them and other issues

Ionela Doboș, PressHub, 4 June 2024

Relations between Romania and Bulgaria have been rather characterized by the public perception of rivalry in relation to the West, says Vladimir Mitev, a Romanian-speaking Bulgarian journalist and one of the few commentators on socio-political events in Bulgaria for Romanian newsrooms.Last year he published a study on Romanian-Bulgarian relations under the auspices of the Bulgarian Diplomatic Institute.

Until the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, there were no efforts towards a better mutual Romanian-Bulgarian knowledge, nor sufficient media interest in this direction. The failure to create a mini Romanian-Bulgarian Schengen was due, Vladimir Mitev explains, to the habit of elites on both sides of not working together. Even though there is no Romanian Cultural Institute in Sofia or a Bulgarian Cultural Institute in Bucharest, although Romanian-speaking students in Vidin still want to be taught in Romanian, progress is being made towards better Romanian-Bulgarian cooperation. Vladimir Mitev discusses all this in an interview with PRESShub. 

The most important statements:

  • Today, our societies, media and other institutions are often national-centric, and the approach to relations with our neighbours across the Danube lacks an ambitious perspective and mutual curiosity.
  • It seems that since the 1990s our peoples, through their political elites, have come to the conclusion that the stakes in relations with neighbours across the Danube are not high.
  • A new impetus in the bilateral relations between Romania and Bulgaria came only when the war in Ukraine broke out and the government of Kiril Petkov came to Sofia.
  • We don’t know each other well, we don’t know well how to do things together and possibly find in each other a reflection of what we want to overcome in ourselves. For example, Balkanism.
  • I remember that when Romania was preparing to take over the presidency of the Council of the EU, in the first days of January 2019, every day on the national TV stations in Sofia there was an interview stating that Romania would fail to take over the presidency.
  • In another context, Klaus Iohannis’ visits to the White House provoked discussions in the Romanian press, which noted that Romania’s importance vis-à-vis Bulgaria was growing, as the couple of the two countries was no longer viable.
  • The change for the better in the Romanian-Bulgarian relations, if it will happen, will rather come from below, from the citizens, thanks to their capacity to generate experiences that will increase mutual trust and build bridges of friendship.

Why not work with the Bulgarians

PRESShub: Despite sharing a common border, Romanians and Bulgarians know very little about each other. What do you think is the explanation?

Vladimir Mitev: I think that historically, for centuries, the situation has been different from today. In the Middle Ages, the Bulgarians and the Vlachs (as the Romanian-speaking population of the region was then called) had a common state, common kings and rulers, fought together against Byzantium and the Latin Empire and lived together.

For centuries before the War of Independence, Bulgarians settled in Wallachia, calling themselves Serbs. Even in more recent times, we see that in Albania Bulgarians and Vlachs have always lived together in the Korca region. At the same time, in Macedonia, the Ilinden Uprising of 1903 was a joint effort of Bulgarians/Macedonians and Vlachs.

The emergence of the nation states of Bulgaria and Romania led to a division between the two peoples, each state having different interests, materialised by wars and mutual dispute over Dobrogea, which has since been resolved.

Today, our societies, media and other institutions are often national-centric, and the approach to relations with neighbours across the Danube still seems to lack an ambitious outlook and mutual curiosity. Perhaps for many Bulgarians and Romanians there is a language barrier, but there is also a barrier created by the lack of interaction, which is why we do not always have positive experiences at first contact. In order to communicate with each other in a fruitful way, a certain disposition for communication is also needed.

I believe that the lack of mutual acquaintance, as well as mistrust of the other nation, is also explained by the long-standing lack of media interest between states, supported by both sides, as well as the shortage of people and organisations acting as bridges of friendship, i.e. trusted by both states. It seems that, since the 1990s, our peoples, through their political elites, have come to the conclusion that the stakes in their relations with their neighbours across the Danube are not very high. It was only when the war in Ukraine broke out and Kiril Petkov’s government came to Sofia that a new impetus was given to bilateral relations.

In March 2023, a declaration of strategic partnership between the two countries was signed, but at the grassroots level, there is still an inertia in communication. We don’t know each other well, we don’t know well how to do things together and possibly find in each other a reflection of what we want to overcome in ourselves, e.g. Balkanism.

According to the last census, there are 6,000 Bulgarians living in Romania, while Romanians and Bulgarian Vlachs are also officially only a few thousand. In my opinion, these statistics should show us that if we are really ambitious about our interests in the neighbouring country, we should also take more interest in the situation of the majorities in the other country and include them in our projects.

As a Romanian-speaking Bulgarian, I am convinced that there is valuable experience to be gained through the Romanian-Bulgarian dialogue.

Romania does not have a Romanian Cultural Institute in Sofia. Should there be a Romanian Cultural Institute in Bulgaria as well?

have interviewed and spoken to people who are very interested in opening not only a Romanian Cultural Institute in Sofia, but also a Bulgarian Cultural Institute in Bucharest.

However, it is not being discussed at the political level and it is not on the diplomatic agenda, as the Bulgarian Ambassador to Romania, H.E. Mr Radko Vlaykov, said.

It seems to me that the absence of these cultural centres, established by bilateral agreements, is another sign of the lack of ambition in relations between the two countries.

Romania and Bulgaria have, as you say, been in rivalry relations for a long time, each wanting to prove that it is more pro-European and pro-NATO than the other. After the two countries joined NATO and the EU, do you think this rivalry has diminished or increased?

I still see it, especially in the media.  I remember that when Romania was preparing to take over the presidency of the EU Council, in the first days of January 2019, there was an interview every day on the national TV stations in Sofia saying that Romania would fail to take over the presidency, as the leader of the ruling party, Liviu Dragnea, had a sovereignist discourse, which is why the Borisov government was trying to appear as an outpost of Western Europe in the region.

In another context, Klaus Iohannis’ visits to the White House provoked discussions in the Romanian press, which noted that Romania’s importance vis-à-vis Bulgaria was growing, as the two countries were no longer viable. The perception of rivalry between the two competing countries was thus generated in the public space.

Even if it is not openly said, it seems that the idea of joint Romanian-Bulgarian projects does not animate many minds at the political level. That is why I state in my study that the change for the better in the Romanian-Bulgarian relations, if it will happen, will rather come from the bottom, from the citizens, thanks to their ability to generate experiences that will increase mutual trust and build bridges of friendship. And this at a time when at the level of states and elites, barriers and the inability to work together more deeply and constructively than before may persist.

Referring to the Romanian (Vlach) communities in Bulgaria, in particular the Romanians in Vidin, note that they do not have a school taught in Romanian, although the Romanian state has made requests to the Bulgarian state in this regard. Do you think there is a chance that in the future there will be a Romanian-language school for Romanians in Bulgaria?

I have no information that the Romanian state has made such requests, but I have noticed that in the Romanian public space it is said that the Romanian high school in Sofia is not in the most suitable place and that the Romanian-speakers in Vidin need it more. I was present at the press conference after Rumen Radev’s first visit to the Cotroceni Palace in 2017, where his Romanian counterpart, Klaus Iohannis, opened the discussion on granting more educational rights to Romanians in Bulgaria. Rumen Radev’s response was that in Bulgaria all citizens have equal rights, protected by the Bulgarian state.  I inferred from the Bulgarian President’s statement that Bulgaria does not grant collective rights to some minorities, but that Bulgarian citizens are free to organize themselves and learn what they want. It seems that the discussion on this subject is regularly repeated or that the positions of the two sides do not seem to change. So the Romanian high school in Sofia remains, but I don’t see any sign that another one will be built somewhere else.

As a Romanian-speaking Bulgarian citizen living in both Bucharest and Ruse, when you cross the Danube from one country to the other, do you feel that you enter a very different world or do you have the impression that Romania and Bulgaria are very similar?

I see similarities not necessarily in terms of houses, roads or landscape, but rather in the way our societies seem to go through similar phenomena. For example, from the film High Schoolers (Liceeni), about the life of high school students during the socialist period, came the song High School Years (Ani de Liceu), which is sung at every high school graduation. Similarly, the equivalent of this film – the Bulgarian feature film Yesterday created the song Oath, which is performed at every high school graduation. 

I also found it interesting that the National Theatre in Bucharest and the National Theatre in Sofia, 10 years ago, performed the same show, The Suicidal Person (In Bulgaria it was called Life is Wonderful). In Bucharest, the protagonist was played by Dan Puric, an actor who, in my opinion, knows well some aspects of Romanianism, whether the attitude of Romanians towards it is positive or negative. Similarly, Kamen Donev, the lead actor in The Suicidal Person staged in Sofia, knows Bulgarianism so well that he does solo performances of folk dances, satire and non-sense sketches. Kamen Donev scenically represents some aspects of what I believe is the soul of the Bulgarian people, and Dan Puric does the same through his messianic messages about the mystery of the Romanian people.

I would leave aside the fact that our countries have the same Western European banks, that we have similar European legislation, that political elites collaborate with the same German political foundations, etc. If one looks for similarities, they can be found in many places. However, I think I am not a stranger in Romania. I have no language barrier. I go to the theatre in Bucharest. I can’t think of Romania as a foreign country. I think I internally perceive Romanian and Bulgarian elements as complementary, and that makes my life more interesting.

What would be the top two differences between the two spaces, Romanian and Bulgarian, if you were to refer to social, political or cultural aspects?

It seems to me that Romanians have more time, more energy and are more expansive. At the same time, my impression from interacting with Bulgarians is that, in general, Bulgarians speak less, seem more ambiguous and reserved. To give you an example, I have had many occasions when Romanians who listen to me on the radio, or read what I write, react spontaneously and write or call me. This shows that they are interested in my work, and I need these reactions. It is less likely, however, that Bulgarians will express their appreciation of my work in this way. In the dynamics of my relations with them, I usually approach them, I am the active party.

Another thing that I find interesting in the Romanian versus Bulgarian comparison is the ambiguity of the Bulgarians as opposed to the frankness of the Romanians. I think some Romanians are not trained to handle when confronted with such ambiguity and are tempted to misinterpret it. However, Bulgarian ambiguity, whether political or interpersonal, is not necessarily bad and can even be very enlightened and noble. But I appreciate the frankness with which some Romanians tell me what they think about me, what doubts or red lines they have, and I find it useful, even if sometimes this frankness can be shocking. At the same time, I am fascinated by Bulgarians’ ability to say neither yes nor no, to leave space for things to unfold. Think about it and you will see that both ways of interpersonal positioning have their strengths, and existing within both cultures can be a great school!

You note that with the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the European Union there is significant potential for the development of interpersonal and cultural relations between Romanians and Bulgarians. You refer in this sense to “popular diplomacy”. Can grassroots diplomacy, which starts from the initiative of ordinary people, supported by European funds, make up for the shortcomings of state diplomacy?

I even mentioned the need for Romanian-Bulgarian populism, aware that populism has a negative meaning in our region. The idea of civic or popular diplomacy refers to the empowerment of citizens and is democratic at its core. It assumes that citizens are agents of change in some international and regional relations. We see that we have societies that rely very much on hierarchies, on subordination. We also see how quickly the only bridge between Romania and Bulgaria was built in the post-December period – the Calafat-Vidin bridge. The contract for it was signed in 2000 and the bridge was completed in 2013. We, as human beings, are not eternal. And, being in the EU, we should, as ordinary citizens, have the right to our own agency. Of course, it depends on each individual case whether the citizens’ activities will be funded by EU money or from other sources.  However, I wanted to launch this challenge – as ordinary citizens, Romanians and Bulgarians, we can be subjects of international relations ourselves, not just our diplomats and politicians.

What are the most significant projects, starting from individual initiatives, that you think have led to better Romanian-Bulgarian communication and mutual knowledge in recent years?

There are many festivals that promote the common Romanian-Bulgarian peculiarities, expressed through handicrafts such as certain masks, or through certain foods such as mamăliga. I’ve even been to Romanian-Bulgarian blues concerts. These initiatives may seem small, but time and perseverance can lead organisers to much larger projects.

Radio Bulgaria currently has a Romanian language section and you are the Radio Romania correspondent for Bulgaria. What is the impact of Bulgarian radio in Romania and Romanian radio in Bulgaria? How do you assess the presence of news about Bulgaria in the Romanian press and vice versa?

Actually, I cover news about Bulgaria for both radio stations in Romanian. So, in both cases, the audience is Romanian. Separately, I provide analysis on Romanian politics and do interviews with Romanians for Bulgarian National Radio’s current affairs programme, which is called Orizont.

I would say that, since 2022, Bulgaria and Romania have become more interesting for each other, including from a media point of view. I think that Romania does not yet have a commentator or an analyst of socio-political life in Bulgaria, and when the opportunity arises, I play this role for Romanian TV stations and newspapers. Bulgaria doesn’t have many journalists ready to comment live on Romanian developments either. However, I see positive changes in this respect lately, as media collaborations between newsrooms and freelance journalists alike have increased. For example, Hotnews and Mediapool are part of a European cross-border journalism project.

So I would say that the trends are positive, but I can also note that, for example, media relations between Romania and Hungary seem to be much more developed. So, there is still a lot to be done for Romanian-Bulgarian media relations.

When Romania and Bulgaria were rejected from joining the Schengen area, as a journalist you wrote about the idea of a Romanian-Bulgarian mini-Schengen. What would have been the advantages of creating a mini Schengen and why do you think this idea did not catch on among the political elite?

The idea of a Romanian-Bulgarian mini-Schengen turned into the idea of removing controls at the land borders between Romania, Bulgaria and Greece after our accession to the Schengen area, but only at the air and sea borders. If this idea becomes legally possible, it will be beneficial for the transport sector, for tourism and for the economic and human dynamics between our countries. It will increase investment. It will also probably increase trust, because open borders require that state elites learn to do things together.

I think the idea has not been accepted by the elites in our countries because they are not used to working together. It must also be said that there are different visions for our region. One is based on tightening controls at the Romanian-Bulgarian border, as provided for in the agreement with Austria on joining Schengen, the other is based on removing controls at land borders. I am sure that each option has its advantages and disadvantages. We need to have an understanding of what each of them means specifically for us and for our partners and how these meanings evolve over time.

Photo: Romanians associate the city of Ruse and the first views of Bulgaria after the Friendship Bridge entrance with this view of ugly socialist blocks (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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