Romania and Bulgaria walk in different directions on cross-border collaboration

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The Bridge of Friendship at Rousse-Giurgiu (photo: Yavor Michev, Wikipedia)

The energy and infrastructure relations between the two countries are marked by their general reluctance to develop them. While flows of people and cargo grow at the border crossings, the price for the lack of mutual projects is to be paid by the people of their underdeveloped border regions

Vladimir Mitev

This article was published on 31 January 2017 in the Croatian portal “Bilten” with small shortening. Here it is published in its full version. 

On the Sunday evening of 8th January 2017 Bulgaria requested urgent help with electricity deliveries from Romania „for needs of prevention” amid temperatures between -11 and -16 degrees Centigrade. According to the national private tv channel BTV as of 19:00 the same day the consumption of electricty reached the unprecedented amount for the last 20 years of 7700 MWh.

It was also revealed that in the very same evening Bulgaria attempted to “wake” the so-called “frozen reserve” of a few coal power plants, which usually are not active, but stand ready to start generating electricity. While in the beginning there were difficulties in activating those plants, the process eventually was successful and the electrical system managed to meet the greater needs of the population.

Romania refused the Bulgarian request citing its own “delicate situation” with regard to electricity production and supply. Justifying his government`s refusal, the Romanian energy minister Toma Petcu pointed out that he expected electricity consumption to amount to more than 9500 MWh and natural gas consumption – to reach 74 million cubic meters per day amid the colds that have set the temperatures in Romania between -10 and -15 degrees and in some places at -29 degrees Centigrade.

In fact, Bulgaria refused similar Turkish and Greek requests for electricity exports. The Bulgarian Ministry of Energy announced that there had been a record consumption of natural gas too – 16 million cubic meters per day.

It is curious that these days and nights of dire straits for the Romanian and Bulgarian governments take place while both countries continue their electricity exports to their neighbours. On 10th January at 8 o`clock in the morning the whole capacity of the Romanian electricity export network to Hungary of 438 MWh had been occupied. The overall amount of the Romanian electricity exports at 11:15 on the same day was 1000 MWh, “a figure which has been often reached in the recent times”, writes the Economica.net.

Bulgaria continued to send electricity in the coldest days to countries like Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, with a certain part of the power being its own export and another being a retranslation from the Romanian electricity system. Sofia started limiting its electricity exports only from 13th January on.

The Bulgarian authorities rushed to assure the nation that asking for electricity help from the northern neighbour is something which is in no way extraordinary. The then-acting energy minister in resignation Temenuzhka Petkova even underlined that the cap on electricity exports is business as usual and no one needs to worry.

However, the Bulgarian social networks on the cold evening were busy sharing and commenting on news about the Romanian refusal to back up Bulgaria and the impression the Bulgarian energy system has approached certain dire straits. Discussion spread even though the Romanian difficulties were generally met with understanding in the Bulgarian media. The Bucharest – Constanta highway and other important roads in South-Eastern Romania remained closed for long time due to the heavy wind and snow…

Achievements and disappointment in the countries` bilateral projects

The media discourse about the cold and the various energy and infrastructure difficulties of both nations unveils without much effort that both Romania and Bulgaria face similar difficulties. It is no secret that their social problems, levels of income, etc. also are strikingly similar, putting them in the bottom of various EU rankings. Both countries have been treated as a group by Brussels and comparisons between them on various economic and other indicators are easy to be found in various articles in the Romanian and the Bulgarian media.

Still, there is at least one more thing that unites both nations – a certain reluctance to cooperate. The energy and infrastructure projects can serve as a good example of this overall lack of commitment and interest.

Of course, the picture is more nuanced after Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU. In 2013 the New Europe Bridge across the Danube was opened for circulation. It linked by road and railway the Bulgarian town Vidin and the Romanian town Calafat.

Also, in November 2016 the gas interconnector Rousse – Giurgiu (the other place where a bridge with road and rail connection across the Danube exists)  was unveiled with an annual maximal capacity of 1,5 billion cubic meters of natural gas and a diameter of 500 mm.

However, even these achievements in the bilateral energy and infrastructure integration, realised with EU financial and political backing, show the aforementioned reluctance to cooperate. The gas interconnector at this moment is only one-directional – from Bulgaria to Romania. A compressor station must be constructed on the Romanian side of the border so that the pressure in pipeline is increased and gas could flow to Bulgaria too. Temenuzhka Petkova expects that in 2 years time  the interconnector will start working in both directions, supplying Bulgaria with up to 4 million cubic meters of gas per day.

In other words, Bulgaria still has not achieved almost anything with regard to its long cherished diversification of the natural gas sources. While some tend to blame Bucharest for the odd way of „one-way interconnectedness” there are also hints that the Bulgarian government might not have negotiated well on this issue.

On the other hand, the New Europe Bridge (also known as Danube Bridge 2) is a success in itself. It has become the shortest way from Northern Greece to the Central and Western Europe and has redirected at least a part of the Greek cargo traffic which had been passing traditionally through Macedonia and Serbia.

However, the bridge took 13 years to be built after the signing of the treaty for its construction between Sofia and Bucharest. The construction process was sped up only after the entrance of both countries in the EU as a result of European pressure. Romania was generally reluctant to build the bridge, because it shortens the distance and time that foreign cars and trucks, destinated for Central and Western Europe, spend on Romanian soil.

Today, the traffic is huge, and an income of more than 20 million euro has been generated in the first nine months of 2016 from fees upon the passing motor vehicles by the company that manages the bridge. But the road and railway infrastructure that links to the bridge on its both sides remains to be developed. The mayor of Calafat Lucian Ciobanu and citizens of Vidin express their dissatisfaction that the promised economic revival of the underdeveloped region around the bridge hasn’t come yet.

Both countries to blame for border regions` underdevelopment

In April 2016 Maria Chakarova – the director of the “Strategic development and investment projects” Department in the Bulgarian National Company “Railway Infrastructure”, declared that the upgrade of the railway that leads to Vidin “has not stopped to be a priority”, but at this moment “it has no positive economic value”, because “between Calafat and Craiova, in Romania, the railway is not electrified”. “The logic demands from us to work on the railway Vidin – Sofia parallel to our Romanian colleagues` work on their side”, believes Chakarova, while also noting that the Romanian part “is currently doing what Bulgaria has already done – preliminary surveys about the modernization of the railway from Calafat  to the Hungarian border”.

However, her analysis omits the fact that under the governance of the recently-resigned GERB-dominated government of Boyko Borisov the Bulgarian State Railways (BDZ) company has become a disaster. The railway transport in Bulgaria is not attractive at all for the citizens of the country and the few passengers who use the services of the BDZ constantly complain of delays, poor quality of the service and other problems.

Bulgaria makes investments in highways and railway infrastructure, including with money from the EU, but these investments are limited to Southern Bulgaria, which is economically more advanced than Northern Bulgaria. While it can be argued that the grand transport corridors from Istanbul and Thessaloniki through Sofia to the West are worthy of being developed because of their economic potential and importance to Europe, the Northwestern Bulgaria where is Vidin continues to be the poorest and the most underdeveloped region of the EU.

North-Eastern Bulgaria is also generally a place of lower economic activity, in part because of lack of investment in infrastructure. Rousse – a city of 140 000 people on the border with Romania, located less than 70 km away from Bucharest, more and more realizes that its natural economic center is the Romanian capital. The whole region between Rousse and the Black Sea port of Varna seems to be understanding the same fact.

The Bucharest airport “Otopeni” is massively used by the people of this part of Bulgaria, while their tourist excursions, business relations and university studies in Romania flourish. A similar opening to the neighbors of the south has been observed among Romanians in recent years. Approximately one million Romanians visit Bulgaria as tourists every year and a large part of them goes to the Bulgarian resorts at the Black Sea.

All these transfrontier flows of people need an upgrade of the existing infrastructure. The Bridge of Friendship at Rousse-Giurgiu is constructed in 1954 and has only one lane in each direction, apart from the railroad. Often the capacity of the bridge or the capabilities of the border crossing points on its two sides can’t answer the amount of traffic from both countries, from the Middle East, and from Western and Eastern Europe that wants to cross the Danube.

Romania and Bulgaria have signed an agreement for the construction of two more bridges between them and one of them is set to be between Silistra and Călărași – 120 km to the east of Rousse. At this moment it`s another frequently used crossing point by way of a ferryboat, because the Bucharest – Constanta highway passes nearby. However, there’s been no announcement and signs of action on the construction of the bridges or other agreed upon infrastructural projects such as e.g. a joint water electricity plant on the Danube.

Looking in different directions

It can be argued that generally Bulgaria is more eager than Romania to boost the bilateral cooperation. But the reluctance to act can be seen on both sides of the Danube. While there’s been advance in the construction, the development and the planning of some littoral countries’ respective parts of a highway circling the Black Sea, Romania and Bulgaria still can’t agree where it should pass on their territory. Generally, Bulgaria has been willing to see it entering its territory at Silistra via the aforementioned yet-to-be-constructed bridge. But Romania thinks it would be better if this highway passes through Northern Dobruja.

There is a lack of agreement also on the Romanian desire to construct a submarine electricity power line upon the shelf of the Black Sea that could connect its Dobruja-located Cerna vodă nuclear plant with the Turkish market. This cable needs to pass through Bulgarian economic waters, but Sofia rejects it for the time being.

In the present circumstances Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey are in the European network of system operators for transmission of electricity. The countries in the network allow without any impediments the transfer of electricity from one neighbour to another, charging standard transit taxes. In other words, Bulgaria neither can, nor is eager to stop the Romanian export to Turkey. Sofia argues additionally that should a cable pass upon its sea shelf this would mean the end of surveys for energy resources in Bulgarian waters. Nevertheless, Romania insists on its desire to have a direct electricity cable to Turkey.

What could be amazing to a foreign reader is that Romania and Bulgaria – two member-states of the European Union have entered it without achieving an agreement upon the borders of their economic zones in the Black Sea. An aquatory of up to 350 sq.km is still under dispute with no resolution on the horizon. This unresolved question puts certain limits on the shelf exploration and could potentially influence other developments and balances in the Black Sea.

The Romanian-Bulgarian divergence on the energy and infrastructural issues might be explained also with the priorities of the nation`s foreign policies. The strategists of Bucharest`s foreign policy see the nation’s future on regional level in expansion of the relations with Poland. Apart from the eternal vector of interest towards the Republic of Moldova, they look to the West and to the North, and much less to the South. At the same time Bulgaria’s foreign policy priorities appear to be shifting under different foreign ministers, but generally Sofia is more active politically with regard to its southern neighbours – Greece and Turkey, and in the Western Balkans.

And the good news is….

The hope for Romanian-Bulgarian relations in any sphere could come not so much from the governments, but from the people of the two countries. Romania has been the third largest trade partner of Bulgaria in the EU after Germany and Italy for years, with a trade turnover that according to preliminary studies has surpassed 3,5 billion euro in 2016. As of 2015, there were more than 2100 Bulgarian firms registered in Romania and 2500 Romanian firms registered in Bulgaria.

Cultural and interpersonal communication also is on the rise and could be observed especially in Rousse where there are regularly exhibitions, poetry readings, theatre plays, concerts with participation of Romanian artists. Also, there are transborder communities who communicate intensely, promote collaboration and overcome national egoism.

All these economic and cultural accumulations might eventually bring a change of mind for both countries’ governments in the future.  There is certainly some rationale behind each nation’s reluctance to act bold on bilateral issues. There are historical, cultural and political stereotypes that continue to form the attitudes between Romanians and Bulgarians. Rivalry between Bucharest and Sofia also forms an important part of the states’ rationale vis-à-vis the bilateral relations.

But also there is an economic and humane logic behind a reciprocal and equitable opening. 10 years after Romania and Bulgaria’s integration to the EU, there is a need for new thinking, as the old one keeps people and regions underdeveloped. Up until a few years ago, there were only 3 public motor vehicle transport lines that connected directly Rousse and Bucharest daily, apart from the railway lines, the taxis and the so-called shared cars (where people in the social networks who might event don’t know one another in advance organize themselves for a travelling). At present, the number of the daily public transport bus/microbus lines has risen to 9 lines, and 2 of them link Varna directly too. In other words, the people of the countries already set a rising pace of Romanian-Bulgarian interconnectedness. Will the politicians follow?

Source: Bilten

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Author: Vladimir Mitev

Жител на град Русе. Румъноговорящ. Locuitor orașului Ruse. Vorbitor de limba română.

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