Bulgaria and Romania in the Eastern bloc: how disputes among allies are resolved

The Romanian socialist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu and his Bulgarian colleague Todor Zhivkov (photo: Romanian national archives, Online phototeque of Romanian communism, ID 35070x4x6, 17.01.2019, 12/1979)

A look at the different foreign policy positioning of Romania and Bulgaria in the second half of the XX century

Iskra Baeva

This article was presented at the conference ”Bulgaria and the Balkans in the XX century: foreign policy and public diplomacy”, which took place on 26 October 2018 at the Sofia City Arty Gallery.

The Balkans are in the middle between the three continents, where civilisations, which form the outlook of contemporary world, were born. The importance of this region, just like any other region’s importance, changes together with Europe’s evolution, but all the time it retains its role of connecting element between Europe and Asia and its importance for the Great powers in the continent. By this more general affirmation I want to point your attention towards two of the Balkan states, which we could call Northern Balkans, in the way we call another part of the peninsula Western Balkans. These are Bulgaria and Romania, which enter after World War Two in the Soviet sphere of influence, having very different positions. Soon after the first international convulsions they became the only Balkan countries in the Eastern Bloc. However this didn’t draw them much closer. Neither equalises them. The relations between Bulgaria and Romania in the Eastern block are filled with tensions and contradictions, even though these are hidden behind numerous meetings at the highest level.

I will present those relations through a few characteristic examples. 

The first comes from the early stage of the allied relations. The different views towards one and the same problem are seen in a report note from 2 June 1948 by the deputy minister Grudi Atanasov1  with regards to the idea for the construction of a new Bulgarian cultural home and the role of Bulgarians in Romania for the development of interstate relations. Grudi Atanasov says: “I couldn’t convince myself to what extent could it be justified now to build our own cultural home in a friendly and allied country, with which we are in close political, economic and cultural relations, and whose government is ready to give full possibility for the satisfaction of the cultural and educational needs of the Bulgarians who live their and of their children”2. These words are accompanied by another position of the Romanian educational minister G. Vassiliki “that in the future in Romania and in the other countries with people’s democracy there be no schools of the nationalities, paid for by the respective countries as is the case with the Bulgarian, Yugoslav and Hungarian schools in Romania, paid for by Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Hungary”3

His arguments are that these schools create “a lot of discomfort and difficulties”, namely: “the teachers, who are paid for by other countries, receive significantly higher salaries than Romanians, which affects the latter negatively” and “in some schools, such as the Hungarian ones, there are too many teachers with reactionary and chauvinistic attitudes and they have become centers of Anglo-American espionage”. The Bulgarian side expresses its agreement with the Romanian demand, which demonstrates how at the very first signs of Romanian nationalism, Bulgarian communist answer with a purely international position. 

The second example is from the 60s, when Bulgaria and Romania took opposite positions in the internal conflict of the  Eastern bloc, related to the Prague Spring. On one hand, Bulgaria expressed its desire to participate in the military intervention in Czechoslovakia on 21 August 1968, on the other hand Romania condemns this act and prepares its defense from a possible aggression by the Warsaw Pact. That is how for example at a meeting with Tito in the end of August 1968 Ceauşescu asked him whether he would allow the Romanian army to evacuate in Yugoslavia in the conditions of an aggression. After Tito rejects such probability, Ceauşescu preserves the militant critical tone for internal use, while mixing it with a pacifying tone towards the allies of the Eastern bloc. That is how in March 1969  he says: ”We feel the warmest feeling of friendship towards the peoples of the Soviet Union, our great neighbour, towards Soviet communists… We are full of sincere desire to strengthen our relations with the people and the parties of our neighbouring socialist countries: Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary. Such feelings we have towards the peoples of Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany as well4. In this conflict Bulgaria doesn’t have to take a specific position, because it is hidden behind the joint position of the five member states of the Warsaw Pact. The only thing, which Sofia tries to do is the following pacifying observation:

“People’s Republic of Bulgaria is interested to develop its comprehensive relations with Romania, because our railway and auto transport towards the Soviet Union and the other European countries passes from there and we have the common interest for the improvement of the situation on the Balkans5”.

These positions of the two neighbouring countries underscore once again their great divergence. They are formulated by a Bulgarian son-in-law in Romania in this way: “This is a centuries-old tradition of Romania – to maneuver between all the opposing groups and countries, unlike Bulgaria, which is traditionally related to Russia in connection with the Turkish yoke and its liberation from it (for a short period in the past it was also related to Germany, but again only with it”6. So balance characterises Romanian policy, while Bulgaria is characterised by its satellite position. 

The single vector foreign policy of socialist Bulgaria will be confirmed in the moment of the famous visit of the American president Richard Nixon in Romania on 2-3 August 1969. Then Ceauşescu makes all that is possible to underline his proximity with the American president. When Nixon demonstrates special interest towards Bulgaria with the words ”I have listened a lot about Bulgaria and I would like to know more”, the Bulgarian ambassador just nods. And answers vagues, that future is ahead, even when at the reception Nixon says categorically: ”I have been to the Soviet Union, Poland, Romania. I would visit Bulgaria with pleasure”7. As it is seen the differences are not coincidental. They are due to the different geopolitical situation of the two countries, to their historical tradition and to the strategy, chosen by their respective leaderships within the Eastern Bloc.

In the second half of the 70s new disputes between Bulgaria and Romania were born. This time the claims and demands come from the Romanian side. They  were formulated by Cornel Burtica – a member of the leadership of the Romanian Communist Party in his official meeting with the member of the leadership of the Bulgarian Communist Party Alexander Lilov on 15 June 1977. They deal with interpretations of history. Romania protests against the attempts of Bulgarian historians to present Hristo Botev as a national liberation activist not only of Bulgarians, but also of Romanians, that the history of the Romanian Communist Party during the Comintern and its contradictions with the Comintern are undervalued, when it was headed by Georgi Dimitrov8. The new in this dispute is that after Lilov answers the criticism, he puts forward the Bulgarian pretensions – most of all, because of ”the attempts of separate Romanian historians to undervalue the Bulgarian character of the Second Bulgarian State, describing it as ”Romanain-Bulgarian Empire””, because of the attempts to declare Dobruja – including Southern Dobruja (which is part of Bulgaria – note of translator) as ”an ancient Romanian land”, with which they justify its annexation to Romania in 1913 and put under doubt the Treaty of Craiova of 1940, branded as ”historical injustice towards the territorial integrity of the Romanian state”9. Lilov doesn’t stop here. He expresses his concern about the fate of the school of Hristo Botev and the Bulgarian church in Bucharest, as well as for the Bulgarian school in Galaţi10. The problem with the Botev school has a long prehistory. The school was established in 1868 and until 1948 was Bulgarian property, after which it was taken over by the Romanian ministry of education. In 1957 the building was ceded to the Romanian state, but with an agreement, stipulating that Bulgaria should receive in exchange another real estate, while the school became a museum of Hristo Botev. But this doesn’t happen11.

The new dispute is not radically different from the issues, which were discussed in the 40s, but finishes in another way – not with Bulgarian concessions, but with agreement that the two countries take care of the historical heritage of the other on their territory. This signifies not so much a change in the Romanian position for protection of the national interests (which is sometimes excessive), but demonstrates the changes, which have taken place in the Bulgarian party – at the place of internationalism a growing nationalism has appeared since the end of the 60s. As it can be seen from the numerous meetings between Zhivkov and Ceauşescu the two countries have preserved their enormous differences in internal and external policy in the Eastern Bloc, but have come closer to the more clear reliance on nationalism in the internal policy. 

The last example, which I will point out dates from the 80s, when a general crisis of the system of state socialism of Soviet type takes place in the Eastern bloc. Then for a successful time Bulgaria and Romania diverge in their attempts to find an exit from the difficult situation. Bulgaria opens towards the West through negotiations with the European Economic Community and starts to adopt the Western market model through the July Concept, while Romania breaks its relations with the IMD and the West, and strengthens its bonds with the countries of the Comecon. In order not to fall in dependence from the West, Ceauşescu undertook drastic measures for the payment of the foreign debt and managed to do it in 1989 with all the corresponding effects.

The successive dispute with Bulgaria is related to this development, but indirectly. This is the chlor gassing of Rousse, which leads to the creation of the first dissident organisation in Bulgaria on 8 March 1988 – The Committee for Ecologic Protection of the City of Rousse. It is provoked by the social indignation against the lack of activity by the authority. The archives prove something else – the gassing of Rousse had become an international dispute. Bulgaria had protested and  had requested in the beginning of 1988 that Romania allow Bulgarian experts in the Giurgiu chemical plant for measurement, but had no success 12. Continuous dispute between the two parties starts about whose guilt it is that this gassing takes place and what are the ways for its ending. An intergovernmental commission, headed by Andrei Lukanov and Cornel Pacoste was formed. It organises a lot of expert meetings, measurements, etc. At the end of the day it is determined ”beyond any doubt that the source of air pollution of Rousse with chloride and chloroderivatives is the chemical plant in Giurgiu. This is due to the obsolete and corrosited technology, the lack of cleaning appliances and the serious disregard for the technology and for the production discipline”13. In spite of all that, the gassing was not stopped, because at that moment Romania has directed all its efforts to export industrial goods at competitive prices in order to pay the foreign debt. This requires that money are saved, including through not acquisitioning of cleaning appliances.

As a whole in this case the Bulgarian position is on the offense, while the Romanian one is on the defense, but all that remains hidden for the Bulgarian public, because the Bulgarian leadership doesn’t want that the disputes come out on the surface. That is why the public remains convinced that Bulgarian authorities have sacrificed their citizens at the destiny’s desires in the name of allied relations.

What do all those examples show? 

I will not repeat what I have already said. I will only point out that ever since World War Two until today our two neighbouring countries have remained formally allied, but in reality at very different positions, determined by their geographical situation and historical tradition. 

Photo: When in Bucharest in 1969 the American president Richard Nixon suggested visiting Bulgaria, but the Bulgarian ambassador was not impressed (photo: YouTube)

Read in Romanian language!

Read in Bulgarian language!


1 Archive of the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, op. 5, p. 10, а. е. 356.

2Ibid

3Ibid

4Report of ambassador G. Bogdanov about the situation and the relations of Romania with Bulgaria – 1969 – State Archive, Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, op. 20p, а.е. 373, l. 49.

5Ibid, l. 145.

6Report note of the secretary of the embassy of People’s Republic of Bulgaria in bucharest At. Georgiev with an associate professor from the Bucharest polytechnic, 29 July 1969 г. – Ibid, а.е. 374, l. 144.

7Report on Nixon’s visit to Romania by ambassador G. Bogdanov, Bucharest, 9 August 1969 – Ibid, а.е. 391, l. 66.

8Central State Archive, f.1b, op. 60, а. е. 224, l. 18–19.

9Ibid, l. 24.

10These questions have been put before as well – in the talks between Lyudmila Zhivkova and Dumtru Popescu, as well as Todor Zhivkov and Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1975  – Ibid, l. 25–27.

11Ibid, l. 29.

12Note about: gassing of Rousse from the chemical plant in Giurgiu on 4 February 1988 and the situation in the next days. – Central State Archives, f. 1b, op. 101, а. е. 1929, l. 2.

13Report note by Petar Mladenov and Andrey Lukanov, 25 June 1988 г. – Ibid, Central State Archives, f. 1Б, op. 68, а.е. 3541, l. 1–2.

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