Ana Tatu, LIterNet.ro, 21 August 2023
Vladimir Mitev is a Romanian-speaking Bulgarian journalist, Radio Romania correspondent for Bulgaria. Since 2015 he has been developing the Romanian-Bulgarian The Bridge of Friendship website, which promotes better understanding between Romanians, Bulgarians and the world. Vladimir graduated in Iranian Studies and International Relations at Sofia University and is also a member of the Center for Middle East Studies at Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca. He has given interviews or written for several Romanian media including Digi24, Antena 3, PressHub, Libertatea, Decât o Revistă, Revista 22 and others.
Ana Tatu: Vladimir Mitev, here we are in this virtual space, which I hope you find comfortable. We’ve met a few times before. I’m from Giurgiu, you’re from Rousse. As good neighbours I propose to treat this dialogue as we do in our area, where people meet for a drink and a chat. We are here, having a coffee, we both believe that there are many things that link our cities and countries, we believe in partnership and friendship. I am more interested in the past, I am interested in local history and, while reading and writing about Giurgiu, I discovered that we have a common past with Rousse that I find fascinating. You are a journalist, more connected to the present, you collaborate with the Romanian press and you have a blog where you have been writing for many years about the bridge of friendship between us, about how relations at the border have changed, about the static and dynamic identity, but better you tell the story.
Vladimir Mitev: Thank you for inviting me to this discussion. I find in your attitude towards the city of Ruse and its cultural life something that I have been experiencing for years – I don’t feel that we have a border on the Danube, and the Romanian-speaking area enriches me. There is an energy to be discovered beyond the Danube and this energy is very necessary in an area of stagnation, such as the one on the periphery of our countries. Young people leave Ruse and Giurgiu for the capitals and big cities of the world. I lived in Sofia for 12 years, but my interest in Romania and Romanian-language journalism led me to believe that our area could also become a centre by developing bridges of friendship across the border.
Otherwise, I think I have a degree of visibility in both spaces. I am the editor of the Romanian section of Radio Bulgaria, where news about Bulgaria is published in Romanian. I am the Radio Romania correspondent for Bulgaria. And I have some media projects of my own, including the Romanian-Bulgarian blog The Bridge of Friendship, a website that I hope demonstrates how between the two spaces – the Romanian and the Bulgarian – there can be a bond of mutual knowledge that is not pro or anti anyone, but promotes a more complex and modern understanding of who we are.
A.T.: A European vision of this region crossed by the Danube. Talking about journalism in Romania and Bulgaria, you can look from the inside on both sides. I, from the outside, only on the Romanian side and I have been disappointed for some time. I stopped watching TV, I only watch it for the movies. I used to watch a lot of journalists, but gradually there are only a few left. I still get my news from a few independent online publications, although machine-translated and unverified articles with annoying grammatical mistakes have started to multiply there too. However, beyond that is a swamp of fake news and manipulation that more and more seem to be sinking into. I find it frightening. Where do you think we stand, really?
V.M.: I too think journalism in both countries is in crisis. From my point of view, the problem would be more serious in Bulgaria. We are too divided into gangs and camps. We dominate each other too much in society. And much of the Bulgarian press is a superstructure or mouthpiece for political, economic and geopolitical interests in society. That’s why it is almost universally believed in our country that to be a journalist is not to be a self-possessed subject, but to be a proxy. That’s why we label each other all the time in Bulgaria – most often as “grant holders” or “Soros-ists” on the one hand (people funded by Western foundations through grants) or as “rublists” on the other hand (so people who feed on “Russian” money).
There is not much media that is universally accepted in Bulgaria that appeals to all sides equally. Most often the polarization in society transfers to the online space. With a certain lack of conscious balance in society and in the media, it seems to me that it is harder for us to understand what is going on. We have many biased and particular perspectives, but the bigger picture is less often articulated publicly. And so a lot of energy is wasted in trying to dominate each other and in the divisiveness I’ve been talking about. I think you Romanians can see these tendencies manifested, for example, in the rift between mainstream media and sovereignist media and podcasts. Or between the media linked to the NGO sector and the media financed by parties.
I notice that in Romania and in the whole region there are many contestations – for example, about the war in Ukraine or the competition between foreign and domestic capital. But I see something in the Romanian media that I miss in the Bulgarian media – a media that is financed by the readers, that has the professionalism or the integrity to hold to account even people in the institutions of security or high-ranking politicians. I am referring to what the Recorder does. But I can give other examples of your culture of investigative journalism, which can be seen in media like Libertatea, PressHub and others. I also liked what DoR was doing – promoting not so much news or long-form writing, but a culture and thinking about the world that was more progressive.
We live in societies where “big money” passes through and corrupts everything, and if journalists and media management don’t have clear criteria about what they do and what they aim for, the press easily becomes a dependent space, lacking sensitivity and responsibility. But even in a crisis, we must give a chance to those who embrace change. And if our media consumption becomes more sophisticated and the media should evolve into something better, otherwise it will easily lose its influence and its audience.
A.T.: If you look on the map, along the Danube, the cities are caught like in a dance: Giurgiu-Rousse, Zimnicea-Sviștov, Călărași-Silistra, Turnu-Măgurele-Nicopole. We see each other, we can almost wave, but we don’t really know each other. And in order to accept and understand the person next to you, it is necessary to make a little effort and get to know them better, to be curious and kind. I had this revelation some time ago, when I took part in a project with Bulgarians, Serbs, Hungarians, Austrians, the theme was related to the small towns on the banks of the Danube. Everything was done in English, we greeted each other, joked, socialized, worked in English, as if you were making a detour through England to get to Bulgaria. That’s when I first wondered how it got here. Even though the Bulgarian language is familiar to me, like a song you hum and remember from your childhood years when our black and white TV was “turned on Bulgarians”, I don’t understand it, I don’t speak it.
On the other hand, your Romanian is excellent and you know what they say when you learn a foreign language, you also acquire something of the soul of that culture. I wonder what made you decide to learn Romanian – they say it’s not easy at all – and how close it brought you to Romania and Romanians. When I go to Rousse, especially in places frequented by Romanians, I am often greeted in Romanian, the posters, the restaurant menus are written in Romanian. Of course, it’s a matter of business, of commercial interests, but it’s more than I found 20 years ago.
Do you think the way we approach communication might change in the future on a deeper level? Will schools in border towns come together, maybe there will be exchanges of students and teachers, maybe we will find another way so that we come closer to each other and raise new generations with a different philosophy of neighbourliness?
V.M.: I started with a sincere curiosity for the Romanian language and Romanians. Gradually I discovered how mastering Eminescu’s language opened many doors for me. And from 2015 onwards, since I returned to Rousse and set up The Bridge of Friendship, Romanian language and Romanian experiences have become a driving force of my internal transformation. Thus I have come to the point where, in several articles, I discuss the great potential of ordinary people to do something new within and through Romanian-Bulgarian relations. I have described the philosophy of my journalistic approach and my own as an editor in this article. I am convinced that more and more people can build their own bridges of friendship in the cross-border area, that they can make life on the border more dynamic through new experiences. But I am somewhat skeptical about institutional leadership in general.
I believe that ordinary people can contribute more to the Romanian-Bulgarian relations, because they don’t have the baggage of thinking too much from a national perspective and have more patience with what they don’t like. Many people interested in Romanian-Bulgarian relations are placed in certain hierarchies and in a bureaucratic framework that limits their space for activity. I am optimistic especially when it comes to people who are less integrated into the hierarchies of power and less willing to blindly reproduce the “national-centric” logic of their societies. I believe that these people can develop what I call a dynamic identity with our neighbours – that is, to be capable of profound and multilateral change and to evolve together beyond the narrow space of our provincial periphery. I also believe that between these people we can look for the future bridges of friendship – people and organisations that have the trust of both “river banks” and are able to carry their experience and energy across borders.
A.T.: I was telling you that I try to stay connected to what’s happening in Bulgaria, and your blog is useful to me. I follow Bulgarian pages, here Google translate and the ubiquitous English help a lot. I learned about the feminist movement in Bulgaria in late July – early August 2023 and the protests in big cities. I think they were in smaller towns too, I was on the verge of coming to the protest in Ruse. The same thing happened recently in Sarajevo, in your country people took to the streets after an 18-year-old girl was mutilated by her boyfriend, in Sarajevo a woman was killed by her partner. In Romania, such movements have been isolated and have failed to involve civil society. I have a teenage daughter – from autumn she will start a feminist film club in our town, films written or directed by women will be watched and then discussed by teenage girls – we hope to be a part of the change. Is there a wind of change blowing in and out of Bulgaria?
V.M.: I am very confident that Bulgaria, as a part of the world, is going through change. I am also very skeptical. I am aware of how much resistance to new things there is in Bulgaria.
The protests against domestic violence in our country impressed by the simple fact that people in more than 40 cities participated in large numbers. These protests showed that there is energy for change on issues related to women’s and queer rights. The question is how this energy can be channelled by experts and leaders and translated into policy and law. However, I feel that feminist organisations in our country are not very strong and do not penetrate deeply into all parts of society. There is a strong conservative discourse in Bulgaria and every attempt to promote women’s rights is labelled as coming from “Soros”, from the rotten West, as if it was not the Soviet Union and socialism that promoted women’s rights in the pre-1989 period.
So the wind is blowing, the bells are ringing, but so far only some loud shocks – like the news of the woman who had 400 stitches sewn into her hospital – are waking us up. Inertia in society is a fact. Bulgarians in general seem tired to me. They read little. I wonder how a society that on the one hand thinks of itself as pragmatic, and on the other often thinks of its interests in narrow frames, can still evolve
A.T.: It’s always been about reading, since I had this revelation that I live on the border but don’t know much about my neighbours, I’ve tried to change things and I’ve gained a Bulgaria of my own. I read Bulgarian writers, you pointed out to me that Ivan Stankov and Kapka Kassabova are translated into Romanian – Gospodinov was already known to me, there is a lot of talk about his books in Romania too. My personal Bulgaria also includes some wild beaches and other places where I like to go. Love also goes through the stomach, so I add Bulgarian dishes like liutenitsa, parlenka and tarator. I’m relatively up to date with the Bulgarian rock scene, I’ve become an enthusiastic spectator of the Ruse Opera and still have a lot to explore. It’s a puzzle that I’m happy to find pieces that fit. I suspect you have a Romania of your own.
V.M.: Yes. First of all, I have an extensive library of books in Romanian – probably several hundred titles. I love reading in Romanian. But I read mostly non-fiction – books about international relations, journalism, social issues and political science. It seems to me that, in general, more interesting books from the West are translated in Romania, while I associate Bulgaria with a traditional openness to the East, which has its merits too.
Secondly, every time I go to Bucharest for a few days, I try to go to the theatre. I love Romanian theatre. I consider it one that appeals to the mind. Bulgarian theatre is too often a boulevard theatre. In Romania, I watched shows that left a mark on me, and periodically I remember their messages. For example, the show Eternal Peace at the National Theatre in Bucharest or Look Back in Anger at Teatrul in Culise.
When I watch theatre in another language I am much more attentive, focused and sensitive. Maybe that also makes me a fan of Romanian theatre. Let’s not forget that in Ruse comes regularly the Masca Theatre with its living statues, and sometimes other Romanian theatres come too. There was a time when I also frequented the theatre in Giurgiu, I wrote several reviews about their performances.
Thirdly, I am not really a tourist fond of architecture or museums, but I really appreciate the friendship I have with different Romanians. I understand that Romanians might be in competition with each other, and that they might question each other’s integrity, honesty or intentions. But I am friends with people of many generations, of many beliefs. And that makes me stronger. I appreciate that I can feel the pulse and evolution of an entire society because of all the things I do in my professional and personal life. This feeling, of course imaginary, that I am communicating with an entire nation that is revealing itself to me gives me great satisfaction.
A.T.: Everything we feel and internalise eventually becomes part of reality, at least of personal reality. Not to sound too pretentious, I actually let this dialogue sit to cool down while I explored Nessebar, then revisited it – a bit of an obnoxious process – over rose ice cream which made it all the more enjoyable. Vladimir Mitev, until we meet again on either side of the Danube – it’s going to be a busy autumn back home – thank you for joining us here for our little virtual coffee chat.
Photo: Ana Tatu and Vladimir Mitev (source: Facebook and Vladimir Mitev)