Interview with the Romanian researcher in international relations and expert on the Western Balkans region at SNSPA about the considerations of Romanian foreign policy south of the Danube and its evolution after the outbreak of war in Ukraine
Dragoș Ioniță is a PhD student and research assistant in the Department of International Relations and European Integration of the National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA). His main field of interest is the process of Europeanization of the Western Balkans, as part of the EU accession process of the countries in the region. In recent years, he obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science (2015), with a thesis on the process of Serbia’s accession to the EU, and later completed his Master’s program in International Relations (specializing in Diplomacy and Negotiation), with a thesis on the Balkan Migration Route (2017). He has published several articles and analyses focusing on EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. As a member of the Department’s Centre for European Studies, he has been actively involved in co-organising several events and conferences on the EU enlargement process in the Western Balkans and is currently part of several academic networks aiming to bring EU policies closer to the general public, having been commissioned to conduct research on EU enlargement policy as a means to Europeanise the Western Balkans region.
The decisions taken by Romanian state representatives and the support shown in the relationship with Ukraine and Moldova during the last six months suggest that Bucharest has the capacity and the interest to go beyond the discursive level and engage concretely in cooperation with the states in the region. Thus, with the support and cooperation of developed Western states, Romania is beginning to shape a regional profile as a guarantor of security – says Dragoș Ioniță.
What are the considerations or benchmarks of Romanian foreign policy in the Western Balkans and South-East Europe? To what extent are these considerations related to Euro-Atlantic membership, to what extent to economic dynamics, to what extent to Romanian-speaking communities, etc.?
Romania’s foreign policy, although mainly at the declarative level, focuses on supporting the European course of the Balkan states and the Republic of Moldova. A second area of interest is support for minorities in neighbouring countries (especially Serbia and Ukraine), which is expressed through official development assistance and investment in soft policies (health, education) in these countries. At the same time, Bucharest aspires to the status of a security pole in the region, being (together with Bulgaria) a state that has not experienced internal conflicts or major diplomatic disputes with states in the region.
As mentioned above, Euro-Atlantic membership (supported by special relations with the US and Western European powers – France, Germany, Italy) is the ‘backbone’ of Romanian foreign policy, with Bucharest acting at all times as a promoter of Western values in states aspiring to NATO/EU membership. Unfortunately, beyond the declarative level, Romania’s foreign policy concentrates its actions (economic, diplomatic) concretely on relations with only a few non-member states in the region, in the foreground are its neighbours Serbia and the Republic of Moldova, and less so states with which it does not share a border.
What is perceived as a danger and what as a strategic interest in the area south of the Danube?
Romania’s strategic interests are closely linked to the level of proximity to the states in the region. Thus, guaranteeing regional peace and security (from a military and energy perspective) would be our country’s main interest in the region, with Romania actively contributing to military (Kosovo, Bosnia) or energy projects (AGRI, Iasi-Ungheni gas pipeline, etc.), as well as lobbying in support of the European integration of the states in the region, as a way of guaranteeing their societal, economic and (more recently) energy security. Another interest, developed especially after 2014 (with the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation) is to avoid a spillover effect of insecurity, through participation in: the Romania-Poland-Turkey Security Trilateral, active involvement in multinational cooperation platforms (3 Seas Initiative, Crimea Platform, etc.).
The main regional threats (beyond the obvious escalation of the conflict in Ukraine) are:
– the risk of (re)outbreaks of violence in the Balkans (especially Bosnia and/or Kosovo, which are experiencing political instability, coupled with tensions in their relations with Belgrade and/or Zagreb), which would undermine multilateral efforts to support the European course of these states;
– the stagnation of the European integration process of the Western Balkan states, a situation which regional (Turkey, Russia) or global (China) powers would be quick to take advantage of in order to project their power and use the states in the region as a ‘gateway’ to Europe and ‘pawns’ in the East-West relationship;
– the escalation of tensions between Turkey and European chancelleries, which would (most likely) lead to the loss of Ankara’s support in the mediation process of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the re-launch of a migration crisis on the Balkan route – a destabilising phenomenon for the whole region, as already observed in 2015-2016.
There is an opinion, expressed for example by businessman Gruia Stoica, but also by others that rail infrastructure projects, natural gas, etc. bypass Romania. For example, BRUA seems frozen, after the Turkish Stream pipeline was built to deliver natural gas from Turkey through Bulgaria to Serbia and possibly Hungary. To what extent do you agree with this view?
I agree, but this is also because Romania is less dependent on natural gas, having domestic production capacity. This situation is prompting the authorities in Bucharest to turn to other areas of interest. However, the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine has led local political elites to reprioritise investments in key areas (transport, communications, energy), a prime example being the Greece-Bulgaria Interconnector, in which the current Romanian government has shown a visible interest.
As far as rail networks are concerned, the discussion must start from the political interest in developing transport networks at home. In the last 30 years Romania has not even invested in the modernisation of existing domestic routes, with plans for the extension/modernisation of routes to the borders (Moldova, Serbia or Bulgaria) usually being last on the agenda for discussion.
Having said that, I believe that investments in the two networks are somewhat contradictory to the interests assumed by Romanian officials in relation to the southern and eastern neighbourhood – supporting neighbours means creating bridges that go beyond the discursive level and contribute to the development of relations based on trust and continuous cooperation. This approach cannot be achieved without a coherent, high-level strategy.
What is your opinion about the Romanians’ insular thinking – this idea that they are an island in a sea of Slavs, that they are set up against the tendencies in the region, that they are a Euro-Atlantic and democratic beacon in a region of Russophilia and populism?
The association between Slavs and populism is not exactly a correct one, although contemporary regional examples contradict me. However, even specific cases (Serbia, Bosnia) have shown their limitations, especially after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, when the officials of these countries found themselves in the situation of having to make strategic choices with medium/long-term projection (see, for example, the votes in the UN General Assembly).
Indeed, of all the peoples in the region, Romanians have the greatest confidence in the ability of Euro-Atlantic structures to guarantee their security, in all its aspects. This is particularly true in view of the special bilateral relationship we have developed with Washington over the last 30 years. However, the EU’s contribution to Romania’s socio-economic development over the last 15 years and the image it projects in the region should never be ignored. However, the idea of a Euro-Atlantic “beacon” must also be reinforced by a more consistent orientation of Bucharest towards potential regional partners, such as Belgrade and Kiev, beyond the close ties we already have with Chisinau or Sofia.
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To what extent after the beginning of the war in Ukraine does Romanian Euro-Atlanticism suggest an overcoming of insular thinking and its own redefinition towards a wider openness and collaboration with the region and the periphery of the West?
Although it is premature to comment only 6 months after the outbreak of the war, the decisions taken by Romanian state representatives and the support shown in the relationship with Ukraine and Moldova during this period suggest that Bucharest has the capacity and the interest to go beyond the discursive level and engage concretely in cooperation with the states in the region. Thus, with the support and cooperation of developed Western states, Romania is beginning to shape a regional profile as a guarantor of security.
However, there are still many steps to be taken in this regard – overcoming the insular thinking you mentioned can only be achieved by continuing these collaborations during peacetime (in Ukraine), when the context will allow us to resolve other “hot” issues on the geopolitical agenda of the region – continuing the process of European integration of the Western Balkan states and the Eastern Partnership, interconnecting the states through modern transport and communication networks, ensuring energy independence from the Russian Federation for the vulnerable states at this time. As we have already said, there is sufficient evidence of openness; what is needed, however, is consistency in decision-making and a cooperation strategy based on the medium/long-term interests of regional players.
Romania seems to be developing expertise on the Middle East, there is a thaw in relations with Bulgaria, and last but not least Romanian elites seem to be waking up to the fact that in socialist times there were very good relations with many countries in the Third World (or the Global South)?
Indeed, the past is catching up with us, and experts at the level of state institutions realise that the extensive diplomatic network, developed even before 1989, can prove to be a real resource in countering contemporary threats (terrorism, conventional and/or hybrid wars, natural disasters, etc.). It is worth noting that the Middle East has never been abandoned – from research and bilateral investments to peacekeeping missions in conflict zones, Romania has always been a provider of expertise. This is due, on the one hand, to the historical relations developed with the Persian Gulf or North African states, but also to the way in which the post-Cold War political-military alliances were (re)shaped, where NATO played a key role.
As regards the relationship with Bulgaria, in concrete terms we are talking about a reactivation of formal/informal cooperation networks. Romania is Bulgaria’s second largest trading partner in the EU, and the number of bilateral projects is constantly growing – from transport infrastructure (bridges across the Danube) or energy (Romania’s participation in the project to extend the Greece-Bulgaria Interconnector), to projects aimed at bringing ethnic communities closer together (launch of the Romanian-language edition of Radio Bulgaria). However, I would like to stress that it is desirable to expand the areas of cooperation – in this sense, the transformation of the consolidated partnership into a strategic one could be the necessary impetus to deepen this bilateral relationship, formalised 143 years ago.
Finally, the discussion of Romania’s relations with the “Global South” deserves a separate interview, in which each region (Central and South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South/South-East Asia), with its opportunities and risks, is addressed specifically. However, I would point out that Romania’s relations with the countries of the ‘Global South’ need to be revitalised, given that many of the countries included in this area (Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, Egypt, India, Indonesia, etc.) have become much more competitive from an economic perspective – some of these countries are members of the OECD or the Group of the World’s Leading Economies (G20), which speaks volumes about the growing voice they have acquired at international level. That said, the Romanian authorities are currently facing a self-generated dilemma – Bucharest is caught between the need to strengthen regional stability/security and the need to expand cooperation horizons beyond the Washington-Brussels-Bucharest axis. The two choices are not mutually exclusive (as one might think), but there is a need to prioritise strategic cooperation objectives if Romania is to remain a relevant international player in the coming years.
Photo: Dragoș Ioniță (source: Dragoș Ioniță)
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