Interview with a director of Equilibrium, the social services NGO in Rousse, about his experiences and impressions from Bulgarian-Romanian cooperation and competition, about the possible sources of dynamism in these relations and about borders of experience that prevent change from taking place between the two nations
David Bisset is a specialist in child poverty and deprivation. He is one of the founders of Equilibrium, which is one of the leading children’s organisations in SEE. His relationship with Bulgaria goes back to 1991. He has lived in the country since 2000. David has a vast experience in encouraging social change in Southeastern Europe. He discussed with the blog “The Bridge of Friendship” about hurdles to change in Bulgarian-Romanian relations and in the region.
Mr. Bisset, to what extent do you think that it is natural for Bulgarians and Romanians to do something together? How much does it come out of their own drive to do something together? And, in fact, what do you observe about their relationship – Bulgarians and Romanians – do they match or don’t they match?
Do they match or do they not match? That provoked me to think about my Bulgarian associates with my Romanian associates and actually see how they compared with one another. I would say that my Romanian associates have a far more internationalist perspective on things. I became aware of this at quite an early stage in my forming relationships with Romanians. I immediately saw they had taken a view that has more in common with me than Bulgarians have in terms of perspective, in terms of attitudes, in terms of desires for progress, desires to to improve themselves. I think that’s demonstrated by the fact that a lot of my associates in Bucharest, Brashov and other Romanian cities are no longer in those cities. They’ve accepted appointments in Milan and Geneva and in Vienna. This is indicating something that distinguishes them from Bulgarians of the same age. I recognize that a lot of young Bulgarians do go and study overseas and maybe tend to remain in those countries for as long as they are gainfully employed there. But what Romanians do is something quite different. It involves forming networks and looking outwards at the world as a source of possibilities. They use awareness of European norms to their personal advantage and then they found it the most natural thing in the world to seek employment and relationships like somebody else in Europe. and I don’t see the drive or exploratory energy among Bulgarians of the same age group. They are more self-referential.
So that’s one difference.
I think that’s a considerable difference.
And what are the attitudes of Bulgarians and Romanians towards each other?
I had the opportunity to work in a pan-Balkan context. It was presented to me by an organization called ChildPact. And I became involved through the fact that I was a board member – an appointed member of the Management Board – of the National Network for Children in Bulgaria. And what ChildPact was doing involved creating indices or creating a method of analyzing and comparing the extent of child welfare reform in all the Black Sea countries. And I noticed that there was an element of tension. This existed despite the desire to cooperate in actually creating the indexes. There was an element of competitiveness and tension between Romania and Bulgaria. Which I didn’t think was altogether fair because Romanian childcare reform started several years earlier because it was a significant condition for EC accession. One of the main considerations, one of the main things that Romania needed to do before it could accede to the EC was radically reform its childcare system. And this was based on the international scrutiny of the big institutions, the big orphanages in Romania. Bulgaria wasn’t under the same pressure on this issue although the country was scheduled to join the EC at the same time. So Romania had the “advantage” of easy scrutiny, producing political will for transformation of childcare before Bulgaria did, which made Romania ahead of us. “We’re ahead of Bulgaria.” I noticed an element of point scoring in Romanians saying, “We’re ahead of you.”. Of course you are, because you are under far more pressure at an earlier stage from the European Community. The system of indices was intended to provoke learning based on comparing, contrasting, exchanging models, recognizing both advantages and barriers that existed in one country and not another. But, as a people-watcher, I saw defensiveness. And, I see this in other ways and in other ventures.
So there is this tendency of competition.
Have you seen something which Bulgarians and Romanians cooperate for? What can make them, in your experience, open up for cooperation? European money, maybe.
I’m trying to think, where have I seen it? We certainly have a joint interest in the Danube region. And they need to try to cooperate in recognition that a lot of the settlements along the Danube have lost a bit of economic dynamism, the inner energy.
But this is not taking place. If I’m not mistaken, it’s not taking place on a large scale. At least there is an Euroregion Danbius in Rousse-Giurgiu, and maybe nothing more significant than that. So we have a potential or we have a common interest here, but it’s not conscious.
But it’s nevertheless happening. I mean, when people from Bucharest are coming here on the weekends because coffee shops are cheaper and electrical and household goods are cheaper in Technopolis in Rousse as compared to Bucharest. So the general population is taking advantage of the open borders.
Romanians are flooding across the border here. They’re heading to Bulgaria’s Black Sea resorts every weekend. But I think, as you see it, it’s not representing itself in formal arrangements and partnerships.
There are historical circumstances, which led to the creation of my blog “The Bridge of Friendship” as a Bulgarian-Romanian space. Over time I even started to think this bridge represents both a reality and an approach for exchange between countries, which are firm in their desire to remain on their shore. I want to study what can motivate people who don’t have this internal drive, which I had, to still open up and develop some bonds with the neighbour. Of course, I’m not expecting you exactly to give the magic formula, but maybe you have some rationalizations.
I don’t know. I’ll tell you about a realization I had about myself recently. I’ve got a small number of friends in Bucharest or Romanians who have traveled to other parts of Europe where they live and work. And, I’m pleased to refer to them as “friends”. We communicate regularly. We collaborate. We discuss things. I ask them for advice. I have a larger number of professional colleagues in Sofia, but my relationship with them is markedly more detached. I just came to this realization and then I tried to figure out what the difference was. And I just found that the Romanians were generally far more open to the experience of Westerners. I’d add that I know many Bulgarians who are “westernized” but it’s something they tend to project self-consciously like a wristband after a rock concert. Romanians reveal less effort. We have to add that – in terms of internationalism or cosmopolitanism – there is nothing comparable to the Bucharest experience in Bulgaria.
Imagine you were a Russian. Would that make a difference?
It’s a very, very good question. It’s a question I’m not qualified to answer, although I guess I could express my suspicion that maybe Russians would find Bulgaria more amenable.
Let me remind you that Romania has a German mayor in Timișoara and a German president of the country, as well as a local mayor of Bucharest is a French woman. In Bulgaria the mayor of Varna is of Russian origin. But I am certain if some kind of a Brit or I don’t know German, appears in Bulgarian elections for Sofia he will be smeared as Soros person or whatever. For some reason the mayor of Varna can be of Russian origin without any problem. But I haven’t heard of a significant position for a Westerner in Bulgarian political system.
Wow. Something I never thought about, but yeah, I can imagine it’s true.
I know there are some local councillors, I think that was a Dutch candidate for local council in the Veliko Tarnovo. And we have Carlos Contrera from the area in Sofia. I don’t know exactly. He’s maybe Bulgarian, but he’s of Cuban origin. Carlos Contrera. These are more exceptional exceptions, in my view. We are very much traditional. Exactly. Maybe that’s the word traditional. We are accustomed to Bulgarians and Turkish. And maybe some Serbs. Maybe some Gypsy, some Russians. And that’s it.
I’m certainly aware of my own ability to exert an influence in the civic society and the NGO sector in Bulgaria. But I do it very much in the background. I noticed that some Bulgarians will echo things that I’ve said. I notice things that I’ve written being paraphrased and placed in the texts that the sector is producing that are critical of the government or advocating for certain changes in the childcare sector and things like this. So I know that I’m quite influential, but perhaps, as you say, I could not comfortably occupy a formal position in Bulgaria.
So are you aware of the NGO sector capable of generating change in Bulgarian-Romanian relations?
Change in Bulgaria and Romania relations. My honest answer would have to be: No. Maybe it’s just something I’m not fortunate enough to actually encounter and I just don’t see it happening.
I am aware that political NGOs such as the Center for Study of Democracy (Bulgaria) have partners in Romania. And between academics, it’s common to find partners. That is some level maybe of something new, but. Of course, I’m looking at something a little bit more pervasive, something which has a multiplication factor. And I’m aware that during Petkov times, the Bulgarian-Romanian relations somehow got unfrozen after a freeze of a number of years. Nothing was happening to them before. And suddenly, during Petkoff, apparently because of his maybe geopolitical orientation, a lot of things started to happen, which is good. I mean, we need things to happen. But I still wonder what can be done by people who are not exactly the state people. I mean, the common people, the dynamics, the internal drive of the common people. And I, I put the NGO sector here in the common people because it’s a civic organization. It’s presumed to be organization, organization of the civic society. And I’m not looking at them, but I’m thinking about what can generate the dynamics, what initiatives or what encouragements are necessary for something to happen in these relations. What is the problem in these nations so that nothing happens?
I’m not sure if Romanians and Bulgarians understand the things that they have in common. My particular professional perspective is in childcare development a little bit in education. And I notice that “conversations” do take place on a broader scale with Romanians and Bulgarians participating, as are Moldovans, as are Serbians. But I find that the impetus for SEE problem solving has tended to come from outside the region. I just do not see the tendency or desire for Romanians and Bulgarians to actually put their heads together to compare and contrast experience. And I don’t really know why that is. Perhaps the Council of Europe and large international bodies have stolen the initiative for initiating. Maybe the imitation imperative deriving from joint EC membership has obscured the benefits that can be derived via local cooperation and joint reflection.
I have the feeling they lack love. Yes, there is a lack of affection, lack of love or affection in Bulgarian-Romanian relations. Do you think it might be? Because if you have some sympathy, let’s say you will look at the other with certain attitudes, certain approaches. And I have the feeling. Too often, traditionally, there is indifference between Bulgarians and Romanians.
It’s a sort of indifference towards one another, a dismissive detachment that overrides the idea that there might be common problems that can be solved together or common advantages that could be pursued together.
How can that be changed? We need a change of heart. How can that happen? Can it be in fact, can the state or anybody do anything or it has to come from within?
The State may try to do things, but I don’t know how much can actually be achieved through joint programmes that happen at too high a level or within a technical bubble detached from normal life. I can envisage regional development of the Danube driven by government and big business actors that fail to impact beneficially on the lives of the region’s inhabitants.
Can you expand a little bit on that?
I honestly believe the opposite has to happen. I believe that the people over the river in Giurgiu need to understand how things can be done in collaboration with the people here in Ruse based on common interests and a shared environment.
Imagine you have to formulate a proposal for state policies that improve the Bulgarian-Romanian relations. What could these policies be?
My organization, Equilibrium, is very, very aware of the proximity of Romania and the fact that there are other childcare organizations, primarily in Bucharest, that we have peripheral relationships with that we can be built upon. I mean, from pure logistical reasons, Bucharest is a hell of a lot closer to us than Sofia is. But I’ve noticed that things I do quite naturally, like before COVID, when I was traveling extensively and flying to different countries. We always go to Bucharest to do that. We always fly from Bucharest rather than travel 5 hours to Sofia where we will probably have to stay overnight for an early morning flight. It’s far more practical to go to Bucharest. As I said, I have friends and colleagues in Bulgaria and we try to visit one another. Bulgarian acquaintances react as if that is something quite subversive or exotic. I’m going to a foreign country, an unfathomable country. No matter how vigorously I protest: It’s just over there!! Across the river. There is this psychological, mental barrier. I accept that the border crossing is onerous. You can queue for an extensive amount of time because of the vast amount of lorries crossing the bridge, but it’s not far away. Just look across the river.
Everyone was claiming that once we get in the EU, borders fall and we start to appreciate one another and to move around. And it looks like this is not happening. It’s happening at some level with Romanians coming here or Bulgarians going sometimes to fly from Bucharest. But still, I have the feeling what is missing is exactly what I call dynamic identity. I mean, we remain thinking of Romania as something very different, separate even. We don’t trust it. And we don’t want to engage in it. I have the feeling if you want to engage something, you have to put down the guard and allow yourself to be hit. First of all, maybe they will be hit by “the enemy” and only at a later moment maybe something positive will happen as some kind of opening, which will open. So maybe people fear that moment of hit when they take down the guard. They don’t want to take down the guard.
Okay. So basically this idea of dynamic identity could sound strange, Soros-inspired to some some people. What on earth do you talk about? But the inability to form it is what prevents us from internationalization, from learning, opening up to the world, etc., changing. Basically we can’t discover a space within us which can be enriched by contact with another person. And when we contact this person, we will empower that person and it will empower us and vice versa in reverse. But we are not ready to empower the person because it will change us. It will influence us. We don’t want to be influenced. It’s foreign influence. We want to be like we are. So I don’t know if you have a comment about that, but I have the feeling that is one of the issues. Also Romanian, the same with Romanians. They travel to our seaside resorts or Bansko. But they themselves say they don’t learn anything significant about Bulgarians. They come, they go there the way they are and they return the way they are. Or maybe a just little bit changed.
All the Black Sea resorts could be anywhere because resorts are resorts. Homogenous. It’s not representative of Bulgarian culture.
I think it’s true. I mean, Romanians during the summer come to Rousse in quite large numbers and you see them going up and down the main shopping street. And then they colonized the Happy Grill. It’s a weekend enclave.
The restaurant provides them with menus in Romanian. Waitresses speak English and it is a common language. While this takes place during the weekend, Bulgarians will give the Happy Grill a wide berth. They just won’t go there. I’ve actually heard Bulgarians searching for a place to eat saying to one another: “No. Not the Happy Grill. It’s full of Romanians.” There are other nationalities there. They’ve responded to the international ambience. I will go there, provoked by curiosity. A little frisson of adventure.
The same for me.
No, no, no, not for Bulgarians. It’s almost like a small Romanian colony over the weekend. And it strikes me as something quite remarkable.
I know it is not pleasant for the locals to see their city succumb to tourism, you know. I can recognise this in places like Veliko Tarnovo that cater for bus parties and large parties. And I know that must be highly invasive for locals. But I think that this response to Romanians in Rousse is different. It’s different and it’s significant. For a while, a number of Romanian climbers and outdoor enthusiasts were coming to the Roussenski Lom. Inevitably, Bulgarians and Romanians ended up rock climbing together showing a shared interest in the great outdoors or whatever you want to call it. There was cooperation and collaboration and plans were made and telephone numbers were exchanged. When the Bulgarians got the opportunity, they would travel and do a bit of rock climbing in the Turda Gorge or wherever. So what does this signify? There’s only so much space on the rocks at Basarbovo so it could be through force of circumstance. But, beyond that, I think the key idea is shared enthusiasm. And I do like your idea about cultural centers or academic exchange and collaboration because – again – there is the potential for the formation of “tribal” links that transcend nationality.
There is a lack of political will or interest in that. I mean, Bulgaria has cultural centers with Hungary, with Austria. WIth Germany, of course, only with Romania there is no. And Romania, the same Romanian cultural center is in Belgrade. I think again, in Hungary, there are many capitals in Europe, but in Sofia, there is nothing. I see, even among diplomats and foreign policy experts, certain jealousy or mistrust, rather mistrust. It discourages me. I mean, of course it’s still an experience. I can see I can learn from this experience. But I also see how much people don’t really care in institutions, don’t care who doesn’t care about the other. And how suspicious they are of anything that goes off the script, even in small things.
I launched the idea of the formation of a dynamic identity with our neighbours, meaning certain evolution together on the basis of a non-hegemonic attitude with them. Isn’t that too exotic? In Bulgaria most likely you form a dynamic identity with your sexual partner, your mother or your father or whatever, your friends. And that’s all right. Who makes dynamic identities with the neighbors, with foreigners? Even in my specific sense of somehow all encompassing, maybe in a way dynamic identity with many different people potentially coming as a collective in some form or ensemble. I guess that sounds weird to some of my fellow countrymen. Isn’t it too specific a thing to ask for – the formation of a dynamic identity with people from other nations?
Specificities of experience are quite important. I mean, for instance, a lot of Bulgarians have asked me about the relationship between Scotland and England and the sort of jokey antipathy that the two countries show for one another. And I would say to them, I’m maybe not the best person to answer that question, seeing as I spent ten years of my working life in London and my experience of living and working in London has given me this very cosmopolitan outlook. So I don’t notice differences, I don’t think in terms of differences the way others do. And indeed, when I returned to Scotland from England, having developed these new attitudes, I found a lot of the thinking and perspective in Scotland very parochial for my liking and a little bit backward. So being well-traveled and having developed a “Wherever I hang my hat is home” attitude, I’m a person who’s not really very aware of the power of borders. It strikes me as ridiculous that a stretch of water, you know, the Danube could create a distinction between people. I’m sure that, in many ways, those Romanians occupying the small towns and villages standing opposite Tutrakan, Silistra and so on have far more in common with the Bulgarians they can see in the distance than those people in the big cars with Bucharest number plates.
We have not so much a physical border as a border of experience. And in fact, one can go to Bucharest and have the same borders which I have here in Rousse. And I think many people go to Bucharest and can even exchange with Romanians, but keep the borders. The borders remain intact. The experience doesn’t evolve or evolves very slowly.
Borders of experience is a very good way of putting it. I mean, for instance, while I was recently traveling extensively in Bulgaria with my Bulgarian colleagues I found they’d react excitedly to something I shrug my shoulders about. it. I travel extensively but it appeared to be a big thing for them. Every monument or every landmark they encountered in Sofia or wherever: they were taking selfies in front of it. I’m thinking to myself, for goodness sake, have they never been to Sofia before? What’s the big deal? But for them, it was something they didn’t have a great deal of experience of. So for them, there was even a psychological border between Rousse and Sofia, Rousse and Vidin. And so I can’t imagine the reaction if we were to travel to Bucharest together. I can’t imagine how they would react. I once volunteered to act as unofficial tour guide for an international group when we were together in Plovdiv. My Bulgarian colleagues declined saying that the prospect intimidated them. I’ve emerged as leader and travel facilitator of groups of Bulgarians in Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Gothenburg. But also in Montana and Panagyurishte. It’s to do with past experience but also openness to new experience.
I know that there was a program after World War Two in which Scottish people or British people, but that’s about as far as I know, maybe Scottish as well, were having exchanges with Germans because of this need for pacification and overcoming of war traumas so that there never be war again. So I was wondering whether this experience can be somehow useful for Bulgarians and Romanians in some way. Not in the sense that we fought a war. Maybe there is a big difference between our experience in Germany and the British. I just look for some inspiration. What can inject dynamics in certain regulations? Um, I, I mentioned I’m somehow skeptical of the states because states think hegemonically, most of the time. So they have this very solid border between them. I think the common people have or should have more fluid borders. So common people are more likely to generate some change. But there are also other subjects. There are European institutions, for example, or international institutions, NGOs. Various subjects can be constructed e.g. if you wish, international corporations. There could be various subjects who can generate some dynamism. I just wonder who is really interested in doing that? Who cares? At the end of the day, it’s all about caring.
I just recalled an experience I had. It was over a decade ago. I did a little bit of cultural exploration. It was an exercise in curiosity. It involved exploring and playing with the symbolism involved in the combination of the colours red and white. It started small and snowballed resulting in public presentations – talks and visual presentations – that involved talking about the Crusaders and the Red Cross on their tunics, Celtic and far eastern traditions and I was keen to involve some component from Romanian folk tradition. I wanted to incorporate something from Romania and my colleagues were very reluctant to allow me to do this thinking that it would provoke a negative reaction from a Bulgarian audience. But why? They were saying things like: “Well, you know, it’s true that we have the martenitsa and the Romanians the martisor, but you can’t take the Bulgarian tradition and put it in proximity to the Romanian one.” It’s as if one would taint the other. I ended up suggesting that the Bulgarian spring tradition shared its source with a Celtic belief system. It was far more tenuous an argument than pointing out the obvious twinning of martenitsa and martisor. I’m glad I didn’t mention the martinka from Macedonia. The Irish / Celtic reference was safer. So much of the chauvinism in the Balkans is directed at neighbours.
There is this tendency in the Balkans, in Bulgarian case especially, what is common between you and your neighbours divides you. The common things divide. So with Macedonia, we have a big issue because we have a common history and Bulgarians want Macedonians to say that it’s completely Bulgarian, this history as if it is not Macedonian. At the same time, and the same thing is with Romanians and the medieval dynasty of Assenians, who are argued by Romanians to be Romanian or Vlach, and we who claim them to be Bulgarian. And suddenly, out of the fact that we have some 200 years maybe of medieval common state, we don’t do anything with it. We don’t celebrate it. We don’t employ it for some rhetoric of commonness just because everyone will say it’s Bulgaria and Romania and some fight will ensue. And that is once again because of it, which is a philosophy. It’s because we can’t think in a dynamic identity concept. We think in a static concept. This is either Bulgarian or Romanian. No nuances, no fluidity, nothing common, nothing mutual, one or the other. And they are completely opposite, as if they are completely opposite. Bulgaria and Romania. And I’m interested to argue about this dynamic identity. And maybe someday I will do it also for Macedonians, but. I have the feeling it will not be understood even. I mean, the moment when I say this fancy word, dynamic identities, it’s such a distilled word, so abstract to people. I am certain people will not take this as something natural. They will take it to something artificial. Well, it might be artificial. It might be a product of the mind. But for me, it allows for complexity. It’s a complexity which allows for change for something to happen, some dynamism to ensue. So that when I go to Romanians, we can even have a very nice talk about Athenians. And we recognize, I think mutually there is ownership rights over the aspect. And we are friends. We celebrate our common history. But I have the feeling that is, if that is announced publicly, to be seen as a high treason. I’m surrendering to the enemy.
But as an individual, I just cannot fathom it out. I cannot understand what it is that people fear about what you call “dynamic identity”. I don’t understand the fear of discovering we’ve actually got something in common with others. I interpret such a discovery as something for celebration. However, like you’ve just said, it actually creates a reaction of recoiling and expression of fear. But what provokes a fear? I just don’t understand.
I have the feeling the whole night from the very beginning, we discuss what is static and what is dynamic. And fear of change.
So technically there is no change if you put something in common that goes to a common source, a common historical source, a common cultural source, which is the change that has come about. Other than acknowledging that you’ve got something in.
By admitting common culture, you expand your territory. You become larger because your identity integrates peripheral aspects.
…and through becoming larger, you become less pure. Less culturally exclusive.
You understand well the contradictions of that thinking. It’s all in the imaginary, but we need to have an imaginary that allows for dialogue and peace, rather than constantly standing in alert mode and expecting shocks from everywhere. To put in geopolitical terms, our strategic depth have to be our neighbours.
Photo: David Bisset (source: YouTube)
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