The philosophy of change in Bulgarian-Romanian relations: via bridge of friendship towards dynamic identity
In March 2023, Bulgarian-Romanian relations were upgraded by the two countries to the rank of a strategic partnership. And this coincided in a special way with my own entry into a new stage of my social and professional life in the Bulgarian-Romanian space. My PhD period in Modern Iranian Literature at the Sofia University ended with a discharge with the right to defend the thesis. I became a correspondent for Bulgaria for Radio Romania. I signed a new contract as editor of the Romanian section of Radio Bulgaria, this time full-time.
So stories that had evolved slowly over the past years found some closure. And my desire for both a review and a plan for future actions naturally increased. My sense is that the long period of trial, anxiety and stagnation since my mother’s death has given me some experience and concepts through which to better understand myself and the world, and how change occurs within us.
With this article I will review the main vectors of my work, with a focus on the blog The Bridge of Friendship and try to define the way forward. Perhaps the text will sound at times like a report/testimony or some kind of denouement. I imagine, however, that this may be the way to both be open to the blog’s readers and perhaps achieve better internal organization of my thoughts.
People in Bulgaria, and in Romania, have a perennial question when someone does media, especially media that is, I hope, harder to fit into the narrow political frameworks of one side or the other – “Who pays?”. I develop my blogs as non-commercial, non-profit media precisely because of this strong stigma our societies exert on voices they disagree with.
In Bulgaria, unfortunately, any attempt at a new initiative from the grassroots is captured by the Bulgarian Socialist Party or Democratic Bulgaria when it gains momentum and gets big. In Romania, everywhere everyone talks about the so-called secret services and they are always presented as being from the opposing camp. But the services by definition are everywhere, not just in the liberal or conservative trend.
With this brief introduction, I hope to make it clear why it has been difficult to develop a Bulgarian-Romanian media with its own subjectivity for so many years. It is also difficult for many reasons other than political ones. There is mistrust between people, there is a crisis in the journalistic industry, there is a war between powerful financial and political structures in Ukraine, in the region and in the USA. And our societies are finding it difficult to develop the concepts and experience to make sense of the changes.
In these conditions, I consider it a success that I follow my own path, that I have my own concepts and I hope that what I do is useful for everyone.
On 19 September 2023, the blog The Bridge of Friendship will celebrate its eighth year of existence. After the changes on it – the registration of the friendshipbridge.eu domain and the switch to the use of plugins, it is a full-blooded cross-border platform, with a modern design, a presence in a number of social networks and international partnerships.
I continue to see the blog as my online alter ego, something I learn from, care about and grow with. It currently has 1500 articles in 10 languages (English, Romanian, Bulgarian, Polish, Italian, German, Danish, Croatian, Chinese, Persian). On Facebook its followers are over 1775. It has 172 followers on Twitter, 201 subscribers to his new articles by email and on WordPress, 49 subscribers on Substack.
The Bridge of Friendship is one of the few Bulgarian media outlets that write about the elevation of Bulgarian-Romanian relations to the rank of a strategic partnership. It is also a place where Bulgarian and Romanian expertise in international relations meet. In addition, it covers niche topics such as Bulgarian-Romanian events promoting cross-border people-to-people relations, has publications on cultural life in Bulgaria and Romania, on the economic model in both countries, etc.
Among the partners of The Bridge of Friendship are the Romanian media Press Hub, published by Freedom House România, the Poland-based media Cross-Border Talks, published by the Naprzod Foundation and some Bulgarian media with which there is a practice of mutual reprinting of articles, such as the Ruse-based Arena Media and the Varna-based cultural website Urban Magazine.
In October 2022, I took part in a conference of independent artists and activists in Frankfurt am Oder and Slubice, which created a community of twin cities in the EU separated by a European border. This year, the blog supported a researcher from Romania and a journalist from Poland who explored cross-border realities in the Ruse-Giurgiu area and the particularities of Bulgarian political and social life.
Feedback from some of the leading experts on Romania from the older generations in Bulgaria confirms the impression that The Bridge of Friendship might have indeed made certain positive changes in the Bulgarian-Romanian relations and in the way each of the two nations thinks about the other. On the other hand, I take Radio Romania’s invitation to become its correspondent for Bulgaria as a sign of trust and recognition that I am playing a positive role in relations from the Romanian perspective as well. It seems as if the blog indeed serves as a bridge. And that’s a good thing, because both countries think too much in national-centric terms and parts of their peoples remain unnecessarily reticent and suspicious when dealing with neighbours across the river. It is also a sign that many more people, goods and ideas need to cross the bridge for the Bulgarian-Romanian dynamic identity to develop.
Philosophy of Bulgarian-Romanian and regional relations
The mention of the word philosophy and attempts at abstract conversation often cause dislike, perplexity or ridicule in Bulgaria. Bulgarians are people of immediate or unmediated experience. They work with what they can taste, touch, digest and with what has a context. One of the difficulties of Bulgarian integration into the EU is precisely the difference between Western European societies based on concepts such as the “social construction of the reality” and the specific Bulgarian peripherality, marked by the Bai Ganyos (Oriental Bulgarians), who reduce all complex ideas of change to practices of consumption, to the so-called “bringing in and taking out the feast” (vkarvane i izkarvane na praznika – a phrase which in Bulgarian could also have a sexual connotation).
Another specificity of Bulgaria, at least in my opinion, is the so-called static identity. This is the social role of the individual, marked by the trauma of Bulgarian socialization, which does not allow evolution over the years. If you once published an article in Duma, the newspaper of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, you are a communist for life. If you have had a dalliance with the Red House for Culture and Debates or the Center for Liberal Strategies, you are a Soros-ist. Either you are one of Captain Grant’s children (i.e. you take money from Western foundations) or you are a vatnik, a russist, etc. because you flaunt the national flag and listen to the podcasts of various local critics of the West. Correspondingly, for a lifetime the two big tendencies in Bulgarian society – the so-called new and the so-called old services, the so-called Sorosoids (Soros-ists) and the so-called Orbanists, the so-called Trumpists and the so-called Bidenists dominate each other and fight for justice against the background of the demographic crisis and the statistics that Bulgarians are the poorest, the most corrupt and the unhappiest people in the EU or even in the world.
We don’t realise that once we have internalized a static identity, we have internalised the trauma and instead of making the effort to overcome it, we spend our lives reproducing it, imposing it and reliving it over and over again. Thus life becomes an accumulation of power. We think we dominate someone or something, retributing past wrong doing, but in fact our trauma, our static identity dominates us through our act of domination upon the other. And the more power the different tendencies in Bulgarian society accumulate over us as individuals, the more we remain isolated and misunderstood in the rest of European countries. In turn, their representatives appear to be only interested in us until they determine who are the good and who are the bad in our politics, therefore the possible inclusion of outsiders in it does not change its characteristics by anything. Foreign interests appear not to be interested in uplifting the whole society, rather they get immersed in our contradictions and take part in our culture of failure.
The blog The Bridge of Friendship‘s understanding is that Bulgaria’s problem is neither “the West” nor “the East,” but our static identity, our inability to assimilate the movement into the world spirit and make it work for our society. Instead of developing the thinking characteristic of the center of the world system, a thinking characterized by self-criticism, reflexivity, transformation, inclusiveness, etc., we prefer to subsume ourselves under one or another big imperial brother and to be its subcontractor in the country and in the region, dominating and traumatizing each other with other little brothers of other big brothers. Thus our region simply cannot grow out of its self-imposed subordinate and dependent static identity.
What then is the change in South East Europe?
For me at least, change is not an action against anyone, but opening to all and can draw experience and energy from the whole world and all its regions and contradiction. It is not a struggle for dominance with the enemy. It is a painful inner transformation in which the resources of the static identity gradually disappear and finally the living self behind it, our authentic self, breaks its shell and a true subject is born. The change is not to choose Kiril Petkov or Kostadin Kostadinov against the other, but to replace the static identity with a dynamic one. And not only within its borders. Because the moment static identity disappears in our self, it will disappear in our relations with our fellow citizens. We won’t see them as “genders” (pejorative term used by conservative forces against liberal, feminist and LGBT circles) or Putinist, we will see their true self, hiding behind certain rhetoric. And by rejecting this colonial construction of static identity, we will become part of the world and bring Bulgaria closer to its rightful place in the EU and in the world.
In other words Change is expansion of our individual and group consciousness, so that we could interiorise and learn from the contradictions of the world and increase our potential. Once that this expansion is accomplished, the local and national centers of power are forced to offer us more sophisticated products of their function. Therefore power doesn’t evolve through our seizing it and imposing our own trauma and economic interests as a norm, but rather through our pretending that it doesn’t exist and growing without its intermediation. After our independent growth has taken place, power, in turn has no choice but to grow itself, because if it doesn’t learn its lesson, it will become marginalized.
How can this happen?
The Bridge of Friendship tries to do this through the dynamic identity between Bulgarians and Romanians. In other words, a dynamic element is added to the static identity of a Southeast European resident – the dynamic element being Bulgarian or Romanian society, which generates experience, i.e. energy. The understanding of this dynamic element leads to the interiorization of the energy, resulting in an ongoing personal transformation. Ultimately, the presence of a reality beyond the boundaries of national trauma allows the development of an experience unencumbered by the trauma itself. And it begins to lose its life forces because they flow to the untraumatized part of the personality. Time, persistence and intrinsic motivation are key to the success of this cracking of the shell. When the lifeless superconstruction is demounted, the birth of an internationalised consciousness can be observed. And the approach by which this dynamic identity building occurs is called “the bridge of friendship.”
Bridges of friendship can be people and organizations that are trusted on the two shores they connect. The bridge of friendship allows experience/energy to flow through it, allows for mutual acquaintance and dynamisation of relations, in a situation in which it is clear to both sides that neither will sacrifice its national interests to realise the other’s aspirations. That is, the bridge of friendship is a step towards what Johan Galtung calls positive peace, not just the absence of but war (negative peace), but a relationship in which cooperation and trust unfolds between states, communities or people who have traditionally stood on the side of each other.
Bulgaria and Romania have issues which they fail to resolve for more than a century. And instead of accumulating frustration at failure to find common ground, they could look for positive changes that could happen. Enter bridges of friendship, the means for incremental change to take place in an inert environment with attitudes of indifference.
A study on Romanian foreign policy and Bulgarian-Romanian relations
I develop these ideas, albeit in a simpler form, in a study on Romanian foreign policy and Bulgarian-Romanian relations, which I expect the Bulgarian Diplomatic Institute to publish in May 2023. Bulgaria and Romania too often think national-centrically about their neighbours and regional politics. This also means that they rely on hegemony, on the accumulation of power through static identity, rather than seeking transformation in their relations.
But static identity is rigid, predictable and infertile. It cannot grow out of its limits. Therefore, it would be disappointing if all the two countries have learned from their EU membership is to behave as hegemons in the region. But in a sense, domestic politics based on mutual domination and accumulation of might implies foreign politics based on the same principles. It is therefore interesting to what extent it is not politicians and not diplomats, but ‘ordinary’ people who can become the subject of international relations through their own struggle for transformation. State actors and elites are too dependent on both their perception of national interests and the hierarchy in which they find themselves to be able to learn much from their relations in the region. Whereas for ordinary people, free from rigid perceptions of national interests, the possibilities for transformation seem limitless. Their first steps are likely to be the most difficult, and for a long time no result of their activities will be visible, while accusations fall on them that an enemy static identity is behind their effort to be a common ground, accusations coming probably from both or all the sides. But as the process of internal transformation unfolds, change will also take place externally. And it is this effort that is of interest to The Bridge of Friendship.
My experience with Bulgaria and Romania shows that misunderstandings can arise even if one has the best of intentions. For example, some people, obsessed with the logic of static identity or simply out of indifference or lack of imagination, may decide that the “bridge of friendship” or “dynamic identity” is some shallow manipulation of their adversary and fail to appreciate the potential these concepts and approaches hold. Therefore, it seems to me that the Bulgarian-Romanian dynamic identity is more capable of developing if the people who seek to develop this coexistence based on dialogue and mutual respect develop connectivity in more directions. One of the initiatives that helps me to have an additional dynamic is the Poland-based media Cross-Border Talks.
Cross-Border Talks has existed since 2021 and is a joint effort of Polish journalist Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat, Czech journalist Veronika Sushova-Salminen and myself. Cross Border Talks is a website in five languages (English, Polish, Czech, Romanian and Bulgarian), a YouTube podcast and a Substack newsletter that deal with international politics and social issues such as migration, labour issues and social change. The media focuses on topics from the Central and South Eastern Europe region, including the Western Balkans and the post-Soviet space. It tries to develop an understanding of cross-border culture in the EU, the green transition, and strikes in Western Europe. There is also a look at what is happening in the Middle East – in countries such as Iran, Iraq and Israel.
For me, one of the advantages of this journalistic partnership is the opportunity to learn from colleagues who travel widely, know many languages and have careers as international journalists. In addition, through the Cross-border Talks I am informed about many events in the region and around the world, which the media in Bulgaria and even Romania do not write about. So Cross-border Talks is an attempt to build incrementally dynamic identity at a wider space, with more voices and is another long-term initiative.
Some of the leading Romanian and Bulgarian international relations experts and activists have been guests of Cross-Border Talks. And it would be great if this media could play, within its limits, the role of a bridge between Western Europe and the Eastern part of the EU, between Central and South-Eastern Europe and between the EU and the Global South. Cross-border Talks’ partnership with the European progressive network transform! europe can help in this direction.
The Persian Bridge of Friendship
One interesting case study of the application of the bridge of friendship and dynamic identity is the relationship between Southeast Europe and the Persian world, especially Iran. Iran is a very specific country that has traditionally been wary and even suspicious of the outside world. How can a dynamic identity be made with Iran, when everything is sensitive and any move could be seen as harmful?
In spite of the difficulties, I think that a dynamic identity with Iran is possible, even without going there – if, for example, we have some of the Iranian trauma. A way of acquaintance with the Iranian traums could be attempted in a territory, which allows for milder and more moderate action. In my case literature and philosophy seem to be potentially, at least at first sight, knowledge spaces that allow a bit more easier movement without triggering mines.
This is again something that should happen via internal dynamics, because if we are not authentic and don’t have deep conviction in the necessity of our act, related to Iran, it may either fail to impress or lead to disappointment after confrontation with resistance. My feeling about Iran is that it is a society of intensity – intensity in both kindness and in cruelty. So maybe we shouldn’t aim so much at reaching out to the Iranian intensity in or outside Iran. Rather, if we have intensity of our own, we could make efforts to understand it, to give names to elements from it. And if we advance on this account, practice shows that Iranians demonstrate interest and engage whoever seems to be following his interest.
What is more important for me, as the editor of the Bulgarian-Romanian-Persian blog The Persian Bridge of Friendship, is how one can build a bridge of friendship with the Persian world from within a region, where Iran is deeply unpopular, Afghanistan is associated with decades of war, Tajikistan is completely unknown and migrants from the Middle East are seen negatively. What needs to happen for a person, media or organization to be accepted as an authentic link between different spaces, as somebody unarmed, as a person coming in peace? Is it really possible to communicate with this world as equals, when our realities are different? Romania and Bulgaria have pretty much the same international status as countries and belong to the same integration circles. But Iran is a world in itself. It is around Iran that hegemony and counterhegemony are at high levels, at least for someone formed in relatively demilitarized societies. So how can this firewall of security, mistrust and inexperience be overcome so that some authentic meeting, peer-to-peer takes place?
At this point I have no answer to my inquiring. I only have a few ideas that might help. One is that dynamic identity is, in my view, a concept that can pass for Iranian one or have Iranian dimensions. The Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian himself likes to use the word “dynamic” to denote an understanding of the world of the Iranian diplomacy that is active, engaging and undergoing evolution. Iranian society is also familiar with the term “dynamic jurisprudence,” which also denotes the ability of religious authorities to have a jurisprudence that evolves over time based on changing social realities.
One obstacle to relations with Iran, however, is their oversecuritization. It is too demanding to ask the average person in Bulgaria or Romania to develop the necessary mindset and experience to be able to navigate a world where everyone is watched and suspected. And even if for some reason he develops such skills and realizations, will his role be able to be recognized and responded to appropriately? Will he/she have an equal counterpart?
Apparently, there is a role for The Persian Bridge of Friendship to play in Bulgaria and Romania – to formulate an experience that could allow common people in South-Eastern Europe to have meaningful interaction with Iranians, when common Iranian people start coming. Because if international relations are not people-driven and people-owned, they remain too state-led and limited in their scope.
In this respect, Bulgaria and Romania really need a lot of work. And no great expectations should be placed on progress. However, I think that the dynamisation of Bulgarian-Romanian relations and relations in general in our region can create situations in which what Bulgarians, Romanians, Poles or others cannot do separately, they can do together. And my personal plans are related to some individual initiatives, based on my several online friendships with Iranians from Iran and the Western world. Perhaps I could translate a small book on literary theory written by the Iranian translator of James Joyce and the US Beat Generation. Maybe I could organize an event featuring an Iranian feminist writer. Or I could interview an established international relations specialist, living in Tehran, who was a diplomat under the Shah. I also rely on my interaction with the director of the Iranian Cultural Center in Sofia, who maintains a Facebook section on the Persian Bridge of Friendship website.
The way forward
Let us imagine for a moment that the dynamic identities from this text are fact – Bulgarian-Romanian, Central-Southeastern European, EU-Iranian, etc. What’s next? Wouldn’t there be at some moment a return to the logic of trauma and accumulation of might, albeit from a different position, as that is the logical of our capitalist and militarized world – might, domination, hegemony?
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was among other things about elimination of trauma and development of ability to feel and live fully and freely. Similar was also the slogan of the feminist revolution of 2022 that affirmed life, freedom and the power of women. But isn’t trauma always prevailing and isn’t any revolution set to fail?
Well, if life’s richness – emotional, intellectual, sensual – is recovered, my feeling is that the process of revitalization should continue. There is an infinity of diverse realities, when we deal with man and society. I don’t look for a point of saturation. Rather, I hope that the process of revitalization will be lasting longer. The longer it goes, the more experience and energy will be interiorized.
Bulgaria as a society does everything with everyone in all directions all the time. Similarly, I seem to want to continue to develop all the projects in the time I have at disposal after fulfilling my obligations to Radio Bulgaria and Radio Romania. For the first time in years I realize that in difficult periods I have made generally correct decisions. I think that my principles and concepts are valid and are bearing fruit. It remains to be seen to what extent Bulgarians, Romanians and all others will recognize their interest in what I am doing. And, of course, I look forward to learning from the experience that the bridge of friendship and my dynamic identities offer. This experience should also have very concrete incarnations, visible results (a Bulgarian political term :)) in my professional and personal life.
I will continue to ask what exactly the Bulgarian-Romanian strategic partnership means. I will seek knowledge about the evolution of our region – the eastern flank of NATO. I will strive to travel more and connect more often with cultural and social life in Romania and the region. And I will continue to explore and develop the theory of dynamic identity, which many people reduce just to graphic images. For me, dynamic identity is also a school. And maybe by looking into it and its effects, we can understand ourselves better.
Coda – a wish for spring time:
Let there be cross-border talks between our numerous identities and may we all build our bridges of friendship!
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