Together for better and for worse

The moment has come when the old daughters of the Union have to stop ‘dangling the carrot’ in front of these countries and make and remake deals based on the principle ‘fix yourself and you can join’. But, whether they like it or not, they have to accept the final decision : Romania-and-Bulgaria is officially joining the Union in just a few days from now, it’s a deal they all must stick to. To scan

I say ‘Romania-and-Bulgaria’ not from affection or solidarity, but as a result of simple exercise of observation: it is enough to scan the European media for ‘Bulgaria’ or ’Romania’ and you will inevitably discover drop on ‘Romania’, respectively ‘Bulgaria’ dropped at a certain point in the text as associated to its neighbour. Of course, no surprise if you will find besides that other key words naturally related to the two countries, like immigrants, gypsies, fraud, corruption, beggars or, recently, the hilarious Borat and his Kazakhstan. But, not to digress from the subject, my point was that these two countries have been instinctively ‘glued’ to each other for the past two years (at least) be it for positive or negative evaluations.

And it is not only about the media. While studying in Italy, I have met young people from all over the world, from US to Mozambique, from India to Georgia. When the ‘So, where do you come from?’ point of the dialogue was reached, my answer ‘I come from Romania. Have you ever been there?’ was very often followed by ‘Oh Romania, no, I haven’t been there, but I have been to Bulgaria’, or ‘Oh Romania, no, I haven’t been there, but I have some Bulgarian friends’. Of course, I am now taking into account the ‘well informed’ responses, leaving aside those less happy cases when the responses were painfully misinformed and unupdated.: ‘Oh Romania, lovely, I have been to Budapest once last year’ or ‘Oh Romania, is it true that Dracula still haunts people’s life there?’.
But analyzing the approach of Western media towards South Eastern Europe is not the purpose of this short essay. What I wanted to emphasize previously was that ‘Romania-and-Bulgaria’ is not a text artifice, but it is real, it is the tendency of perceiving things from the outside in a generalized and simplified way.  To a certain point, this way of looking at things is justified, Romania and Bulgaria have extraordinarily much to do with each other – which is not bad -, and even more since the EU accession process. History, geography, culture have always put these two countries in front of each other, either as partners, either as competitors or even enemies, and a ‘certain’ relation has always existed between the two. 

Balkan heritage holds us together

     A common Balkan identity and background, shared with the rest of South-Eastern Europe, is an argument strong enough to justify the ranging of Romania and Bulgaria together and alongside the rest of the Balkans. Countries in this part of post-communist Europe have been under Ottoman domination, nevertheless having experienced in the same time a certain degree of autonomy (for instance, a form of religious autonomy); their Ottoman and Byzantine legacies are common; there is also a shared experience of mismatch between ethnicity and statehood.
     Moving to modern times, countries in this region have been considered for the past decades as belonging to the same cluster of rural underdeveloped societies. Economically, they have been in general poorer than Central European countries and the high percentage of the population depending on agriculture has been another element of likeliness among them.

History brings us apart

     Without going deep into historical details, it might be interesting to know what was the point of departure, the moment of reference in the past which first set the flame in the relation between Romania and Bulgaria.
The Romanian historian (the stress on Romanian suggests it should not be taken for granted that the opinion expressed is an objective one) Stelian Lambru indicates that, after the 1877-1878 war between Russia and the Ottomans, the Romanian territory served as a refuge for many Bulgarians and, more than that, as a strategically wise place to start the war of liberation against the Ottomans. This episode in history created a basis for the establishment of the first diplomatic relations between the two countries and between the Romanian and Bulgarian people.
     This stage lasted until 1912-1913, when Romania acquired the territory of Southern Dobrogea, called the Cadrilater (an approximate translation would be “The  quadrilateral”), as a result of its contribution to the victory in the Second Balkan War.
When the Romanian army mobilized against the Bulgarians and took control over the Cadrilater, the relations broke down. Later on, during the First World War, the two countries fought on opposite sides. Between the wars, a kind of territorial revisionism kept Bulgaria away from the alliances of regional cooperation that Romania had joined and during the Second World War, though both countries stood on Germany’s side, relations remained cold.  
     During the communist era, the Romanian – Bulgarian fraternity was fake, just a part of the ‘show’. The zealous desire for bilateral cooperation, expressed publicly in superficial proclamations and during staged official visits, was temporary and unproductive.
It hided a cold rivalry between two regimes that, although part of the same family (the Soviet Bloc) since the end of World War Two, shared little solidarity. From 1965 to the end of 1989, Romania was ruled by Nicolae Ceausescu under a regime characterized by dictatorial centralization, a personality cult and a form of nepotism that Romanians inventively called “Socialism in one family”. Todor Zhivkov’s regime in Bulgaria was equally dictatorial and a fervent ally of the Soviet Union. Romania was the more totalitarian of the two, while Bulgaria was the more loyal member of the Warsaw Pact.

     The strong personalistic character of these regimes, dominated by their leaders, had a direct impact on the relationship between the countries and their peoples. Deteriorating personal relations between Zhivkov and Ceausescu contributed to the decline in the two countries’ friendship.
     But in the name of the Warsaw Pact solidarity, which urged for the establishment of close multilateral relations within the bloc, the two neighboring dictators made efforts to save the appearance of a good fraternal relationship and play down diplomatically differences between them. For instance, Zhivkov had a special wing for the Ceausescu family built near his border town residence at Ruse. Moreover, the two leaders sought to develop common projects to stand as a proof for their solidarity towards each other. Thus it was born the idea of building a “Friendship Bridge” over the Danube, to link the Romanian town of Giurgiu with Ruse in Bulgaria, in the mid-1950s.

     Despite all the harmony on the surface, towards the 1980s tensions became too difficult to conceal. The two leaders were too self-important and determinedly captured by their own dictatorships to leave way to an open neighbour-to-neighbour communication. In the decaying phase of communism, Romania’s independent foreign policy deferred from Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of “perestroika” and mutual accusations of environmental pollution between Romania and Bulgaria contributed to loosening the ties between the two governments.
      The coming of political freedom to both Romania and Bulgaria in 1989 not only put an end to the fake fraternity, but ironically, it took even its last breath.
      The situation is not limited to these 2 countries, but it applied to all countries in the former communist block. The collapse of the communist system not only shattered the bipolar international security system but destroyed as well those mechanisms which for decades had controlled the social and ethnic cleavages in these countries.

     After the regime changes of 1989, long suppressed divergences between the two countries became too difficult to restrain and all quarrels came to surface. Efforts were made on both sides in the attempt to restore the pragmatic, relatively amicable, postwar relationship, but they were not immediately fruitful. The pains of the democratization and economic reform process absorbed both nations’ energies and diverted their attentions inward, to the exclusion of almost everything else around them.

And racing for the EU does both

     The joint political goal of EU membership had a double effect: on one side, it made Sofia and Bucharest forcedly enter a competition which set them further apart; on the other side, the common goal and especially the last 2 years – with Brussels’ decision in 2004 to separate Bulgaria and Romania from the other candidates and let them join together three years later – bound the two countries in a new kind of partnership.

Competing dates and numbers

     Romania was the first country in East Europe to set up relations with the European Community (1974). Yet the first diplomatic relations with the European Union were launched by Romania in 1990, compared to Bulgaria who took this initiative two years earlier.
     Only in 1995 the government in Bucharest reached the conclusion that membership to the Union would be the only solution for Romania to grow healthily in a more united Europe. But this acknowledgement did not turn into concrete until 1999, when the negotiations finally started and, with them, the challenge of concerting national legislation with the European one. The Copenhagen Summit of December 2002 set as expected date for Romania and Bulgaria to join EU the 1st of January 2007. 
     Following the 1st of May 2004, the ‘official’ competition between Romania and Bulgaria was launched. “The Economist” described Romania as the more problematic of the two, because of its 20 million population compared to Bulgaria’s 7 million and because it was very poor and had been long governed by ex-communists. By 2006 things have changed, Romania registered significant progress, and the same publication turned its critical eye to Bulgaria this time, which it evaluated as not having been able to keep up with the competition.
     These are, however, by and large appreciations because in reality pros and cons have not been so clearly divided between the 2 candidates during all this time, but the balance was in turn inclined in favour of Romanians and Bulgarians. 
     The two countries signed the Accession Treaty on the 25th of April 2005 at Luxembourg, but this was far from being the final step of the great adventure.  Looking back to the ups and downs that the duet had experienced on its way towards integration gave second thoughts to the ‘Old Europe’, who decided to take provisions and introduced the ‘safeguard clause’. Bulgaria was the first one to close up negotiations with the EU (on the 16th of June 2004), while Romania achieved the performance on the 16th of December the same year. 
     When this point was reached, at more than a decade after the Soviet bloc had disintegrated, Bulgaria and Romania looked unbelievably strangers to each other. With geography remaining probably the ultimate element to unite them, the two Balkan neighbors seemed divided by everything else. A substantial legacy of economic and environmental disputes, internal problems and the negative images each country cherished about the other prevented them from cooperating.

Media had its important part in keeping the fire burning

     In the early 1990s, when the media on either side wrote about the neighboring state, it was usually in negative terms, to describe their neighbour’s economic and political problems. The Romanian press developed the notion that Bulgaria was a poor country that had come to depend on EU financial support. This bolstered feelings of superiority and arrogance in Romania. The Bulgarian media also concentrated on their neighbour’s misfortunes and adopted a similar superior note, one favourite assertion being that Romania survived only on the support of other Latin states, such as France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
     The perspective of the EU membership failed to bring any harmony in the relationship between the media of the two countries. Instead, both sides stressed the element of competition in reaching the common goal.
     During the EU negotiation process, for example, the Bulgarian media protested against the decision to place their country in the same category as Romania, saying the slower progress of their neighbour might delay Bulgaria’s own admission to the club. They suggested Bulgaria was dragging Romania into the EU. Against a background of negativity and competition, however, the two nations have gradually found themselves cooperating more and making progress in discarding their inadequate and stereotypical images.

Stereotypes are to be blamed

     Stereotyping, as a natural social phenomenon unanimously shared by all societies, is an interesting process which is worth exploring in the relation between the two countries, since it is so rich and vivid in its content.
     What is specific to the pattern of stereotyping in today’s societies is that new stereotypes are being created and the old ones strengthened over and over again. In most cases, this is assumed as a normal aspect of the social life, one among the many, and its consequences are hardly discerned. But there are cases in which this pattern of stereotyping has a strong impact: in fragile societies, the direct consequence is an amplification of the state of insecurity that people is trapped in.
     I go back to the ‘old’ traditional Balkan stereotypes that both Romanian and Bulgarian people continue to draw on, stereotypes which were reinforced in the recent Socialist era but which stem from much older folk memories. Daniel Cain, an historian from the Nicolae Iorga Institute of History in Bucharest who has also studied in Bulgaria,remarks that “there is almost no difference between the stereotypes from one century ago and those from today.
     Take the nicknames they use for one another: Romanians call Bulgarians “cu capul mare”, meaning “hard heads”, while Bulgarians call their neighbours “mamaligari”, named after the Romanian traditional food of “mamaliga”, a corn flour dish that Bulgarians see as a poor man’s diet. Pejorative nicknames reflect the two nations’ different perceptions on each others’ history. While the Romanian people intractably identify themselves with being a ‘Latin island in a sea of Slavs’, Bulgarians, on the other hand, view Romanians mainly as poverty-stricken peasants.
     The wall of prejudice standing between the two countries is enforced by a heritage of mutual ignorance. As Daniel Cain emphasize: “It’s hard to understand how poor their knowledge is about each other, given that these two peoples have been neighbors for centuries.” From the other side, the Bulgarian journalist, Georgi Kalenderov, agrees that the mutual suspicion dividing Bulgaria and Romania reflects a general ignorance of each other’s culture and history. “If the two nations treat each other with arrogance, it is because they don’t know each other,” Kalenderov said. He added that most Bulgarians knew more about the US, several thousand miles away, than they do about the country on the other side of the Danube.
(Source: ‘The Heart of the Matter: What Future for the Balkans in the EU?’, Report of the ECF-Hivos Conference, Netherlands, December 2005)

To conclude

   The last two years, as unbelievably as it may seem,  have seemed to give birth to new hopes concerning the Romanian-Bulgarian relationship. It may have been the close and already tangible perspective of the EU membership – a dream finally becoming true – that calmed down the tensions, or simply the discovery of the two protagonists that they have more in common than they once thought.

All in all, since 2004 things have changed and there are signs that decades-old quarrels and stereotypes that date back generations are loosing ground. Several important joint projects and growing cooperation between civic and business groups cross-border are reversing old trends and changing the two nations’ perceptions of each other.
But coming to the problem of stereotyping and of the lack of information, here the two neighbours still have a long way to go to dismantle the legacy of mutual ignorance, especially since millions of Bulgarians and Romanians still view each other through spectacles coloured by historic prejudice.

But the hope prevails that their joint membership of the European Union, as well as their own political and economic interests, will bring in the very near future the two peoples closer together for good.

This article was posted in Europe without frontiers and tagged .

Comments are closed.

^ top