The Romanian-Bulgarian border on the Danube

Bulgaria and Romanian have been discussing about their own version of the Iron Gates hydroplant on the Danube for decades without any resolution (source: YouTube)

The two countries have problems with defining their river border and with the division of the islands on the Danube. It is remarkable how the last time they reached agreement on these issues was in … 1908.

Spaska Shumanova

This article deals with the issue of defining the border between Bulgaria and Romania on the Danube. Attempts by the two neighbouring countries to resolve the issue of the border and the membership of the islands on the Danube in the second half of the 20th century – through regular bilateral meetings between party leaders and government representatives from Bulgaria and Romania, as well as numerous discussions in joint expert commissions – have failed to resolve the controversial issue and to date the Romanian-Bulgarian river border continues to be established on the basis of the convention signed in 1908.

This article was published in the journal Past (Minalo), issue 2-3, year 2021. Spaska Shumanova is an expert at the State Archives Agency in Sofia. She is the author of the book “Bulgarian-Romanian Political Relations (1944-1989)”, published in Bulgarian in 2020.

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The river border between Bulgaria and Romania was first defined by the Treaty of Berlin (1/13 July 1878). The delimitation commission set up on the basis of its provisions established the navigable channel of the river as the border between the two neighbouring countries.The Talweg is a geomorphological line that marks the deepest part of the river bed. In international relations, the talweg serves to define interstate boundaries along navigable rivers. It is the connecting line of the deepest points of all river profiles along the length of the river valley. The location of this centerline in the water is not constant because the condition of the water and sediments change, and this causes fluctuations and elongations of the river bed. Consequently, the position of the talweg also fluctuates between the two banks and its position does not generally coincide with the centreline. Depending on the behaviour of the river current and the type of bed, the talweg should not run in the widest arm of the river at the forks, but where the river bed has the strongest erosion. The talweg in rivers that cross political boundaries is used as the boundary line (https://bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A2%D0%B0%D0%BB%D0%B2%D0%B 5%D0%B3 – accessed 11/18/2017). The Danube was established as the dividing river. It divided the islands between the Principality of Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Romania on the basis of the delimitation made at the signing of the Treaty of Adrianople (2/14 September 1829) after the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829, which defined the border between the Ottoman Empire and its vassal Romanian (Danubian) principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. This distribution of islands was temporary, which is why the Delimitation Commission of 1879 provided for the establishment of a bilateral Romanian-Bulgarian commission to determine the exact location of Talveg. However, for the next three decades (1878-1908), the issue was not raised and remained in abeyance in political and diplomatic relations between the two neighbouring countries.

It was only on 1/14 January 1908 that a convention was signed between Bulgaria and Romania for the demarcation of the river border,The Convention was ratified on 31 March 1908. See Central State Archives (CDA), f. 173K “National Assembly”, op. 2, a.f. 1970, l. 1-16 (file on its discussion); f. 284K “Council of Ministers”, op. 1, f.a.90 (official text). It was promulgated in the Official Gazette no. 104/1908. It was published by Kessiakov, B. Contribution to the diplomatic history of Bulgaria, 1878-1925. Treaties, conventions, agreements, protocols and other diplomatic agreements and acts, accompanied by brief explanatory notes. S., 1925, pp. 24-29 (no. 6) and by Kishkilova, P. Bulgaria and Romania 1879-2000. Bilateral treaties. S., 2003, pp. 31-38 (no. 7) according to which the island of Dragovei (held by Romania under the Treaty of Adrianopol of 1829) was ceded to Bulgaria free of charge, 6 other Bulgarian islands became Romanian and 5 Romanian islands became Bulgarian territory.National Archives of Romania (ANR), CC of the RCP – Foreign Relations Section, file no. 27/1961, ff. 6-7; CDA, f. 1B “Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party”, op. 6, a.f. 4433, l. 8-9 Article 6 of the Convention stipulates that a survey of Talveg shall be carried out every 10 years and that the membership of the islands shall be determined according to their position in relation to the boundary line. According to the 1908 Convention, the border between Bulgaria and Romania follows the middle course of the river. Where the river is divided into branches, the middle of the branch containing the talveg, i.e. the deepest part of the river, applies. Therefore, where there are islands, the boundary follows the middle of the arm along which the talveg runs.

After the expiry of the first 10-year period provided for in Article 6 of the Convention, which coincided with the end of the First World War (1914-1918), the problem of delimiting the Romanian-Bulgarian border along the river arose. The need for a revision of the 1908 ConventionArchives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (AMFA), op. 33, a.f. 2299, l. 2, 6; a.f. 2308, l. 18-19 continued to be discussed by Bulgaria and Romania in the inter-war period (1919-1939) and in the years of the Second World War (1939-1945), but without reaching a mutually acceptable solution.AMVNR, op. 33, a.f. 2308, l. 7, 18-22; CDA, f. 1477 “Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Directorate General”, op. 16, a.f. 527a, l. 2. On Romanian-Bulgarian relations between 1878 and 1944, see History of Bulgaria. Т. VII. Bulgaria 1878-1903. S., 1991; T. VII. Bulgaria 1903-1918. Cultural development of Bulgaria 1878-1918. S., 1999; T. IX. Bulgaria 1918-1944. S., 2012; Kuzmanova, A. Romania’s Balkan policy 1933-1939. S., 1984; Idem. From Neuilly to Craiova. The Southern Dobrogea issue in international relations (1919-1940). S., 1989; Kuzmanova, A., P. Todorov, J. Popov, Bl. Nyagulov, K. Penchikov, V. Milachkov. History of Dobrogea. Vol. 4. 1878-1944. Veliko Tarnovo, 2007

This article aims to trace the negotiations and positions of Bulgaria and Romania on the issue of the definition of their river border along the Danube during the period of socialism (1945-1989) and after the democratic changes (1989) – mainly on the basis of archival materials kept at the Central State Archives, the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sofia and the National Archives of Romania in Bucharest.

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After the end of the Second World War and the imposition of “people’s democracy” in Bulgaria and Romania, the domestic and foreign policy interests of the two neighbouring countries became closer, which meant that bilateral relations had to be extended and deepened. This was expressed in the establishment of closer economic and cultural cooperation, the coordination of economic plans and the conclusion of a long-term treaty on the exchange of goods, the resolution of unresolved problems between the two countries, in particular the socio-legal problems that had accumulated after the Treaty of Craiova (7 September 1940), and the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (16 January 1948). Unresolved issues include the definition of the Romanian-Bulgarian border along the Danube River.

At Romania’s initiative, a Bulgarian delegation led by Sava Ganovski, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, visited Bucharest on 11-18 May 1949 and insisted, among other aspects of bilateral cooperation, on the signing of a new convention on the definition of the river border between Bulgaria and Romania. The Romanian representatives, however, removed this item from the negotiating agenda without explanation.

In November 1957, bilateral talks on this issue, which had previously been settled diplomatically, were held again in Bucharest. This time, the negotiations were interrupted because the following year, 1958, Romania initiated a new bilateral meeting – to specify the programme of the Romanian-Bulgarian Joint Commission to study and define the border line between the Bulgarian and Romanian People’s Republics along the Danube River. From 29 January to 10 February 1959, negotiations took place in Bucharest, but were again interrupted – this time because of differences over the validity of the 1908 Convention and the territorial belonging of the Danube islands. The dispute between Bulgaria and Romania mainly concerns the Bulgarian islands “Srednjak”, “Bezimen”, “Boril”, “Malak Boril”, “Bezimen” and “Shiber”, which the Romanian state claims to be ceded to it. The only exception is the island of Vetren.AMVNR, op. 33, a.f. 2308, l. 23-24

On the very day of the Bulgarian delegation’s return from the Romanian capital, 10 February 1959, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the P.R. Romania informed the Embassy of the P.R. Bulgaria in Bucharest that the Romanian government insisted that the Bulgarian government communicate to it in writing its opinion on the validity of the 1908 Convention. The Council of Ministers of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria convened an extended meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sofia, attended by representatives of the Ministry of Food Industry, the Institute of Law of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and other “eminent jurists”. In the opinion of all jurists, the 1908 Convention was de jure abrogated because, according to Articles 168 and 171 of the Treaty of Neuilly (27 November 1919), in order for it to remain in force, the Kingdom of Romania had to notify the Kingdom of Bulgaria, within six months, of those bilateral treaties and conventions whose validity it would retain. There is no record of the notification of the 1908 Romanian-Bulgarian Convention, from which it follows that it is automatically and formally abrogated. Articles 27 and 30 of the Treaty of Neuilly established the boundary between Bulgaria and Romania on the Danube to serve the “main navigable channel” (median line of the main navigable channel) of the river and provided for a new demarcation to be made by a new commission. No such bilateral demarcation commission was formed, so that after 1919 the Romanian-Bulgarian borderline remained the Danube river towpath. Under the Treaty of Paris, signed after the end of the Second World War (10 February 1947), all Bulgarian borders remained as they were on 1 January 1941,,AMVNR, op. 33, a.f. 2299, l. 6-7; CDA, f. 1477, op. 16, a.f. 527a, lit. 3-14; CDA, f. 136 “Council of Ministers”, op. 89, f.a. 634, l. 17. i.e. the status quo was maintained.

Despite initial attempts by Bulgaria and Romania to start negotiations and resolve the border issue and the affiliation of the Danubian islands in 1958-1959, substantive talks were delayed until 1961, which passed into meetings between personalities of the Bulgarian and Romanian parties and governments.

Between 25 and 28 March 1961, on the Romanian side, the talks were led by General Emil Bodnaraş – Deputy Prime Minister of Romania and Mihail Rosianu – Ambassador of the Romania in Sofia, and on the Bulgarian side by Dimitar Ganev – Chairman of the Presidium of the National Assembly of the Bulgaria and Dimo Dicev – Head of the Department of Foreign Policy and International Relations of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party.ANR, CC of the RCP – Foreign Relations Section, file no. 27/1961, ff. 1-3 The Romanian representatives insisted that the border between the two countries be drawn along the Danube river channel,The waterway is a waterway for ships. It is a passage marked on the ground (or on a chart) in a body of water (sea, river, strait, fjord, canal, lake, etc.) characterised by sufficient depth and the absence of underwater obstacles. In the case of rivers, the channel usually runs along the maximum depth line (talveg). with all the islands to the left of the border line becoming the property of Romania and those to the right – of Bulgaria. As the waterway is subject to natural changes, such a border would be mobile, implying that the islands would also change ownership. This implies that every 10 years the border should be surveyed and, if necessary, demarcated and the ownership of the islands should change automatically according to the changes in the fairway. However, the adoption of this principle would lead to the 6 Bulgarian islands becoming part of Romania’s borders, which the People’s Republic of Bulgaria does not agree with.CDA, f. 1B, op. 6, a.f. 4433, l. 7-9.

The main considerations of the Romanian delegation were based on the 1961 treaty between Romania and the USSR on the definition of the Romanian-Soviet border along the Prut River and the lower reaches of the river. Danube, in which the principle of border crossing along the river channel was applied. In other words, Romania’s request was based on international law and did not take into account the issue of the Danube islands, which were defined as a “technical matter” of no particular importance, the ownership of which could be decided after the bilateral border had been established.

During the negotiations, Romania also used historical data on the ownership of the islands as arguments, criticising the People’s Republic of Bulgaria for not having a clear position on the basis for signing a new convention. Romania insists that it should be based either on the old 1908 convention or on the 1961 agreement between Romania and the USSR.

For its part, the Bulgarian delegation proposes that the boundary be drawn along the riverbed, i.e. along the median, as the middle of the fairway is an awkward demarcation line according to the current geophysical laws of the river. Danube. With regard to islands, Bulgaria literally takes over one of the articles of the 1949 bilateral treaty between the Popular Republic of Romania and the USSR, which states that for each island belonging to one of the contracting states, but remaining on the other side of the median or fairway, a special agreement shall be concluded for the change of its membership. Otherwise, the interest of one of the two countries would be prejudiced because, due to natural changes in the channel, some islands join the coast of the other country. One such Bulgarian island, for example, is Malâk Boril, located opposite the village of Baikal (Pleven region), which has joined the Romanian side of the Danube. The Bulgarian government has agreed to cede it in exchange for financial or territorial compensation. Other islands (500 hectares in total) “are of significant economic importance” and are owned by the state enterprise “Gorski Stopanstva”, which has invested BGN 1 500 000 in planting them with Canadian poplar, from which Bulgaria expects to receive about 150 000 cubic metres of wood, worth over 10 000 000 leva. The islands have pastures used by Bulgarian coastal farms and extensive areas under maize. The islands are also important for the river fisheries of the Bulgarian PR.

Another legal argument is the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria, which does not allow the cession of Bulgarian territory to another state, i.e. concluding a convention on such a principle would be unconstitutional. In addition, Article 1 of the Treaty of Paris (10 February 1947) defines the Bulgarian borders as they were on 1 January 1941 and, despite the territorial dispute between Bulgaria and Greece, the latter recognised the bilateral border along the Maritza River.  Bulgaria points out that setting a precedent through a bilateral Bulgarian-Romanian convention on an exchange of Danube islands could provoke new claims from Greece and Turkey.Ibidem, l. 9-16.

Romania’s invocation of the historical past has proved unfounded, as in the past both Bulgaria and Romania (Wallachia and Moldova) were Turkish provinces and did not exist as independent states, and the Danube islands were only divided in 1908.

The Bulgarian delegation also points out that, in the course of its research, it has established that, according to the bilateral treaty concluded between Yugoslavia and Romania, the border between the two countries runs along the navigable channel of the Danube. Danube, as laid down in the Treaty of Sevres (10 August 1920). However, there are two islands (Moldova Island and Ada-Kaleh Island) which are part of Romania’s territory, although the main shipping channel separates them from the Romanian coast and they are in fact in the territorial river waters of Yugoslavia. Consequently, in defining the Romanian-Yugoslav border, the principle of the main shipping channel has not been followed “consistently and without exception” and Romania has not ceded these two islands to Yugoslavia “free of charge”. However, Romania is not prepared to make a similar exception for Bulgaria..Ibidem, l. 5-6

In the course of these negotiations, Bulgaria has stated that it will accept that the border be drawn along the Danube river channel if Romania makes concessions on the islands. Due to the impossibility of reaching an agreement, the two delegations ended the negotiations and informed their governments of the results achieved, and the issue of the river border was postponed for a future resolution.

In April 1961, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party decided to set up a Romanian-Bulgarian commission to draw up a new convention on the delimitation of the border between Bulgaria and Romania on the Danube. The agreement concluded between the USSR and Romania in 1961 was to be taken as a basis.In April 1961, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party decided to set up a Romanian-Bulgarian commission to draw up a new convention on the delimitation of the border between Bulgaria and Romania on the Danube. The agreement concluded between the USSR and Romania in 1961 was to be taken as a basis.ANR, CC of the Communist Party of Romania – Foreign Relations Section, file no. 27/1961, ff. 2-3.

The newly formed Romanian-Bulgarian Joint Commission met in Sofia on 10-17 May 1961. The Bulgarian representatives in the Commission were Boris Manolov – Minister Plenipotentiary, Head of Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Chief), Major General Slavcio Radomirski – Deputy Head of the Border Troops Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Simeon Simeonov – Head of the Water Transport Department. The Romanian delegation includes Adrian Iosipescu – Director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Head), Constantin Nicolaescu – Major General in the Ministry of Armed Forces and Mayer Grumberg – Director General of the State Water Committee.CDA, f. 1477, op. 18, a.f. 1833a, l. 1.

As a result of the negotiations, a protocol was signed, whereby it was decided that the draft agreements would be prepared on the part of Bulgaria and Romania, and in early June of the same year the Joint Commission should meet again and prepare a joint draft agreement; the work on the ground, as well as the technical documents and the necessary specialists should be determined by the Joint Commission; the permanent headquarters of the Bulgarian technical group should be in Ruse and that of the Romanian technical group in Giurgiu; each party should bear the expenses of its delegation to the Joint Commission.Ibidem, l. 2-3.

Following the exchange of draft agreements between Bulgaria and Romania, further negotiations of the Joint Commission took place in Bucharest from 3 to 13 July 1961. The Bulgarian delegation was led by Boris Manolov and the Romanian delegation by Adrian Iosipescu. A “difference of principle” between the exchanged drafts was again found, which was not overcome, and the negotiations were concluded.

During the actual talks, Boris Manolov stated that the Popular Republic of Romania agreed to abandon the principle of irremovability of the border and adopt Romania’s position, but on condition that the territoriality of the islands at the time would not be affected, which Romania did not agree to. In addition, the Romanian draft does not take into account the existing situation of the islands on the river. The Danube islands do not respect the status of Danube islands as defined by the 1908 Convention and the 1947 Treaty of Paris. In reply, A. Iosipescu states that “navigation”, i.e. securing it in the waters of the country concerned and securing the border, is important for Romania because “the Danube is a river open to all other countries and border protection is of particular interest…”.Ibidem, l. 7.

Bulgarian draft convention between the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and Romania on the delimitation of the border and border regimes of the river. The Danube is based on the 1908 convention between Bulgaria and Romania, the 1961 convention between the USSR and Romania and the convention concluded between Czechoslovakia and Hungary. According to Article 1 of the draft, the borderline between the BPR and the RNR will run (at low water level) along the middle of the river. Where the Danube flows along a single channel, and where it forms two or more arms, the boundary line will pass through the middle of the arm containing the main navigable channel on its course. If the water level changes and the channel passes through different arms, the boundary will follow the middle of the arm through which the largest volume of water flows. The boundary line above and below the islands will be joined 300 m from their ends. The natural variation of the boundary line does not change the territoriality of the islands along the river. The Danube line of the islands will only be changed by special agreement. The waters to the left of the border will be considered Romanian and those to the right Bulgarian.The Agreement shall be concluded for a period of 10 years from the date of its entry into force. It shall continue for a further period of 5 years, unless one of the Parties declares that it wishes to amend or terminate the Agreement. The Agreement also provides that if an island of one of the Parties is annexed to the territory of the other Party, the latter may propose the conclusion of a special agreement defining its territoriality. An island is considered to be joined to the other party when the minimum depth of water in the arm separating it from the territorial coast is less than 0.50 m at low water (Articles 4 and 5). If one of the contracting parties receives islands in the river from the other party, it owes it compensation for the territory lost (Article 6). A joint technical commission, composed of representatives of both parties, will establish the demarcation line along the river. Danube on the basis of the agreement (Article 7). Vessels of the contracting parties have the right to navigate unhindered on the navigable channel of the river, irrespective of the demarcation line along it (Article 8). With a view to improving river fisheries, the riparian agreement is amended as follows Danube and to regulate joint activities, the two neighbouring countries will conclude an agreement on river fisheries, which will specify in particular bilateral cooperation (CDA, f. 1B, op. 6, a.e. 4492, l. 1-6).

Romania’s representative, A. Iosipescu, remained visibly unhappy with the proposed draft and reproached the Bulgarian PR that “You have taken something from the 1908 Convention, something from the 1949 Treaty and very little from the 1961 Treaty. Only what is advantageous to you… In concrete terms, what you have done: you have destroyed the 1908 Convention, you have chosen what is advantageous to you from it and from the other treaties. In other places, you have added something of your own, and you have arrived at a view that cannot be sustained.”CDA, f. 1477, op. 18, a.f. 1833a, l. 10-11

Because of the new differences that had arisen, the matter was postponed for discussion at the next summit meeting in Euxinograd (near Varna), which took place on 19 and 20 January 1962. The Romanian delegation was led by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Déj, President of the State Council of the Romanian People’s Republic, accompanied by Ion Gheorghe Maurer, Prime Minister, Gen. Emil Bodnaraș – Deputy Prime Minister and other party and state officials. On the Bulgarian side, the talks were led by Todor Zhivkov – First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Anton Yugov – Prime Minister, Stanko Todorov and Zhivko Zhivkov – Deputy Chairmen of the Council of Ministers, Karlo Lukanov – Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Mitko Grigorov – Member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party..CDA, f. 1B, op. 5, a.e. 486, fol. 1.

Despite Bulgaria’s PR agreement to accept the principle of the main navigable channel in the convention between Romania and the Soviet Union, the Bulgarian leaders stressed that this principle was acceptable only insofar as it did not change the de facto status quo for certain islands which, if applied, would have changed their territorial affiliation: one or two of them would have become the property of Bulgaria, and five islands would have become the property of Romania. By virtue of this principle, the island of Belene was also on Romanian territory, which is why Todor Zhivkov did not agree to its application. In response, Romania offered to compensate Bulgaria financially for these territorial losses.Ibidem. 9-23.

Todor Zhivkov says the total is around 500 hectares, as the five islands average 100 hectares each. Bulgarian experts have also established the amount of compensation – 16 000 000 leva. However, during discussions in the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, opinions were expressed that if these islands were ceded to Romania, “both Greeks, Turks and Yugoslavs would raise territorial problems”. Fearing that a precedent would be set and that problems would arise with Bulgaria’s other neighbours, Todor Zhivkov decided that building a dam at Somovit, which would destroy these islands, would solve the problem of the Romanian-Bulgarian border on the Danube River. Therefore, at this stage, it would be better to postpone solving the problem by adopting the principle adopted by the other Danube countries (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria and others).

On behalf of the Romanian delegation, Ion Gheorghe Maurer proposed 3 options to solve the problem: 1. Not to sign a new bilateral agreement, but to continue the application of the 1908 Convention, but by defining the territorial belonging of the islands; 2. To amend the agreement without giving the impression that the two neighbouring countries are discussing issues related to a change of border, which should be based on the principle established in the 1908 Convention – that the border should be the navigable channel of the river. 3. No changes should be made.

During the discussions, Karlo Lucanov drew the negotiators’ attention to the Convention concluded between the USSR and Romania in 1949, the basic principle of which was: “where the river flows in one channel, the border follows the channel; where there are several channels, and therefore islands, a change in the channel does not automatically lead to a change in the membership of the islands”. The question of island membership must be decided in each individual case. The 1949 Convention expressly provides that the alteration of the course of a river in its main channel does not alter the territoriality of islands unless there is a special agreement to that effect.Ibidem. 17, 23.

At the end of the meeting, the negotiators came to the common and ideological conclusion that “the existing bourgeois agreements for the regulation of our Danube frontier, including the 1908 Convention, cannot be accepted as a basis for the regulation of our relations…, a new convention must be drawn up”. The Bulgarian side proposes the signing of a new convention, the drafting of which should be entrusted to a bilateral joint commission and the text should be discussed by the governments of Bulgaria and Romania. Romania proposes that the new agreement should be based on the 1961 Romanian-USSR agreement, and not on the 1949 agreement, which has some “unclear points” – therefore, the principle to be respected and adopted in the new Romanian-Bulgarian convention is the principle of the main navigable channel of the river. Danube..Ibidem. 39, 48, 51 The Bulgarian delegation also proposes to add to the border issue the issue of transport on the Danube. However, the Romanian delegation objects that these are “other issues”, while the present meeting only discusses the issue of the definition of the river border between Bulgaria and Romania. The conclusion reached by both delegations is that “this issue is not yet ripe” and has therefore been postponed for discussion at a later stage.CDA, f. 1B, op. 5, a.f. 486, l. 33-38; Marcheva, I. În. Bulgaria în Balcani. Balcanii și Balcanii în Balcani. Т. T. Stoilova și colab. S., 2006, p. 257.

A few years later, on 14 and 17 April and 4 May 1966, the Romanian border authorities detained Bulgarian citizens fishing in Bulgarian territorial waters in the area of Vetren Island (Silistra County). Romania insisted that the protocol of their surrender to Bulgaria should state that these citizens were in Romanian territorial waters. On 13 May 1966, the Romanian border authorities also detained Lieutenant-Colonel Tachev, Deputy Border Commissioner for this sector, together with other Bulgarian citizens who had also been in the area of that island. After these incidents, the question of the territorial ownership of Vetren Island (134.9 ha) was raised. Until the regular guarding of the river border was lifted in the first half of 1963, the Bulgarian border authorities were regularly sent to the island. Vetren for inspection, with no objections from Romania. By 14 April 1966, no incidents had been recorded with the Romanian border authorities and no claims had been made on this island by the Romanian side. Residents of the village of Vetren and the village of Tvardița (Silistra county) also visited the island regularly – for fishing, logging and grazing cattle. On the issue of illegal actions of the Romanian border authorities and the “forced conquest” of the island, in May 1966 a meeting took place between the commanders of the border troops of the P.R. Bulgaria and RS Romania, but the dispute was not resolved. In order to fully clarify the matter, a commission was set up by order of Zhivko Zhivkov, First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, consisting of representatives of the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, which prepared and submitted a report to the Bulgarian government in December 1966, but no further concrete steps were taken.AMVNR, op. 33, a.f. 2308, l. 23-24.

In the 1970s, the Romanian-Bulgarian border issue took on a completely different character. After the construction of the planned reservoirs on the hydroelectric dams on the Danube River (“Nicopole – Turnu Măgurele” and Cerna Vodă), practically all the islands on the river would be flooded, with the exception of Belene, which was annexed. In this situation, maintaining the existing demarcation line will face practical difficulties due to the disappearance of natural landmarks. One of the possibilities for changing the demarcation line along the Belene River would be to change the demarcation line. One of the possibilities to change the demarcation line along the Danube would be to adopt the geometric axis of the reservoir, i.e. the midpoint between the Bulgarian and Romanian banks. From the studies carried out it is clear that this would increase the territory of the Republic of Bulgaria by 868 hectares, which is clearly in its interest. Analysis of the figures shows that the removal of the old border would not be to Bulgaria’s detriment, even if one takes into account the areas of land actually flooded when the reservoir was created. As regards the islands themselves, the interest of RS Romania mainly concerns their forests and pastures, and the interest of Bulgaria mainly concerns the sand and gravel to be used in the construction of the Nicopole -Turnu Măgurele Hydrotechnical Complex. The Romanian-Bulgarian bilateral agreement for the construction of this complex was signed on 20 March 1973, and Article 14 of it provided for the definition and marking of a new state border line between Bulgaria and Romania along the Danube River.AMVNR, op. 33, a.f. 2308, pp. 24-26.

In the draft of a new convention on the delimitation of the river border on the Danube until 1976,  Bulgaria adopted the principle of “immobility”, i.e. the middle of the river or the middle of the arm containing the main channel. Changes in island membership (if necessary) Bulgaria accepts that this should be done by special (separate) bilateral agreements, with compensation paid for each island – in principle an equal territorial exchange. In contrast, the Romanian project envisages a mobile border, i.e. on the main corridor. As regards the ownership of islands which, as a result of the fairway change, may pass from the territorial waters of one state to the territorial waters of the other, Romania has adopted the principle of exchange free of charge, regulated by the signing of constitutive protocols by the bilateral Joint Commission on fairway change, to be drawn up every 10 years (as well as at any other time when one of the two states so wishes). The Romanian draft also provided for the demarcation of the border once the new agreement entered into force, without taking into account the existing demarcation since 1908. The Bulgarian draft did not address this issue. The final difference between the two drafts was that the Bulgarian draft also addressed the issue of fishing on the Danube by citizens of the two neighbouring countries, while the Romanian draft did not contain such a provision. In other respects, the two projects do not differ in principle.

As far as the solution of the border problem on the Danube is concerned, there were no differences between the two proposals.

At the end of 1977, a meeting of representatives of the Ministries of Foreign and Home Affairs, Energy, Transport, Agriculture, Forestry and Forest Industry and Defence of the Republic of Bulgaria was reconvened in Sofia. It was established that Bulgaria did not have up-to-date data on the status of the Danube islands. The relevant ministries were instructed to carry out the necessary studies, and at the second meeting which took place it was found that the 1908 boundary line had not changed substantially, except for the sections where the islands had disappeared or joined the Bulgarian or Romanian shore.AMVNR, op. 33, a.f. 2297, l. 7. The views of the ministries attending these meetings were that Bulgaria should accept Romania’s position and that negotiations should resume under the following conditions: the boundary line should not be changed, i.e. it should remain as defined and described in the 1908 Convention and in the figurative maps annexed to it; in determining the ownership of the islands, the river bed (as indicated in the 1908 figurative maps) should be taken into account, without taking into account the changes made after that date; the provisions of the 1908 Convention should not be discussed, as none of them has been applied in practice so far. The opinion of the Bulgarian legal institutions is accepted, as is the opinion expressed by Romania (by note of 16 July 1976) that the Convention is no longer to be taken into consideration.Ibidem, l. 7-8.

In the 1980s, the issue of defining the Romanian-Bulgarian river border along the Danube remained in the background, as the party and state leaders and governments of the two neighbouring countries concentrated on the internal economic and political problems of Bulgaria and Romania and the general crisis in the socialist camp. Within the framework of bilateral relations, the use of the river’s hydraulic potential was put on the agenda. The Danube River through the construction of the Nicopole – Turnu Măgurele and Silistra – Călărași hydroelectric power plants, as well as the solution of the problem of environmental pollution of Ruse by the chemical plant near Giurgiu.

After the democratic changes of 1989-1990, Bulgaria and Romania took no concrete action to define their river border along the Danube, although the issue was raised in working meetings of border representatives and in consultations between foreign ministries. It was even included in the 1992 annual protocol on cooperation between the foreign ministries of the two countries, as well as in the Romanian-Bulgarian consultations (at expert level) on the delimitation of maritime spaces in the Black Sea, which took place on 23-24 February 1993. In the framework of these consultations, the two delegations also agreed on the opening of new negotiations on the delimitation of the inter-state border along the Danube in the first half of 1993 in Bulgaria.CDA, f. 136, op. 89, a.f. 634, l. 12 Most probably due to the dynamic internal political events of the 1990s (early parliamentary elections and frequent changes of government), the issue was again downplayed.

In an interview with Eng. Georgi Georgiev – director of the Danube River Exploration and Maintenance Agency on 31 July 2014, it is stated that even on this date the river border between Bulgaria and Romania is defined on the basis of the 1908 Convention. Ing. Gheorgiev explained that in 1998 an inter-ministerial commission was formed in Sofia, consisting of representatives of the ministries of foreign affairs, defence, transport, agriculture and environment. As a structural part of the Ministry of Transport, the Danube River Exploration and Maintenance Agency also participated in its work – inspecting the banks and islands along the entire Bulgarian-Romanian section of the river. Danube – from the Timok River to Silistra and comparing with data from old maps, issued in 1908, 1930, 1950 and 1960. The Commission found a large gap and a shift of the talweg, i.e. the imaginary demarcation line, that the condition of the islands had changed and that erosion had taken over large parts of the river bank. The Danube entered the land on the Bulgarian side and took away thousands of hectares of arable land. The inter-ministerial committee is preparing an official report on the results of the studies carried out and submitting it to the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defence. It is proposed that Romania prepare a mutual report and then hold a bilateral meeting at government level to resolve the border issue. However, no such Romanian-Bulgarian meeting is known to have been organised and to have taken place, and the Interministerial Commission was closed in 2000 by decision of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Bulgaria.See https://web.facebook.com/appdbg/photos/a.617874604926433.1073741825.195695143811050/69751 319029295907?_rdc=1&_rdr (accessed 18 November 2017).

* * *

Regular bilateral meetings, discussions and disputes between representatives of the Bulgarian and Romanian parties and governments, as well as joint expert commissions in the second half of the 20th century failed to resolve the controversial issue of the Romanian-Bulgarian border along the Danube River. Despite the ideological and political closeness between the two neighbouring countries during the period of “people’s democracy” and state socialism (1944-1989), the initiatives taken and the declared willingness to compromise, the positions of the two countries have been argued on various legal, historical, political and economic grounds, usually mutually exclusive, regarding the membership of the Danube islands and the route of the river border. Since the democratic changes (1989), no unified and mutually acceptable position has been reached either. The de facto border between Bulgaria and Romania continues to be defined today on the basis of the convention signed in 1908.

Photo: A Danubean island in the Bulgarian-Romanian part of the river (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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3 thoughts on “The Romanian-Bulgarian border on the Danube

  1. I wanted to read this article – but it was just too detailed and long for me to persist.
    That’s to be expected in an academic journal – but I would have appreciated an abstract or summary on a blog

  2. Reblogged this on State, Communities and Nature of the Lower Danube Islands: An Environmental History (1830-2020) and commented:
    An interesting blog post by Vladimir Mitev on the issue of defining the border between Bulgaria and Romania on the Danube.

    ///

    Un text interesant de Vladimir Mitev despre delimitarea granitei romano-bulgare pe Dunare. In josul textului gasiti link pentru textul in RO si Bulgara.

  3. Pingback: Who will make the change in Bulgarian-Romanian relations? – Cross-border Talks

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