30 November, 2023
Bulgaria and Romania continue to coexist as islands, not as a community with mutual interactions. The challenge for them is to build any form of infrastructure that connects them, explains the expert

Vessela Tcherneva (source: ECFR)

Vesela Tcherneva is Deputy Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and Head of the Sofia office. Her area of interest is EU foreign policy, the Western Balkans and the Black Sea.

Between 2010 and 2013, Tcherneva was a spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov’s political cabinet.

Before that, he was Secretary of the International Commission for the Balkans, chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and former German President Richard von Weizsäcker. He has also been editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy Bulgaria since its establishment in 2005. 

During Kiril Petkov’s government (December 2021 – August 2022), Vesela Tcherneva was his foreign policy advisor.

The interview was made on the occassion of Romanian president Klaus Iohannis’ visit to Sofia on 15 March 2023 and the announcement of a declaration that upgrades the Bulgarian-Romanian relations to the level of strategic partnership.

Mrs Tcherneva, today the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, is in Sofia and a document will be announced that represents an upgrading of relations with Romania to the level of a strategic partnership. What will be the content of the document that should be the content of a strategic partnership between Bulgaria and Romania?

On the one hand, a strategic partnership means thinking in the same direction in terms of the main tasks facing the region and, in particular, the two countries in terms of the economy, security, including energy security, in terms of the debates within the European Union and, of course, in terms of the rapprochement between the two societies. But the strategic partnership is a label that can be filled with content through various mechanisms. There are the so-called G2G meetings – regular meetings of the two governments, which Bulgaria has done in the past, including with Romania. This means very close coordination between the ministers and ministries of the two countries. The second type of mechanisms are regular consultations in preparation for European Councils, summits and so on. And this is not a practice that we have or have had at present. But, in my opinion, a strategic partnership with an EU Member State should include exactly this. And the third block of issues are trade, infrastructure and security, where a strategic partnership would mean medium- and long-term coordination and common understanding.

That is why I find it a bit strange at this moment to make such an announcement about a strategic partnership, when there is no parliament, no government in office, no vision for the next four years, as a parliament and a government should have, on the basis of which such a strategic partnership with a country like Romania can be developed now. To put it briefly, the visit of the President of Romania is, of course, wonderful. There should be many more reciprocal visits. But at this point, apart from the fact that this visit is a gesture to Radev, who otherwise seems rather isolated internationally, does it achieve anything else? I’m not so sure, given that, again, I say that a strategic partnership requires a legislature and an executive with a long horizon.

In Romania, ever since that unfortunate vote on admission to the Schengen area last December, there has been talk about the need for more cooperation with Bulgaria. Initially, there was the idea that Romania should seek to break away from Bulgaria, but in the end, all that has prevailed lately is the thesis that there is a need for cooperation between Bulgaria and Romania on Schengen. But what could this cooperation be in terms of initiatives, in terms of forms, and to what extent could the idea of a mini-Schengen be part of such an interaction?

For me, the Schengen issue is primarily a question of trust. To what extent do Schengen Member States trust Bulgaria and Romania? That vote in December showed that, in fact, although a large part of the refugee flow through the Balkans does not go through Bulgaria and Romania, but through the Western Balkans, Croatia has joined Schengen, while these two countries of ours have not, precisely because there is a lack of trust in them. In my opinion, Bulgaria is indebted to Romania here, especially in terms of the rule of law. In terms of measures concerning the accountability of the Attorney General, the transparency of power and the fight against corruption. This vote shows that trust in Bulgaria is quite low and, in this respect, cooperation with Romania is, of course, very important, because we are talking about a common external border on the Black Sea, a common border with the Western Balkans. However, I think that, fundamentally, it is really about those reforms that both countries need to make in terms of the rule of law.

Does this strategic cooperation, which will be probably increasingly talked about, mean that Bulgaria’s importance on NATO’s eastern flank is growing?

I don’t think it’s growing. I think the importance of Bulgaria is still, on the one hand, essential, because you can’t change the geography. But, on the other hand, Bulgaria has managed to isolate itself from many of the processes related to NATO integration, related to the modernisation of the former Eastern bloc armies, including isolating itself from the processes related to the Black Sea. That is why it is important to have visits such as that of the Romanian President, but it is also important for Bulgaria to have a vision of its own security in the context of NATO. And if Bulgaria believes that its membership of NATO is sufficient in itself for its security, this will ultimately mean that Bulgaria’s marginalisation in NATO could take place in the same way as it did in the European Union.

The Romanian president’s visit was announced the day before on the Romanian presidency’s website, with some focus on security issues and the war in Ukraine. To what extent can such a strategic partnership be filled with content, not only in terms of security, but perhaps also in terms of civil and human relations between Bulgarians and Romanians or cultural interactions between them?

I think this is a very important point. But perhaps, indeed, in the current situation in Bulgaria, this aspect cannot be worked on substantially. I am referring to the creation of the necessary infrastructure, to the existence of the necessary conditions for there to be really good cooperation and good mutual interaction between Bulgarian and Romanian society. The simplest example of this is the bridges across the Danube. Building a large number of bridges, at least doubling, if not tripling, the current two bridges, should be the number one priority for any Bulgarian government, but also improving rail links in general, improving cultural links, expanding political links. These are things that should be natural in the 21st century for two Member States of the European Union; unfortunately, Bulgaria and Romania live as two islands in relation to each other, not as two countries that are actually very, very close in the eyes of the rest of the Union. And for me this is the purely philosophical problem of this rapprochement, that starting from the basic physical infrastructure and going to the conceptual infrastructure of this relationship, there are many opportunities that have not been realised.

Photo: Romanian president Klaus Iohannis (left) and his Bulgarian counterpart Rumen Radev in Sofia (source: screenshot, YouTube, Digi24)

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