The connections between the two banks of the river Danube are hindered by the difficult crossing of the Bridge of Friendship and the lack of initiative
This article was published on 2 April 2019 on the site of the Bulgarian newspaper “The Capital”. It is republished here with permission by the author.
Two hours. That is how much it takes sometimes for Ralitsa Popova, accountant in a Bulgarian company with an office in Bucharest, to pass the Bridge of Friendship between Rousse and Giurgiu. Had it not been for this delay, she could pass the 75 km distance between her home and the office in the Romanian capital for around an hour and 15 minutes – as she did in calmer days. “You can imagine what does it look like in the summer, when it is packed with trucks and the temperature is 40 degrees”, she says. The same amount of time is spent by a lot of people in Sofia to reach work or to return home from their jobs. Consequently, it should not be an exception to work in Bucharest, but to live in Rousse, if the bridge could be passed faster. But Popova is one of the few, who have chosen to live in their birth city and work in the Romanian capital.
“The city is big, nice, green. It has a lot of parks”, she names the advantages of Bucharest. Popova adds that she has very good impressions from the service for emergency medical care in the city. But her family and friends bring her back in Rousse – just as they have brought her back from Sofia. ”You make money there and you spend them in Bulgaria,” she says.
Similar opinions have other people from Rousse, who travel to Romania for work and with whom ”Capital” had a talk. The poor infrastructural connections (which ironically are the best along the Bulgarian-Romanian border) are among the greatest obstacles before a more serious integration of Rousse’s region with its Romanian neighbours. The other barrier is the linguistic one.
”We will not make a mistake, if we say that cross-border mobility (of labour) is close to zero,” says Eleonora Ivanova, who is the executive director of the Bulgarian-Romanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BRCCI). In her view, plenty of people travel, in order to make commerce on the other bank of the river, but the connectivity – especially with regard to the labour market, is minimal. The main source of dissatisfaction are the queues at customs. ”Of course, it is one thing to travel one hour until your workplace, and to have a much better job in Bucharest, but another to spend other 2-3 hours attempting to cross the border. There are people who do travel to their work, but they are few”, says Ivanova.
The other main problems, beside the transport infrastructure, are connected with language and the state of the labour market on both sides of the river. The unemployment in both zones is at record low, both among unqualified workers and among the managers.
According to an opinion poll, which the Romanian branch of BRCCI does, most Romanian employers have never tried to hire Bulgarians, while the French factory ”Montupet” (placed in Rousse) has tried without success to hire Romanian workers through an European programme, which eases the headhunting. ”Most often the Bulgarian firms in Romania send Bulgarian personnel to managing positions”, she says.
“There is a need for people who speak Romanian language”, says Eleonora Ivanova and continues: “A few years ago there were only 2-3 people, whom you could call for professional translation from Romanian language in Rousse. They are more now, but they are not many and are still insufficient”.
It is interesting that Romanian language is not taught in any of the high schools in Rousse, unlike Japanese or Chinese, which are being taught. According to the director of the BRCCI the English language facilitates the contacts for the younger people, but can’t be used by the previous generation of businessmen. The chamber has been teaching Romanian for beginners and Business Romanian in the last few years, as it tries to resolve this problem.
Come in Romania, people from Rousse!
Romania succeeds much more to attract talent from Rousse, at least as far as the language barrier is concerned. According to data from the Romanian migration services around 1900 Bulgarians work and have a permanent address in the country – the second largest group of EU workers after the Italians. The state offers scholarship for free studies in the Romanian universities, which is used by around 100 Bulgarians annually. Most of them come from Rousse. One of them is Boryana Argirova, who has a B.A. from the University of Craiova and in the last two years studies M.A. in marketing in Bucharest. She works in the sector of financial outsourcing.
One of her reasons to stay is that she finds work fast with the help of the university. The firms come alone to look for employees there. “It would have happened with difficulty, if I studied in Rousse”, she says. Also, apparently, the presence of many international companies in millions-strong city makes finding work easier. “It is a plus that it is a big European capital, it has different culture, places for fun, malls”, says Argirova. She travels every week to her home in Rousse, using bus lines, but hopes to buy a car.
The infrastructural connectivity as a mirage
Just like Ralitsa Popova, Boryana Argirova is unhappy most all with the delays at the Bridge of Friendship and with the taxes for the bridge, which amount to 10 leva (approx. 5 euro) in both directions (4 leva for entering Romania and, inexplicably, 6 leva for return). She is even more unhappy that the train to Bucharest travels only once per day and that it takes much more time than travelling with a car or a bus. ”There is no logic in the situation with the trains. Bucharest is so close, but there is no normal railway connection”, she says.
The big projects, which have to connect Rousse with neighbouring Giurgiu and Bucharest have not reached anywhere. In 2016 the region’s governor Stefko Burdjiev was telling stories about the plans for construction of urban railway, which connects on one hand the central railway station to the Eastern industrial zone and the town of Marten, and on the other hand passes through Giurgiu and Bucharest in order to reach the airport “Otopeni”.
The courageous plan has remained only on paper. The same could be said about the project for a second bridge over the river next to Rousse, which is expected to reduce the traffic along the first one. According to Eleonora Ivanova from BRCCI, the possibility of ferryboat, which could ease the situation with the cargo traffic, is also ignored by the authorities. “There is a technical possibility that such a connection be opened, but there are no steps made and the state has not recognised it as a priority”, she says
No, it is not the airport at the village of Shtraklevo, whose future is still not known, but the humoristic way, in which the people from Rousse refer to the Bucharest airport “Otopeni – Henri Coanda”. Most of the regular and the charter transport services between the two cities go to it. The only firm, which operates regular transport connection between the two cities and from Veliko Tarnovo, Razgrad and Varna is “Pegassus Group”.
But it has reduced its regular minibus line in recent months. This could mean that there is a reduction in the interest towards travelling or, more likely, that clients move to the leading taxi company in Rousse, which offers transport on demand. The autobuses don’t quite help the workers. “They are good for going to Bucharest, but not for return in the afternoon, because they leave too early”, Ralitsa Popova says.
Insufficient economic connectivity
All that is very strange, especially when we take into consideration that we are speaking about the connections between Bulgaria and its third largest commercial partner. After Turkey fell down in the external commerce rankings of Bulgaria in the last years, Romania is overcome only by Germany and Italy in the volume of external commerce. In 2018 the bilateral exchange of goods reached 4,6 billion euro, which is an increase by 7% in comparison with 2017. Bulgaria sustains a stable positive trade balance with the northern neighbour.
However, the BRCCI’s director says that the firms from Rousse are not in the leading positions in terms of export towards Romania. “There is no outperforming sector, which leads the export to the northern neighbour. We have industrial oil, wheat, agricultural machines and tractors – the Shoumen company “Madara”, has positions there, but there are almost no firms from Rousse”, Eleonora Ivanova says. She adds that the chamber has members from Rousse, who are not in tops of the stats. “The textile and food and beverage companies have lost markets. There are very few of them, which have remained”, she says.
“The market is very competitive and because of some reasons is more difficult that the larger West European markets. It is strange, because it is a closer market”, says the BRCCI’s director and tells about some cases, when Bulgarian firms have entered the Romanian market.
“We have different firms. There are large firms, which have tried to enter with their production and have failed. There are other firms, which have done the same in the beginning, but then they enter only with commercial activity, rebrand themselves and succeed. There are firms, which enter through online channels. There are smaller merchants, who succeed through well-targeted campaigns and products”, she says.
Two of the successful examples are the food company “Bella”, which tries to enter with a factory in Giurgiu and doesn’t succeed, creates its own Romanian brand and then manages to conquer the local market, using only its trade representation office. The other example are the pastry shops ”Nedelya”, which first try to grow in the Romanian capital through their Rousse branch, but don’t have success. They they accumulate new resources and develop franchise chains in Bucharest through a Romanian manager, delivering cakes from Bulgaria.
As far as the big companies in Rousse are concerned, they export mainly for Western Europe and Romania is simply a country on their way. That is why so far the business relations between the two river banks of the Danube remain marginal.
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