Vladimir Mitev: Bulgarians and Romanians have a lot to discover and learn about each other

Vladimir Mitev (source: Vladimir Mitev)

In the context of the dynamization of diplomatic interactions between Bulgaria and Romania the Bulgarian site UNA News approached the founder of the blog “The Bridge of Friendship” for an interview over the state and people’s dimension of the Bulgarian-Romanian relations as well as the attitudes of both countries towards the socialist past and their role in the ongoing security realignment in Eastern Europe

Eliz Adem

Vladimir Mitev is a journalist, part of the team of the news and analysis portal The Barricade. In 2015, he founded the multilingual Bulgarian-Romanian blog “The Bridge of Friendship”, which contributes to getting to know Bulgarians and Romanians. After starting his PhD at Sofia University in the field of contemporary Iranian literature, in the summer of 2020 he created another similar blog – “The Persian Bridge of Friendship”. Since 2021, he has been developing the international relations podcast Cross-Border Talks, where he co-hosts with Polish journalist Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.

He has also worked at Tema magazine. His interviews and articles have been published or broadcast in the Bulgarian National Radio, news agency BGNES, Bloomberg Bulgaria TV, Dnevnik, A-specto, the Economy magazine, the human rights site Marginalia and others. He has also been published in various international media, including Open Democracy, The Other News, Strajk.eu, Transform!Europe, the Iranian Labour News Agency and the Iranian news agency Mehr, the Romanian magazines Decât o Revistă, Revista 22, Q Magazine and others.

This article was published at UNA News Bulgaria on 16 February 2022.

One of Russia’s demands is for NATO to withdraw its troops from Bulgaria and Romania.  Does this mean that Russia wants Bulgaria and Romania to be under Russian influence?

In my opinion, the current negotiations, statements and military maneuvers in the Black Sea region must be seen in the context of relations between Russia and the West, which have different faces – the US, NATO, the EU, etc. The call for the withdrawal of NATO troops and equipment, uploaded on the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry, to some extent prepared public opinion in our countries for a stronger presence of NATO troops in it, which began to be implemented as soon as it was made. Therefore, it seems to me that what we are seeing is more of a ‘dance’, i.e. it hints that the participants in it have an idea of what steps they need to take and are taking them in some degree of coordination, as evidenced by the ongoing negotiations between the parties.

Bulgaria and Romania do seem to have a somewhat more specific position as part of the West – for example, because they have been excluded from the Schengen area for more than a decade. But while Bulgaria and Romania are part of NATO and the EU, it seems to me that it is clear what the dominant influences are here. And at this stage, Russia seems to be mostly concerned about the fate of Eastern Europe and wants to prevent countries that were part of the USSR, especially Ukraine, from joining NATO. However, we have to bear in mind that hardly anyone knows what the final outcome of the ongoing redefinition of the West and security balances in Eastern Europe will be.

The two countries share common challenges such as demographic crises and double standards in the EU. Are Bulgarian and Romanian politicians looking for common ground?

Political parties from both countries maintain contacts through their membership of their respective European families. At local level – for example, in Ruse – there is very good interaction between the municipalities and regional administrations of Ruse and Giurgiu, supported by the activities of the Danubius Euroregion. These are signs that there are people among Bulgarians and Romanians whom both sides trust.

However, so far, there seem to be more cases where the two countries have difficulty reaching agreement on issues such as infrastructure links, the river border and others. It is remarkable that the last time Bulgaria and Romania had an agreement on the Danube border and the ownership of the islands there was in 1908. The history of the discussions after that is perfectly conveyed in this article by the State Archives Agency researcher Dr Spaska Shumanova: constant negotiations, constant search for an optimal formula and the inability to reach a final solution. Significantly, both bridges between the two sides of the Danube were built after international pressure, not because of internal dynamics and a high degree of understanding between their elites.

It seems to me that for a long time the countries in our region have relied more on competition as to who is more Western, more European-minded, who put a better face on a Big Brother. Even if a new understanding is reached in bilateral relations, this will probably be difficult because of the existing inertia in them.

“The level of trust or cohesion between states and their elites has clearly been in deficit for decades.” Are there signs that this will change under the new government in Bulgaria?

A hint that there might be a change was the emphasis placed by the two foreign ministries and respective embassies on the 30th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighbourliness between the two countries. On this occasion, Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu and his Bulgarian counterpart Teodora Genchovska held a conversation in the context of the tensions in Eastern Europe. The Bulgarian government extended an invitation to the Romanian foreign minister to visit Sofia, which was warmly received. This comes after several positive articles in the Romanian press with a high profile for the figure of the Bulgarian Prime Minister, with a focus on his Harvard education. This was followed by a phone call between the Prime Ministers of the two countries, during which it emerged that Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov will soon visit Bucharest.

These are promising signs for Bulgarian-Romanian relations. However, my feeling is that the government in Sofia is currently made up of at least four political elements, and some of them contain smaller parties, and this seems to indicate that Bulgaria is open to interactions in different foreign policy directions. Perhaps what I am about to say is naive, but I wonder whether Bulgarians and Romanians can do something together beyond pure state interests, whether “friendship”, “cooperation” and “good neighbourliness” can “come to them from within” and not be dictated exclusively by the international context. 

“The two peoples continue not to know each other and to view each other with stereotypes.” How do Romanians see Bulgarians, how do Bulgarians see Romanians? What are the reasons why these stereotypes exist?  

I have felt on myself the skepticism of each of the two peoples towards the other. To some extent, there is an inertia left in their attitude towards their neighbours, an understanding that they are surrounded by enemies. When one writes about the history of Bulgarian-Romanian political relations in both countries, the emphasis is usually on the antagonisms, the outrages and treacheries of the other side during the wars. 

Another reason for distrust or lack of respect for the other side are some negative impressions from the recent past, from the transition. For example, in Romania, many people believe, or believed until recently, that Romanian cars are stolen in Bulgaria on purpose and systematically. And it does not seem that anyone from Bulgaria has made an effort to explain in Romania whether this is a legend or a reality. As far as I know, my blog is the only media outlet that has written anything more detailed on the subject, having approached the Bulgarian and Romanian Interior Ministry for information a few years ago and used Eurostat statistics to try to find out facts about this practice. 

Bulgarians, in turn, often have problems on Romanian roads – there are many cases of revoked driving licences, of fines, and sometimes these are perceived as arbitrary. Romanians also complained about Bulgarian traffic police until a few years ago, but the introduction of cameras on the roads seems to have reduced their contact with them.

The unfortunate stories forming the corresponding stereotypes could be continued. It happens that first contacts with neighbours on a very ordinary, interpersonal level lead to disappointment because of an undeserved insult. 

But the picture is more complex. The Bulgarian middle class seems to envy the Romanian one, because the latter has really strong positions there. It seems to me that, for example, Bulgarian Orthodox priests who have contact with the Romanian church also have a noble envy – because in Romania the Orthodox church is very influential and there is even a national Orthodox radio. On the other hand, in Romania the books of Omraam Mikael Aivankhov – a disciple of Peter Deunov – are popular, i.e. it seems that Bulgarians can be interesting from some “esoteric” point of view. I have also come across opinions that Bulgaria is better at protecting some of its economic interests in some cases – for example, Romania is currently importing natural gas from Russia and Turkey via Bulgaria. Before the construction of the Turkish Stream pipeline, natural gas entered Bulgaria from Romania… 

But there is also the opposite opinion – Romania has attracted foreign investment – for example in the automotive sector, which is one of the pillars of the Romanian economy. A number of corporations manage their operations in the region from Romania, the Romanian market is larger and gives vitality to many activities, while in Bulgaria it seems that many of us face the typical stagnation outside Sofia… 

The attitude of the two nations towards Russia seems to complicate relations because it is also linked to different visions of the security of the two countries in the Black Sea region. Romanian foreign policy analysts complain that Bucharest is alone in the region because Bulgaria is not pursuing a hard line towards Russia. The attempts a few years ago by some Bulgarian foreign policy analysts and former diplomats and bivi to promote the creation of a Black Sea European macro-region, i.e. to have a de-escalation with Russia, did not get Romanian support.

As a person who has no border between the Bulgarian and Romanian cultural space, it is interesting to me how the two peoples could live and do something together despite their differences. In my opinion, if they do not try to be hegemons in this relationship, if they create new opportunities for themselves and for others, they could enrich each other’s identities instead of denying them. Such a process can be described as European, but it is also universal human. Perhaps this path could also bring nations to a point where they are to a greater extent subjects of international relations. And everyone in the region would benefit from such an approach.

Why do you think Bulgarians and Romanians have such different assessments of the communist past?

Countries have their own specific ways of making sense of socialism for a number of reasons. 

My impression of Romania is that the country is making a conscious effort to define its history and identity in a way that makes it part of the European ones. For example, the Spring of Nations of 1848 also took place in lands inhabited by Romanians, and this is why in today’s Romania great importance is attached to the so-called ‘Pasoptists’, the Romanian participants in this social and cultural process. Romanian literature and culture are thus interpreted as a continuation or at least an echo of European ones. 

The Bulgarian view of the Renaissance seems to be different – at least as I remember it from my school and student years, it was a celebration of our authenticity, it was a cultural process “of the Bulgarians, for the Bulgarians, led by the Bulgarians” (to paraphrase Lincoln’s famous phrase about democracy and the people) and it led primarily to the development of the national idea, not directly to our inscription in the European culture of the time. Only recently has the History of Bulgaria (1667) by the Catholic Peter Bogdan been discovered, which seems to allow us to think a little more complexly about our cultural identity and contribution to the world.

In this context, pushing away from the communist legacy is probably seen by both countries as a step towards their Europeanisation, towards their inscription in European history and identity. And these in turn mark their own redefinition to incorporate both the anti-fascist narrative of the countries of southern Europe that emerged from fascist dictatorships in the twentieth century, and the experience of Eastern Europe that seeks to reconnect with the West by pushing away from the socialist legacy. 

Bulgarians and Romanians, however, have different experiences of the Second World War and socialism, experiences that certainly mark their attitude to these historical events and realities today. It is probably significant that in Bulgaria, in general, left-wing ideas were more popular in the period leading up to the establishment of the People’s Republics. In Romania, many of the pioneers of socialism were of non-Romanian origin, including among them the Bulgarian Christian Rakovsky, a relative of the revolutionary George Sava Rakovsky, revered in this country. 

During the Romanian transition, the thesis of a golden era during the interwar period of Greater Romania, marred by the arrival of the “Russian tanks”, was popular – i.e. for an important part of the Romanian population, socialism seemed something alien, contrary to the national traditions, based on orthodoxy, on Romanian patriotism. At the same time, in Bulgaria the attitude towards Russia or the Soviet Union is traditionally more positive. It so happens that, relying on close relations with the USSR in the second part of the 20th century, Bulgaria industrialised, while to advance economically Romania developed a different foreign policy under Ceausescu – based on relations with the IMF, the US, Western Europe, Israel and China. 

It is interesting whether learning about our neighbours’ experience of socialism might help us to look at our own past with peace. To twist a phrase by a famous contemporary Bulgarian writer juggling with words, the future begins where the past ends.   

Source: The Danube bridge between Rousse and Giurgiu (source: Yavor Michev)

Read in Romanian language!

Read in Bulgarian language!

Subscribe to the channel of the blog “The Bridge of Friendship” in YouTube, where a number of video and audio interviews are published! The blog can also be followed in Facebook and Twitter.

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