Bilateral Chamber of Commerce Bulgaria-Romania creates trust between Bulgarians and Romanians

Episode two of the podcast of the blog The Bridge of Friendship blog and the chamber’s president Doru Dragomir

Vladimir Mitev

How is the Bulgaria-Romania Bilateral Chamber of Commerce developing business ties between Bulgaria and Romania? What projects is the Chamber developing? What is its history, achievements and ambitions?

Chamber President Doru Dragomir talks about the organization in the second episode of joint podcast with the Bridge of Friendship blog.

The video can be watched here with subtitles in English:

Welcome to the second episode of the podcast we are doing together with the Romanian-Bulgarian Bilateral Chamber of Commerce and its President, Doru Dragomir. Today, we will be discussing a series of questions about the chamber itself, as well as Bulgarian-Romanian economic relations, which are going through various trials historically and today with the war in Ukraine with the corona crisis and other difficulties. We will also talk about some possible solutions and I welcome you, Doru, for being with us again. Let’s start by saying that the organization that you represented and to which we decided to dedicate this issue of the publication is an organization with a certain vision, mission of understanding the relations in the region. What are these understandings? What is the vision of the organization?

Yes, good day from me as well. That’s right. We have a vision. And of course, we also have a mission. We want to be a platform where businesses from Romania and Bulgaria can find good partners for business between Romania and Bulgaria. The same as we have been talking about for a long time, we want to find those companies that can work together and make together packages of services or products. We want to present these packages as joint Bulgarian-Romanian ventures. 

But as you say, for the last three years we have been facing a lot of new situations here and not only in our region. There is a pandemic, but there is also war. We have big problems in Europe with inflation, with energy resources. But because of these problems, also at the chamber level, we have seen that there are also opportunities because more and more businesses from Europe or from America understand that they cannot outsource to Asia as it was before. It’s not happening or it’s not happening like it used to. And we had a lot of inquiries so far from big international companies that wanted to check if Romania or Bulgaria or together, Romania and Bulgaria could be new markets for production. There are different things – car industry, other manufacturing. There are also new opportunities because of transport costs. If before the war in Ukraine or before the pandemic a container from China to Constanta and Varna had a transport cost of about 2,500 dollars, now we are talking about a container with a cost of 12,000-15,000 euros. The costs now are enormous and the price of goods is higher.

We are also facing high inflation in our countries and there are concerns at European level that our economies are strongly linked to Germany, which is having energy difficulties at the moment. Is there a solution here that Bulgaria and Romania could implement?

It is not just Germany. In Germany, this is simply more visible. Germany has started a transformation of its industry. It has been changing the energy base of its industry for two years. It is transforming its mining industry. They say everything has to be green. But we also have the mines and we have to work there. So, in Germany, we may see now that the problems are bigger, but as I saw, the former finance minister of Greece said these days that now ,might be the moment when Germany understands a little bit more how the southern countries have lived with austerity. Certainly, there were some problems between Greece and Germany last years. But I think these transformations will be important for Germany and for the whole of Europe.

Well, the Chamber that you lead has a mission – as far as I understand, to promote businesses in our region, including in the package between Bulgaria and Romania. Can you tell us about the history of Bulgarian-Romanian economic relations in recent years and the role of the chamber in them?

I will start with the numbers, because we are an economic organization. Business works with numbers. When we started in 2012 the trade between Romania and Bulgaria was around 3-3.2 billion euros. Now after 10 years we have about 7 billion. I think that our chamber has also contributed to this result. Romania and Bulgaria have a long history of economic relations with each other, but trade was not so much after the end of the communist period, because Bulgaria and Romania had problems. Both countries wanted to work with the larger economies – Germany, France, the US and so on. We didn’t look much to the neighbors. Romania and Bulgaria were not mutually interesting.

At the moment, I think Romania is the first step for Bulgarian producers when they start international trade. Why Romania? Because first, it is a big market It is more or less four times bigger than Bulgaria. There is always someone to buy the product. In addition, prices are between 10 and 20% higher in Romania.

When I talk to Romanian companies and present Bulgaria, I tell them that I think Bulgaria should be the first step for Romanian companies that want to enter the Balkans. Bulgaria is the best solution, not Serbia. Firstly, because it is part of the European Union, as it is Romania. As a result, we do not have problems with customs, taxes and so on. In the same if someone knows Bulgarian language, has no problems to travel anywhere in the Balkans. I understand the languages, 20%-30%, in former Yugoslavia, but I can understand. If someone only speaks Romanian, they won’t be at ease in Serbia, Macedonia, or Montenegro. One of our goals is to help Bulgarian and Romanian companies to understand that when they think about the international market they should think first about their neighbors across the Danube.

Good. The Bulgaria-Romania bilateral chamber of commerce is one of many similar chambers that Romania has with many countries. But perhaps you should say something more about the specific members, about the partners and about the projects that you have been implementing over the last 10 years.

That’s right, of course, there are bilateral chambers with many countries, both in Romania and in Bulgaria. What is interesting about our organization is that first of all – we are a Bulgarian organization. Our first office was opened in Sofia. Then we opened an office in Bucharest. And this year we opened an office in Silistra. We are a member of the Bulgarian Chamber of Industry and the Romanian Chamber of Industry. I think we are the only chamber that is a member of Natioanal Chambers in both countries that it is representing.

We are also a member of an International Union of Bilateral Chambers with the headquarter in the USA. Our offices in Bulgaria and Romania allow us to be more flexible. There are cases where there is a bilateral chamber in Romania and another bilateral chamber in France, but they are different organizations. They may work well together or they may not work well together. In our organization it does not matter whether you talk to a person from Bucharest, from Silistra or from Sofia. We work together in all three offices. Another thing is, we work on projects – something that is not the case in each of the other chambers. Every member is a new project for us. When a company comes to us and wants us to help them, we take it on as a new project. And within that new project we provide all of our services. We start by analyzing the market, making contacts, finding partners and all the other things that companies want from us. Every company wants different things from an organization like our Chamber. So we have very different members in terms of economic sectors and in terms of company sizes. We have members like eMag, OMV, Petrom, and we go all the way down to the small law firms from Romania and Bulgaria. They have different interests and different services. We work now only with our members for 28 different industries between Romania and Bulgaria. We have a lot of information from many industries. So we can make more contacts and also we can understand better what is going on between Romania and Bulgaria and where we can enter as well as the Chamber, so as to be useful to the companies.

When we did our first interview two years ago it was the corona crisis and then you told me that you have an idea and you are involved in making it easier to cross the border. That was a problem for a number of people and companies and managers and so on. Could you tell me exactly what projects and initiatives you have so as to facilitate business links and economic links between the two countries.

Yes, I will say something about our projects. But before we talk about projects, I have to say something else because it is very important for us that everybody understands some things. For example, about the language barrier between Romania and Bulgaria, about the need for more trust between Romania and Bulgaria and about the partnership between Romania and Bulgaria. These three things are very, very important for me and for us as an organization.

Why do I say these things before we talk about projects? Is it because through them everybody can understand what we are doing? When we founded the organization, we did it because between Romania and Bulgaria at that time there was no one as an organization and institution to help businesses find partners and understand how to do successful business between Romania and Bulgaria. We had a lot of stories related to crossing the border. There are over six hundred kilometers of border between Romania and Bulgaria. We found out that there are links between Romanians and Bulgarians who are at the border. In Ruse, you probably know a lot of stories of these businesses and trade between Romania and Bulgaria. But not in all stories the business is successful. So together with Romanian companies on the Bulgarian market and with Bulgarian companies in Romania, we started this organization so that all these companies can have one voice together to say how to do business and how not to do business between Romania and Bulgaria. And, in the same time we wanted to understand more what can the countries or institutions of both countries do for business.

The first project at the level of a chamber, it was 2013, was a project together with the members of the European Parliament, Romanians and Bulgarians – 2 Romanians and 2 Bulgarians, members of the European Parliament. We did a project called the Danube Tour. The idea was to go to all the major cities on the Danube and present together with the MEPs what the European Parliament can do for the businesses of the region? And of course, for the authorities. And I think it was one of the most successful projects from the chamber. On the Bulgarian side, we had Maria Gabriel. We all know now who Maria Gabriel is and how successful she is. She is now Commissioner for  Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth. On the Romanian side we had Marijean Marinescu, who is one of the oldest MEPs from Romania. We held four events – in Vidin, Calafat, Giurgiu and Silistra. That was the first project of the chamber.

Our idea, it’s not just to talk about business. We have been saying for many years that when you are working on the relations between Romania and Bulgaria, you cannot just say business. You have to say a bit of culture. You have to say a little bit of tourism. You have to say a little bit of education and so on. And we realized that you cannot just help business without helping others. Because of that we have different projects.

We organized a project for the 60th anniversary of the bridge between Ruse and Giurgiu. We implemented a very successful project together with the University of Ruse. We did two events – one was in Giurgiu, organized by the Chamber, the other was in Ruse, organized by the university. The idea was to talk about two industries important for both countries – transport and environment/ecology. In Giurgiu we talked about the business related to them. In Ruse we talked about education related to them.

From the beginning we wanted to support Romania and Bulgaria in a package, but not only the business. In general, when we talk about education, when we talk about tourism, when we talk about culture, we are different, but we have many things in common. The Bilateral Chamber of Commerce was the first organization to bring together the Romanian Academy and the Bulgarian Academy, the local authorities of Ruse and of Giurgiu, to talk about cross-border projects. We know very well that we have money when we talk about cross-border projects, and we have projects, but I do not think that these projects are always so successful. Not all stakeholders think that a project is important for them. When we have projects between authorities, it is easy there. They want to do the infrastructure and other things that are very important for the authorities. But when we talk about projects between authorities and business or authorities and NGOs, they do not engage at all times the same, but according to their interests. The interests of the regions and the business on the ground have to coincide.

We in the Chamber know these things very well. We are working on about 80 projects, not as partners, but just to help. We find partners for organizations on the other side of the Danube. If the project ideas are not suitable, we have our experts on European projects both in the chamber and outside the chamber. We have been partners on cross-border and national projects in Romania, in Bulgaria and directly in Brussels. We have a lot of experience with European projects and we are at a level where we can say what projects can and cannot be implemented and why.

In addition, of course, we have many projects with businesses. We were one of the founders of Back to Business Romania. It was a project of seven bilateral chambers from Romania started by British- Romanian Chamber. The biggest and most active bilateral chambers from Romania brought all the member companies of the chambers in one place. This was necessary because we all do events, conferences and we do all different things, but our members don’t know each other. We don’t know who are the members of the Belgian chamber or the French chamber… The idea was to get all the members from all the chambers together. And I must tell you it was very successful not only in Bucharest, because we had the events in Bucharest, in Cluj and in Brasov. In Bucharest alone we had about 800 people. The event was huge. We had moments when we couldn’t speak because it was crowded.

When we were in a pandemic for 3-4 months, people understood that we have to be careful, but at the same time we have to work because we have to make money and live. We as a Chamber were the first organization in direct contact with the authorities from Romania and Bulgaria and took the opportunity to explain to them that have to make exceptions for businesses when we talk about crossing the border from one side on the other side of the Danube. We have had inquiries from our members and from our partners about such exceptions.

I have a friend. It is a very funny story. He called me one day. He is Bulgarian and he says to me, ‘Doru, I have to tell you something. I have to be in Craiova.” He has a small factory in Craiova. And he says to me, “I don’t know what’s going on with my factory.” He tells me, “I talk to the manager every day. I’m only in Sofia. He is in Craiova. Every day I see the white wall behind him, but I don’t see what’s going on behind the wall. Because of these inquiries, we have made formal requests to the Romanian and Bulgarian governments to find a solution on how business can reach the other side of the Danube. I think we started with these enquiries in May 2020. We reached all the authorities in both countries, on the highest level. Bulgaria was the first to give us positive answer. After a week or two, we got a positive answer from Romania as well – that for business reasons you can travel between Romania and Bulgaria without problems.

Good. Could you tell me very briefly what exactly are the relations between the Romanian-Bulgarian chamber, of which you are President, and the Bulgarian-Romanian Chamber in Ruse? These are two different chambers.

I cannot say that we work together, but we know each other. Of course, when we need to do something together, we are ready to support. For Romanians, it is generally not so easy to understand the difference between us because the rules in Bulgaria are different. In Romania you can’t have two organizations as Bilateral Chambers with the same country. And that’s why Romanians don’t understand so easily how come in Bulgaria there are two organizations that are the same.

In my opinion. The market says who wants to work with whom. The chamber in Ruse works more with European projects. We work more on direct support for business. This is the relationship between us.

Good. Our conversation turned out to be quite long, like for an episode, and I always like to suggest here that we look to the future, where the Chamber, of which you are the President, continues to play an important role for the Bulgarian-Romanian relations in economic terms between people. What lies ahead? Are there any topics that you are working on at the moment and trying to make some change, something new that will facilitate both business and people in the relationship between the two countries?

Yes, of course, this year we were starting a new project. It was supposed to start in February. It foresees eight events in Bulgaria where we will present Romania as a country, as an economy, as a business. And the name of the project is: “How to be successful on the Romanian market?” It was very interesting for us that when we launched the first event, it was in Stara Zagora. From then on we had a lot of participants who called us or wrote to us saying that they wanted to have such an event in their city or region as well. So, from a plan of eight events all over Bulgaria, we did nine events between March and July, mainly in southern Bulgaria: Burgas, Haskovo, Yambol, Kardzhali, Lovech. We have some more cities in Southern Bulgaria, like Blagoevgrad. But now we don’t have time to organize for there. Maybe we will hold it in September or October this year. We want to do some “How to be successful in Romania” events in Northern Bulgaria as well. We are also going to organize a series of “How to be successful in the Bulgarian market” events in Romania and we are going to start with Constanta, Craiova, Turnu Severin, Alexandria and of course Giurgiu. But in Giurgiu we are at our home.

This is one of the planned projects of this year that is not anymore a planned project but more an implementing project. We also have one of our old projects. Before the pandemic together with the municipality from Burgas we had a project, which is called “Tourist cards for Romanian tourists”. The idea was that many of the tourists from Romania going to the Black Sea in Bulgaria stop in the Northern Black Sea Coast. The municipality of Burgas also wanted to present its region to Romanian tourists. So, we sent about 3,800 cards to businesses in Romania, which were discount cards to some places in Burgas like St. Anastasia Island.

The cards were valid for the island, for museums in Burgas, for malls and so on. They were successful because the Romanians were interested to see not only the hotels. Now we want to restart this project, but not only with Burgas. We want to do it at country level. And that is why we are talking about with the Ministry of Culture in Romania. We have a partnership with the Ministry of Culture in Bulgaria, so that there is a discount for the museums in Bulgaria. We are talking about 250 museums all over Bulgaria. The same we are talking with the Bucharest municipality to have a discount on places from Bucharest for Bulgarian tourists visiting the Romanian capital.

This is this discount for Romanians here in Bulgaria. How can it be requested?

We are working now to find a solution on how to make an app for mobile phones. We are still researching how to do it. We don’t have a budget for all that stuff yet. But we’re working to implement the idea with all the places that can give us the discount and then we’ll see how we’re going to do so that the tourist gets those discounts? 

We also want to do this certificate of economic interest between Romania and Bulgaria. At the moment we have about 3 000 Bulgarian companies with Bulgarian capital in Romania. And about 3 500 Romanian companies registered in Bulgaria. However, no one can say what activities these companies are engaged in and whether they work or are only registered. Of course, if there is a need for us as an organization or for our services to help, we will do it. We are thinking of making a document which will be called ‘certificate of economic interest’ and will give all companies a certificate that they have a business interest in the Bulgarian-Romanian space. With such a certificate, they will be able to meet companies on the other side of the Danube and say – we are from Bulgaria or Romania, we want to do business between these two countries, and this certificate from the chamber will certify that this is true. Because we still have a problem of trust between Romania and Bulgaria. Our organization thinks that a document such as these can be useful when making the first contact with a company on the other side of the Danube.

Good. Is there anything we have missed to say from the extensive activity of the chamber?

I don’t know. We have a lot of great things. We have a 10-year history. I want to say again, the word “partnership” is very important to us. We don’t just say that. We’re also working for this idea of partnership and so it has to prove that now the Chamber has partnerships with many different organizations. We have a partnership with the two parliaments from Sofia and from Bucharest. We have a partnership with the authorities. We get a lot of help from both embassies, the Romanian embassy in Sofia and the Bulgarian embassy in Bucharest. We have many activities together with the Embassies. We have very good partnerships with educational institutions from Romania and Bulgaria – with the academies, with the universities, with the Romanian high school in Sofia and with the Hristo Botev high school in Bucharest. It is important for us as an organization to find good partners. It is important for us that our members succeed. We cannot say we are a super organization and we do many things if our members or our business partners are not successful in the market between Romania and Bulgaria.

Good. Thank you for everything you shared. I also invite our viewers to take a look at the Romania-Bulgaria Bilateral Chamber of Commerce website.

And our Facebook page, which is a very important communication channel.

Yes, and you said in episode zero of our podcast that you’re open to any questions and even looking for interaction. So, whoever is willing to even introduce themselves can just message you absolutely no problem.

All right, I want to thank you again. And I’ll see you for the next episode.

Photo: Doru Dragomir (source: Doru Dragomir)

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