Mihai Isac: At the political level, Bulgarian and Romanian elites do not trust each other

Mihai Isac (source: Mihai Isac)

People from both countries should develop projects that will contribute to better mutual knowledge and understanding between Bulgarians and Romanians

Vladimir Mitev

The third part of the interview with Mihai Isac looks at Bulgarian-Romanian relations and what could improve them given the lack of trust between the countries and their elites. “Our history books do not teach us about our cooperation over time”, says Mihai Isac. He also looks at the specifics of Bulgarian-Romanian relations – on a political and interpersonal level. According to Isac, the two countries are at the forefront of the current geopolitical confrontation in the Black Sea region. And anyone who expects NATO to withdraw after the end of the conflict in Ukraine is very much mistaken.

Mr Isac, another issue on which there is a general lack of political will is that of Bulgarian-Romanian relations. Surely you know that for some years now, the lack of infrastructure or cultural centres exchanged between the two countries suggests that there is a certain lack of interest in the two countries to interact with each other. The people in these countries, however, do the opposite of this lack of interest. As far as I know, 1 million and 200 000 Romanians travel as tourists to Bulgaria every year, and perhaps 4 million Romanians pass through Bulgaria every year to go to Greece, to Turkey. So, in fact, people from Bulgaria and Romania seem to have a much more dynamic relationship, or at least contacts. I have a question.

To what extent do you think that the peoples of Bulgaria and Romania can become a kind of bridge of friendship or an engine of change in Bulgarian-Romanian relations? Given the fact that the countries have generally been reluctant to expand their cooperation, they have felt a certain mistrust. And perhaps only in the last period of Petkov’s government has there been some thawing. But it is necessary, at least from my point of view, that these relations do not depend so much on who is in power. They must have their own dynamics. So, what is your view on all this?

Thank you for your question. First of all, we should be aware that the political elites in Sofia and Bucharest are trying to have a direct dialogue with Brussels without talking to each other. They have not taken into account the experience of the Visegrad Group, which, as you know, is made up of Hungary, Poland, the Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic, which had a very strong voice at the beginning of its accession to the European Union, as well as during its accession to NATO and in the early years of NATO.

As you know, we had the experience of cooperation between the Craiova group, which was initiated by the former Romanian Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, with Romania, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. In the 30 years of the post-communist period, several forms of cooperation were also established. But you are right. We do not trust each other. I mean at political level. And this mistrust, I think, comes from our culture.

If you ask Romanians about Bulgaria, they know about the beaches in Bulgaria, they know about the Rousse area, perhaps, because many Romanians go there to shop or to have fun. Rousse is a very beautiful region. But Romanians do not know about, say, the Blagoevgrad region, they do not know about, say, the Montana region, or they do not know how beautiful Plovdiv is. They do not know about other places in Bulgaria. They know about skiing in Bansko and they are just tourists. And when they go there, they meet Bulgarian human infrastructure that speaks Romanian, which helps them to have fun cheaper than in other parts of Europe or the world. Bulgaria also has a very positive image in Romania today because you have very good roads. Many Romanian drivers speak very highly of the new motorway on the Sofia ring road. When they go to Greece, they do not have to go through Sofia. They go around Sofia. And they are very satisfied.

But we need to do a lot to get our people to look after each other, like our political elites do… In Romania, when you say ‘Balkan’, they say it’s a bad thing, a Balkan way of thinking. It means a very old way of thinking, which means, say, taking or giving bribes or using your political influence to influence other people. And most Romanians do not consider themselves Balkan. If you go to Cluj, to Brasov or to the north of Moldova, to Iași, they will not say that we are Balkan. But our political culture comes from our Balkan experience. Even if you go to Iași, there is something like Balkan experience, because we have gone through the same political history, political system, the Ottoman system.

It’s quite annoying that people use this kind of Balkanness as something very bad, because if you go to Croatia and ask, “Are you Balkan?”, they willl answer: “No, Serbia is Balkan”. If you go to Belgrade, you will meet people who say, “We are not Balkan, Sofia is Balkan.” Or if you go to Bucharest, they say, “We are not Balkan.” So, if you ask, in our region, nobody is Balkan, but our political elites are used to working directly with Brussels, because there is a historical mistrust between us.

We were enemies. One of Romania’s most traumatic military defeats was at Tutrakan against the German and Bulgarian armies in the First World War. And our history does not teach us cooperation against our common enemies. We are not talking about how the Bulgarian volunteers with the Samara flag crossed Romania to Giurgiu and Ploiesti. And many Bulgarians from our region joined their ranks and fought at Shipka Pass or elsewhere. If you go to Bulgaria, I know from my experience that many Bulgarians do not know about the sacrifices that the Romanian army made in the war for the liberation of Bulgaria. Of course, this is also our independence, but we should be aware that Romania has made sacrifices for the liberation of the Bulgarian people, because perhaps if our monarch had taken a different decision, we might have got our independence without helping the Bulgarians.

So this kind of, shall we say, presentation of history, of historical facts only, does not help our relations, because it should be borne in mind that during the Ottoman Empire many Bulgarians found their freedom in Wallachia, in Romanian lands. Many Bulgarian churches were donated together with properties by the Romanian aristocracy. And I don’t think any Bulgarian revolution didn’t have a little help from the Romanians. Many of the Bulgarian cultural, economic and political elites appeared and became better known in the Romanian cities along the Danube because Romania gave them freedom. And if you go to different parts of Romania today, they will tell you that this is the Bulgarian church, this is the Bulgarian quarter. Many of our customs come from Bulgarian customs. We have a horse Easter in Romania. It is a Bulgarian peculiarity. We have a lot of jokes about Gabrovians, regarding the city of Gabrovo.

So we have things that every Romanian in my 40s knows: the Studio X movies with Giuliano Gemma and other big movies. We didn’t have such a programme here, but we got it from Bulgarian television. So I think we have more points of contact to build on than to be enemies.

Our political elites are, shall we say, not very well prepared in general if you look at how they use our own population for their own political desires. And I think the change in Sofia, I don’t know if it’s going to bring something new, new blood or bring Mr. Petkov back to power…

… But there are many bad things in Romania as well. If you talk to some politicians about Bulgaria, they are not very well informed about Bulgaria. I think that both countries have a lot, as you said, a lot of work to do to get to this better cooperation.

What can be said about the political cooperation between Bulgaria and Romania?

We have not talked much about political cooperation because we do not have any. We only have political cooperation at European level. Let us say that an MEP from Romania and an MEP from Bulgaria will vote together on something. But I am not aware of any real political will to get to know each other better.

I have various examples from our diasporas where people from Romania and Bulgaria work together in the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Spain or Italy, meet and get closer. In TikTok you can see many videos about Romanian-Bulgarian friendship. There are many weddings between Romanians and Bulgarians in the diaspora. We also see that many Romanians and Bulgarians will settle in different countries in the future, because Bucharest is like an economic basin for the Ruse region and the north of Bulgaria. But also the system in Bulgarian tourism or Bulgarian agriculture will make some Romanians want to invest money in these areas in Bulgaria. And since, in my opinion, Bulgaria and Romania are the poorest countries in the European Union, it makes sense to invest money in them. You have places to develop.

The change in Bulgarian-Romanian relations depends on projects like your project, Vladimir, or other initiatives to get to know each other better. I don’t know many Bulgarian journalists who speak Romanian, and I don’t know many Romanian journalists who speak Bulgarian. I think that some press trips should also be started to represent Bulgaria, not only Nessebar or Golden Sands, Albena and others, but also other parts of Bulgaria. I really liked the Bulgarian wine Targovishte, which is a very good wine. If you say that in Romanian, you are a traitor, because, you know, Romanians are very proud of their wines, as are Moldovans. But I really like white wine from the region of Targovishte and this kind and from near Ruse – the winery in Ruse, again very good wine. Small things like this, taken together, will help bring our countries closer together, not our political elites.

Our political elite had the opportunity to do this. We have been in NATO together since 2004. We have been together in the European Union since 2007, we have been together in Iraq and Afghanistan. But beyond the military aspects, we have heard nothing about a real desire for security cooperation – for example, the creation of a joint military brigade, as there is between Germany and France. It would also be very good to have joint history books, like those of Germany and France. We should create a group of intelligent and open-minded historians from both countries. And I think we could make a joint history book, say, try something like a project, a pilot project, because I think Bulgaria is also lacking in knowledge about the Romanians.

We have many Romanians of Bulgarian ethnic origin. They are Bulgarians who fled the Ottoman Empire in the 19th or 17th century. One of our greatest medieval warriors, Baba Novac, was of Bulgarian origin. Some say he was Serbian, others say he may have been Bulgarian. But we also have different problems among ourselves, such as the problem of the Romanian minority in Bulgaria or even the Bulgarian minority in Romania. This painful subject must be discussed.

But it should not affect the desire to help us enjoy each other, say, to get to know each other better. Because such a discussion is not useful in nationalistic terms alone. We see what has happened in different parts of the Balkans. You see what is happening in different parts of the world. Because even if we have entered the European Union with this disadvantage, our problem is the Romanian minority in Bulgaria or the problem of the Bulgarian minority in Romania. I think that we can find a common language to solve this problem. But you are right. One of them is that we do not trust each other. I do not mean as people, but as countries – we do not trust each other. And unfortunately this is an issue that is not discussed by the political elites. I am sorry that I talk too much.

Do you think our countries will do better, or is it in their interest to be at the forefront of the confrontation between the West and Russia or the East? Or do you think it’s better to have some kind of strategic ambiguity, which is still a form of Western relations, but also a form of eventual engagement in non-Western or peripheral areas of the world.

That is not up to us. It depends on the will of the great powers. Whether we like it or not, we are on the front line in any conflict in the region. Let us not forget the refugee situation when Bulgaria was on the front line and Romania was behind Bulgaria. Let us not forget that Romania is now at the forefront of the migrant situation in Ukraine. Bulgaria is also affected by this problem. It is not just a matter of our will, of our political will. It depends on how peace is achieved in Ukraine. It depends on what NATO will look like in the future and what the European Union will look like in a few years’ time.

Let us not forget, the war in Ukraine has changed many things. And, of course, Romania and Bulgaria must play their cards right. And I think we would have a better chance together than apart.

But if you ask me, I do not think that this kind of strategic ambiguity, like Turkey’s strategic ambiguity, can be played by Romania and Bulgaria, because we could lose too much if we bet on the wrong player. So this strategic ambiguity might be allowed, say, in the field of energy to Bulgaria, because Romania has more resources. But I do not think that our partners in NATO and the European Union will allow political and strategic ambiguity. NATO is not going anywhere. If anyone thinks that NATO will withdraw from this region after the end of the war in Ukraine, they are mistaken. NATO is here to stay. And maybe, who knows, in a few years we will start advancing towards Georgia in the Caucasus again. But that is a very good question. I don’t think Romania or Bulgaria are politically prepared to play that card, and I don’t think that’s their will. I do not think there are strong enough political forces in Romania. I am saying that maybe in Bulgaria there is, but I do not think there is a strong enough political force to play in this way, let us say, as Erdogan or Orban played. We do not have that possibility. We have no interest in doing it. We have other priorities. And I think together we can find ourselves. One way is to find a common way to survive these geopolitical turmoils.

Photo: Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and his Romanian counterpart Klaus Iohannis at the Cotroceni Palace in Bucharest in 2017 (source: The Bridge of Friendship)

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