30 September, 2023
Interview on the current political situation in Romania and Romanian-British relations
The logo of the Bulgarian National Radio (source: BNR)

Irina Nedeva

Irina Nedeva from BNR’s Horizon programme interviewed Vladimir Mitev on the visit of the British King Charles III to Romania and on current issues in Romanian public political life: the teachers’ strike, the Romanians’ attitude towards President Klaus Iohannis, the mood for separation or cooperation with Bulgaria on the way to the Schengen area, the level of Romanian-British relations, the expected rotation in the Romanian government. The interview can be listened to on the BNR website here.

Irina Nedeva: Britain’s King Charles III arrives today for a five-day private visit to Romania. What is also intriguing for the world media is that this is actually the King’s first visit abroad since his coronation on May 6. He was previously in Germany, but that was before May 6, 2023, before the coronation itself. Is there anything unusual about that? Now we will find out from Vladimir Mitev, a colleague at Radio Bulgaria and the creator of the blog Bridge of Friendship, a blog for getting to know each other between Bulgaria and Romania. Good day Vladimir.

Vladimir Mitev: Good day

Let’s start there. Newsweek actually notes that this is the first overseas visit since the coronation. We remember that Chárz III was previously in Germany. And before that, he canceled a trip to France because of protests there over pension reform. They were massive and that prevented him from going to France. Should we see this visit to our northern neighbour, Romania, as something too significant?

In my view, to understand how to view this visit, we need to look at the history of Charles III’s relationship with Romania in general. And it is a very long history that goes back more than twenty years. It begins in 1998, when Charles III first visited Romania. He met President Emil Constantinescu. In fact, Charles III has had meetings with every head of state of Romania since then. But that’s just one element – these relationships whether with the heads of state of Romania, whether with the monarchical family.

In fact, Charles III owns perhaps at least ten properties in Romania. The most famous is the one in the village of Viscri, Brasov County. That is, he bought houses in Transylvania, restored them. These houses can even be rented in some cases by other people, ordinary people, for a fee. And in fact, Charles III is a sort of patron in various projects of non-governmental organizations related to charity.

This activity that he is developing with Romania has been going on for a long time and he can say that the love is mutual. That is to say, there are a number of interviews and reports, documentaries, in which Charles testifies to his love for Romania. He received the Doctor Honoris Causa title of the University of Bucharest and the University of Cluj-Napoca Babeș-Bolyai. These are the two most prestigious universities in Romania. And it is seen that when he is in Romania, there are often events where he is somehow mixing somewhat with Romanians. Is that diplomacy? Certainly it is, but there’s also a personal element to it. British media are now writing that Charles actually has a certain weakness for the relationship between nature and people in Romania. As I understand it, Romania is one of the few places in Europe where this connection is still preserved and, for example, it is said that in his home in Viscri, there is no Internet, no radio, no television. That is to say, Charles is, in a way, perhaps, experiencing something there that he cannot experience in his homeland.

And is there any familial basis for such a connection between King Charles III, former Prince of Wales and Romania?

I forgot to say how he constantly stresses that his lineage actually descends through some great-great grandmother of Vlad Ţepeş Dracula’s and even jokes that there is a degree to which he is a Transylvanian heir as well. This, of course, is said as a joke. I also said that he had very good relations with the royal family in Romania and was, for example, at the funeral of King Mihai.

And now will there be a meeting with the president and how does this visit of the British King Charles III fit into the interesting picture of the current Romanian political scene?

The meeting with President Klaus Iohannis will be this afternoon. It has been underlined from the British side that this is a meeting of courtesy, so to speak. Charles IIIis not on an official state visit. The visit is a private visit. It just has that element of him meeting the head of state of Romania.

I would say that the meeting is coming very well to Klaus Iohannis, because at the moment there is a teachers’ strike in Romania and there is discontent in various other sectors. Workers want higher incomes and more rights. So, at the moment, the Romanian political elite, the government and the President are under pressure to respond to these wishes. This coming of Charles III will allow them perhaps to look more positively a little bit, to diversify the news and to come out in a different light as some people who meet and are recognised by significant international figures.

This leads me to ask you in Romania how the role of the Romanian president is viewed. Are there any concerns about his undue interference or even a violation of constitutional rights, as we are seeing here following Bulgarian President Radev’s declared unwillingness to follow the constitutional procedure of handing a second mandate to the second political force to form a government. Are there similar sentiments? Are similar analogies possible with Romania, or is everything calm there on this front?

The mood in Romania regarding Klaus Iohannis is quite skeptical. His approval rating is low, if I am not mistaken, at the end of last year around 20% approval. He is criticised for not communicating, for not doing meaningful actions. For example, there was a recent investigation by the investigative website the Recorder about him having classified information about his flights when he traveled overseas. He has recently been chartering private jets for large sums of money presumably, but this information is not being shared with the public. Even information about previous years, when it was a practice to share it with the public and it was known what the amounts were, is now classified. So there is a feeling that Iohannis is too distant from the Romanians. And in fact, this rather creates tension in Romania and irritates. 

In addition, it may be worth saying that the current coalition in Romania, which is governing, is an alliance of the Social Democratic Party, the National Liberal Party and the party of ethnic Hungarians. In fact, these are the two big parties, the Social Democratic Party and the National Liberal Party. They have traditionally been seen as opponents, but they are also the two parties that are most closely associated with the transition in the country and have a corresponding model that some might call clientelistic. For a long time, Iohannis made capital out of being an opponent of the Social Democratic Party. But in fact it was with his help that the evil forces, this stigmatized party, the Social Democratic Party, actually came into power. 

So there are various criticisms of Iohannis, and I don’t think he is in a situation at the moment of wanting more or violating anyone’s rights. It seems to me that his actions are being watched under a magnifying glass and if he makes any more significant mistake it will be used against him.

It is really interesting these analogies that we are making and showing how Romania is different. To a large extent, we in Bulgaria always think that we are unique and incomprehensible to the outside world. But, in fact, here you are telling us that this formula for a rotating government, for a coalition of opponents and, until recently, serious political opponents, such as the two parties linked to the status quo, somehow works in Romania. There was supposed to be a handover of the baton to a rotating Prime Minister just this week, am I right? But that did not happen. Does this issue stand as acutely as it seems to us now, before the possible formation of such a government between the first two major political forces on a rotating basis?

The rotation was supposed to happen last Friday (26 May 2023), but because of the teachers’ strike it was postponed. This social problem must first be resolved and then the main parties will be able to agree on the composition of the future government.

Is there any impatience about doing the rotation? Is somebody pounding on the table and saying, “Come on, let’s rotate the prime minister.” Is there a scandal in the coalition, if it is a coalition?

There was an attempt by President Iohannis and Prime Minister Ciuca to force this change. But the Social Democrats were not in favour of this rush. I mean, it is not exactly a rush. They just didn’t want to meet the deadline because of the strike. Probably the Social Democrats didn’t want the shift to happen so quickly because they were going to inherit a big problem and they wanted it solved by Ciuca, who is the current Prime Minister, and is from the National Liberal Party or by president Iohannis, who is also from it. So if there are any negatives, maybe they will remain for the previous government.

The question is where is the hot potato that always bothers us here in Bulgarian conditions, but it seems that in Romania at least the tone is more civil. This is how the Romanian political scene looks from the side, if we compare it with what is happening in Bulgaria.

Maybe we should say that in our country tensions and divisions are very much growing and there are different understandings in our elites, in our society in what direction to go. I am not saying that there are no divisions in Romania, but it is just that there, with this formula of this government, of the old parties, there is actually some agreement that we should not make any significant reforms. The government is headed by a general. That is, it is recognised that the war in Ukraine is perhaps a source of risk. And if there is any major turmoil in Romania, it will not be good for the country. So there must be many reasons.

It seems to me that things are calm, but I would not even say that they are that calm, because these strikes that have recently appeared are also a sign that the stability in Romania at the moment perhaps has its drawbacks. And in fact, it should be added that a model has established itself in Romania which is also present here to some extent. We know that in Bulgaria there are media which are bought and so owned by the parties. Similarly, in Romania, the major parties finance the media. There have been investigations about this – again on the Recorder. And this stability can also be explained by the fact that simply these parties, the two big parties, are now too influential and the opposition against them is clearly not strong enough.

And they are somehow holding back… I did not say calm, but a more civil tone… Now, lately Romania seems more confident than Bulgaria that it should make policies in line with the European Union. Especially indeed, as you say, the litmus test for this is the war against Ukraine and the support from the EU, including with arms for Ukraine. We remember that there are circles in the European Union that believe that our northern neighbour is more prepared under the Schengen criteria, particularly as regards the rule of law. The Romanians are also likely to perform better than us for the euro area. To what extent does this mean that the Romanians imagine and want a separation from Bulgaria? And do such comparisons go at all?

First, there is no ambition in Romania to join the euro zone soon. There are even economic problems that do not allow this to happen at the moment. I have not heard any such discussion. Rather, the discussion is that Romania should get in when it is ready and there even seems to be an expectation that there will be some reform of the eurozone at some point. I have thus come across the views of Romanian experts from the Romanian National Bank.

And Schengen? Is there a Schengen competition?

There are attitudes of disconnection. But in my opinion they are not dominant, including perhaps because Western politicians and European politicians, I guess, do not want such a rollback and therefore Romania is not playing this card. The statements that are coming are about the fact that we have to work together.

And just one sentence to return to the occasion of the royal visit to Romania. Does this strengthen British influence?

Last year, trade between the two countries increased by more than 50%. There is also British investment in Romania. We are talking about significant influence. We can say that Romanian is the third most spoken language in the UK. So these are some old links. I think they are maintained periodically. I can’t say that anything changes that much within them. They’re just good links.

Thank you. Vladimir Mitev commented on the first visit abroad of King Charles III, the King of Great Britain.

Photo: Charles III, then Prince of Wales, receives the title doctor honoris cauza by the Universtiy of Bucharest on 31 May 2014 (source: YouTube)

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