28 September, 2023
“The life and the adventures of a Romanian shephered in Bulgaria in the times of war (1908-1918)” is a book edited by Daniel Cain (source: Publishing House Humanitas)

Interview with the historian, who has specialised in the evolution of the Romanian-Bulgarian relations in the first half of the XX century – about reconciliation and the things, which have stirred divergence between the two people

Vladimir Mitev

Daniel Cain (b. 1972) is a researcher at the Institute for Southeastern European Studies of the Romanian Academy. He has studied at Bucharest and Sofia. He is a doctor in History and has a thesis about the Romanian-Bulgarian diplomatic relations in the beginning of the XX century. At present, he is an assistant professor at the University of Bucharest, where he teaches History of Balkans (XIX-XXI century). Daniel Cain is the secretary of the Romanian part in the Mixed Romanian-Bulgarian Commission on History. He has written and has edited a number of volumes and studies about the relations in Southeastern Europe at the beginning of the previous century.

Mr. Cain, the modern Bulgarian-Romanian relations appear to start with a peak: in 1886 there is a discussion about union between Romani and Bulgaria under the leadership of king Carol…

This moment is often recalled, when the Romanian-Bulgarian relations in modern times are discussed. Unfortunately, in Romanian historiography this moment is more an urban legend. What we know about it is based on reports, not on official documents. For example, king Carol I doesn’t write anything about such a proposal in his personal diary. We can’t decide how serious were those discussions, only on the basis of the documents, which are preserved in Romanian archives.

But Zahari Stoyanov – the future president of the Bulgarian Parliament, was in Bucharest with such a proposal…

Yes. Stoyanov met some of the most influential leaders of the Liberal Party, which was in power at that time. There were sufficient causes for the support of such Romanian-Bulgarian brotherhood. Only a few years earlier before Bulgaria’s liberation, on Romanian land had lived an important Bulgarian community. Here many Bulgarian newspapers were printed. At Braila the bases of the future Bulgarian Academy were put. The detachments of Haji Dimitar and Stefan Karaja were formed on Romanian land. In the short period, when Southern Bessarabia (Cahul, Bolgrad, Ismail) were part of the Romanian principate, there were ethnic Bulgarians, who benefited from education scholarships, given by the Romanian state. There was a kind of brotherhood between Romanians and Bulgarians in the respective period, which was constructed on anti-Ottoman base. There were very good relations on personal level between Romanians and Bulgarians before the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878 and this is what made possible the idea for a personal union under Carol I between Romania and Bulgaria.

How did the two countries reach the deterioration of their bilateral relations in the times of World War One?

Things changed in 1990. First of all, there is a change of generations in Bulgarian politics. The Bulgarian politicians, who were familiarized with Romanian society, start to be replaced by a new generation, which is not so emotionally attached to Romania. Also, the Macedonian issues came out in the first plan. This is what changes completely the Romanian-Bulgarian relations. The two states have divergent interests with regard to Ottoman Macedonia. The tension in Macedonia is transferred in Romania. In 1990 on the territory of Romanian Kingdom many assassinations took place, which are done by Bulgarian revolutionaries In June 1900 the professor Ştefan Mihăileanu, aroman from Macedonia, was killed. The assassin is a young Bulgarian, who acts on the orders of the Supreme Macedonian-Adrionopolean Committee in Sofia. The provoked emotions are so strong that a virulent press campaign takes place on both sides of the Danube. Both countries were on the threshold of a war and the diplomatic intervention of the Great Powers was necessary so that this conflict could be ameliorated.

Let’s clarify that in Ottoman Macedonia there are also cases of brotherhood between Aromans and Macedonian Bulgarians. The Ilinden (St. Elias Day) Uprising is the best known example of that.

Yes, but the official politics of the two states is different. For Romania it is crucial that it retains its supremacy in terms of territory and population in the Balkans. We speak about a Latin state, which is circled by two great empires – the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian, and two Slavic countries – Serbia and Bulgaria. In this context, the Bulgarian policy for territorial expansions towards Macedonia provokes a lot of concern in Bucharest. A Great Bulgaria is seen as a threat to the project for Great Romania. That is how certain animosity between Romanians and Bulgarians is explained. It explodes in the times of the Balkan wars.

When the Balkan League is formed a major political debate takes place in Romania. What should the Kingdom of Romania do? Should it enter the war? And if enters, whose part to support? Solutions are being searched for in the Parliament in Bucharest: if Bulgaria get bigger, then Romanian must get greater too. The need for a diplomatic agreement for the correction of the Dobrogean border in Romanian favor is recalled. The failure of those negotiations only increases the tensions.

The effects from the Romanian military campaign in Bulgaria in the summer of 1913 will be devastating. A wound in the two countries’ bilateral relations will appear. What will happen in Tutrakan three years later will represent the peak of animosity between Bulgarians and Romanians. Reading the press in the two countries in the times of World War One, we see how strong resentment existed between the two nations. The violence at the Dobrogean front are still alive in the memory of today’s generations. The Bulgarian and Romanian historians are to be blamed for the passion, with which they discuss this episode from the history of Dobruja. It is easier for them to write about the atrocities, committed by the others, than to speak about the atrocities of their own men. This rhetoric is obsolete. The times, in which we leave invite us to cooperate. I don’t say at all that we should forget the drama of the Dobrogean population from the first half of the past century. I only say that we can discuss much calmer about the history of Dobrogea in the spirit of the things, which connect us, not of those things, which divide us.

As a bracket, in the context of our chronological discussion, I would like to ask – how much more time are we going to remember our ugly faces of the past? When will we reach a new discourse about each other?

These things will happen together with the change of generations. It is something natural. One century has passed from those tragic events. Let’s speak about a concrete example: the fight at Tutrakan. The ceremonies, which take place in Tutrakan, in the beginning of September each year, show that Romanian society has not yet gone through the trauma, provoked by the greatest defeat, which the Romanian army has suffered in World War One. Tutrakan must represent the moment of final reconciliation between Romanians and Bulgarians. I dream of the moment, when a joint concert of singers from Bulgaria and Romania will be organised at the battlefield near Tutrakan, so that the memory of those who have fallen for their fatherland is commemorated. It would be a good occasion to realise that the things, which divide us, can also bring us closer. It is sufficient that we have a bit of goodwill and thought free from clichés.

The military cemetery at Tutrakan recognises the fact that every fallen soldier has died for his fatherland (photo: Svik, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia Commons)

The Romanian administration in South Dobruja has inflicted a lot of traumas upon the Bulgarians there…

The Dobrogean issue is the only source of tensions, which has really existed between Romania and Bulgaria. The problem comes from the status of Dobrogea as a border region. There is a real competition between Romanian and Bulgarian historians in underlining the Romanian or the Bulgarian character of this region. The problem is that we see things from the position of the member of the majority, but not of the minority member. That is how in most of the cases we ignore the point of view of the Dobrogean population. There are people who have lived in this region for a few decades, when it was the source of territorial disputes.

Good. Romania has become great in the interwar period, which is an issue of national pride for Romanians. On the other hand, the neighbours of Romania have had their own frustrations with regard to what has happened in the end of World War One.


What does characterise the Romanian-Bulgarian relations in the interwar period?

Beyond discussion, the issue of the Southern Dobruja is in the center of those relations. It is a period, which is characterized by a number of conflicts between the Romanian gendarmes and the Bulgarian resistant fighters. The Southern Dobruja was a territory with very few Romanians. The policy of the Romanian state was to modify the demographic composition of this province. But it failed lamentably. This was the reason why in September 1940 Romanian renounced the Southern Dobruja. The territorial amputations, which Romania suffered in the period 1940-1940 were much more traumatizing than the loss of Southern Dobruja.

The Treaty of Craiova, through which Romania has restituted Southern Dobruja to Bulgaria, was the result of a new international balance. What are the external factors, which have imposed this solution?

1940 was a black year in Romanian history. Isolated at international level, the Romanian Kingdom was looking for solutions in order to resist against the wave of World War Two. Caught between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Romania was put before painful decisions. Its old territorial problems with some of the neighbours couldn’t be postponed any more. In one year only (August 1940 – June 1941), through a series of territorial surrenders Great Romania seized to exist. With regard to Southern Dobruja the only real problem is the reconstitution of the archives, through which the exchange of population and the payment of concomitant losses was done in September 1940.

How is the Treaty of Craiova seen in Romania today?

For most Romanians the Southern Dobruja is something abstract. The names of this province are related only to Balchick, the Queen Maria and to Tutrakan. The Southern Dobruja provokes emotion only among the descendants of those left it in the autumn of 1940.

Bulgaria and Romania have entered in the socialist period as part of the same Eastern Block. But they have positioned themselves differently inside it. Romania developed relations with the SUA, with the UK, with Israel and with China, while Bulgaria has partnership with the Soviet Union and in one moment, in the times of perestroika, tried economic reorientation towards Western Germany and Japan. What was the essence of the bilateral relations in the socialist period? What has blocked a closer cooperation in that time?

In the beginning the socialist regimes in the two countries have passed through similar processes. The things changed in 1968. Ceausescu’s Romania opted for independence from Moscow, while Jivcov’s Bulgaria won the image of the USSR’s most loyal ally. At the level of the personal relations between the two communist leaders the only thing, which can be mentioned is the hunting sessions, where various bilateral problems were resolved. In the bilateral relations the most problematic aspect was the issue of cross-border aerial pollution. The chemical plant in Giurgiu has provoked protests among the population of Rousse, which have marked the beginning of the fall of the communist regime in Sofia. There is another marking element of those times as well: Romanians’ preference for Bulgarian television. In the 80s, when the programme of the Romanian national television was reduced to only two hours per day, the blocks in Southern Romania oriented their antennas towards Bulgaria. A lot of Romanians learned Bulgarian language in this period, as they were watching the programmes of the Bulgarian national television.

It is interesting. What happened after that in the times of transition (1990-2007)?

I went to Bulgaria for studies in this period. So I could observe directly the way in which the other’s image evolved. I came to Sofia in 1995 with a scholarship. The reaction of my colleagues was: “What the hell are you looking for there?”. In this period for many Romanians Bulgaria seemed at the end of the world. It had the image of a wild country, where your car can be stolen at any moment. Only after 2002, when Romanians could travel free, they started discovering Bulgaria and especially Bulgarian seaside. In their turn Bulgarians could discover Bucharest and Transilvania. From this moment when both people entered in direct contact, the stereotypes they had about one another started changing.

Cities such as Rousse have developed in the last years, thanks to this geographic proximity with Bucharest. The Romanian citizens have bought cars in Bulgaria and started to register firms in the neighbouring country, thanks to reduced fiscal burden. This neighbourhood, which was ignored in the 90s, rapidly became an advantage.

Cities such as Rousse have developed in the last years, thanks to their geographic proximity with Bucharest, says Daniel Cain (source: Pixabay, CC0)

Have entered a new stage of Bulgarian-Romanian relations once that we joined the same European structures in 2007?

Without any doubt we did. The things are well-known. After 1989 there was a Romanian-Bulgarian competition at the diplomatic level. There was competition, who will fulfill faster the criteria for accession to the EU. It lasted some times until the politicians of the two countries realised that they had greater chances to be accepted in the European family not separately, but together. That is how in 2001 the idea for a Romanian-Bulgarian tandem was launched. The benefits of this neighbourhood are evident. There are many things that can be done. In 1997 the Romanian high school in Sofia and the Bulgarian high school in Bucharest were established on a reciprocal basis.

I would like to ask more about that. We have intensive economic relations. Many Romanians go to Bulgaria as tourists and many Bulgarians visit Romania. There are however things that create barriers for those relations. The infrastructure that connects us remains inadequate. We don’t have also exchanged cultural centers.

Yes. This is what I wanted to say. Unfortunately, 13 years after we entered the EU, we don’t have a Romanian Cultural Institute in Sofia or a Bulgarian Cultural Center in Bucharest. It is an insult. Especially, when we consider that we have a lot of films, which have obtained prizes at festivals abroad after cooperation between Romanian and Bulgarian cinematographers. The European funding is obtained much easier, when there is regional cooperation. There are existing rules for that. Unfortunately, in most of the cases the state remains passive.

What prevents the states from recognising the reality, which the people probably already perceive?

The explanation should be looked for in the comfort of some state officials. In many state institutions there is most of all reservation, not opening towards the neighbour. Unfortunately, the engine of those changes should be looked for outside those state institutions, preferably in Bruxelles. These changes are the result of a wish to do good, not so much the result of a real need, which comes from the state institutions and changes the things.

To what extent do we realise that after we have entered in NATO and EU our destiny depends on us, including in bilateral relations?

In a Europe, in which there are no more borders and the freedom of movement is a fundamental right, the citizen values most his rights and priorities, not those of the state. Happily, in this equation the state has become a secondary actor. If I want to reach Rousse, to eat a fish soup, no one can stop me. What teases me is that I could lose a few hours on the queue at the bridge at Giurgiu-Rousse. The authorities from both countries should have the real desire to construct more bridges over the Danube.

In the last century there was a certain need for Romanians and Bulgarian to compare with one another. They feel as if they are in a certain competition. The other one could be a cause for admiration. For example, in Bulgaria there is admiration for the fight against corruption in Romania. In its turn Romanian drivers admire the new highways in Bulgaria. This spirit of competition is explained by the fact that out of the entire region Romanians and Bulgarians are the closest people.

Photo: Daniel Cain (source: Facebook)

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