Europe Heals Old Divide Between Bulgaria and Romania

By Albena Shkodrova and Marian Chiriac

SOFIA/BUCHAREST, March 25, 2005 (ENS) - More than a decade after the Soviet bloc disintegrated in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria and Romania have remained strangers to each other. United by geography, these Balkan neighbors have been divided by almost everything else.

Until recently, a legacy of economic and environmental disputes, internal problems and the negative images each country cherished about the other, prevented them from cooperating.

But in the last two years, things have changed and there are signs that decades-old quarrels and stereotypes that date back generations are crumbling.

Several important joint projects and growing cooperation between civic and business groups are reversing old trends and changing the two nations' perceptions of each other.

There is a long way to go, for millions of Bulgarians and Romanians still view each other through spectacles colored by historic prejudice. Moreover, recent rows over pollution and energy, in particular, have not been solved entirely.

But both countries are candidates for membership in the European Union and this pressure as well as their own political and economic interests are bringing the two peoples closer together for first time in a century.

Europe Helps Resolve the Pollution Fight

One project that symbolizes the coming together of Romania and Bulgaria under EU auspices is the formation of a so-called “Euro-Region” linking the Romanian city of Giurgiu and Ruse in Bulgaria.


Liberty Square in the Bulgarian city of Ruse, or Rousse (Photo courtesy Municipality of Rousse)
Created in 2001, it involves a package of cooperative measures between the two cities, consisting mainly of joint ecology and health commissions that handle a range of environmental, health protection and animal protection issues. The commissions meet every three months to hammer out all problems over a dinner and issue recommendations to the local administrations on how to deal with them.

One initiative has been to develop a harmonized city plan for both Ruse and Giurgiu, which will mean drawing up joint infrastructure plans.

It all marks a change from the rancor of the 1990s, when the two cities were locked in what seemed a never ending dispute over air pollution.

Then, Ruse, Nikopol and Svisthov in Bulgaria accused Giurgiu, Turnu Magurele and Zimnicea across the Danube of systematically poisoning their air - and vice versa.

Romania and Bulgaria have a long tradition of tit-for-tat accusations about pollution from industrial plants on the Danube, which dates back to the communist era, when both countries engaged in rapid industrialization.

For years, Bulgaria and Romania traded especially angry words over the activity of a Romanian chemical plant in the Danube port of Turnu Magurele.


The Danube port city of Turnu Magurele (Photo courtesy Dan-Ilie Nicolaescu)
Bulgarian media and local officials in Nikopol insisted the high level of ammonia in the air was the result of activity from the Romanian plant.

Romania played down complaints, saying the Bulgarians were exaggerating the problem. They also retaliated by claiming toxic clouds from Bulgaria were drifting over the Romanian Danube port of Zimnicea.

As recently as 2000, the Romanian Environment Ministry claimed pollution from hydrogen sulphide from the textile mill in the Bulgarian town of Svishtov was drifting across the river and damaging Zimnicea.

But after about 15 years of verbal jousting over air and water pollution, Europe is now helping to put an end to this rancorous dispute. The solution lies not in deciding who is right but in the imposition of higher environmental standards on both partners.

Under pressure from Brussels, both Bulgaria and Romania have had to upgrade their environmental controls. As a result, the plant in Turnu was closed for months while its equipment was improved and when it was privatized, the new owners were obliged to comply with EU anti-pollution standards.

The same standards are now being applied to all factories on the both sides of the Danube River if they wish to remain open after the two states join the EU in 2007.

An End at Last to Wasteful Energy Wars

Energy is another traditional battlefield between the two countries. It still remains a source of controversies. But a cross-border dialogue has been launched on a number of cases that raises the hope of more positive developments and is an example of how bilateral relations can benefit from EU reforms.

As with pollution, tension over energy increased at the start of the 1990s. The immediate case was the EU’s demands for Bulgaria to close four of the six reactors at its Kozloduy nuclear power plant. This was stipulated as a pre-condition to launch accession talks.

The EU said the reactors were old and could not be upgraded. But the demand was a shock to Bulgaria as it gets more than 40 percent of its energy from the plant, located on the northern border with Romania.

The output of Kozloduy is important both to Bulgarian consumers and to the country’s exports, as it supplies power to Greece, Turkey, Albania and Macedonia.


Kozloduy nuclear power plant in Bulgaria (Photo courtesy International Nuclear Safety Program)
While Bulgaria viewed the early closure of most of the reactors at Kozloduy as a blow, Romania tried to exploit the situation to take over the regional energy market.

Bucharest announced that for years Sofia had blocked Romanian plans to export electricity to the Balkans, keeping it out of the regional market by setting excessively high charges for the transit of energy across its territory.

In response, Bulgaria accused Romania of waging a smear campaign and denounced the demand for the closure of Kozloduy as part of a western conspiracy.

The Bulgarian daily "24 Chasa," for example, in 1999 claimed that French and Canadian companies planned to invest in Romania's nuclear plant at Cernavoda to ensure Romania “replaces Bulgaria as a Balkan energy supplier.” Many other media echoed this speculation.

Bulgarian newspapers pointed also to Romania’s poor record on child protection and market reforms - both EU criteria for accession talks – insisting that Romania take action there before intervening in Bulgaria’s energy problems.

In the end, Bulgaria agreed to close the four old reactors at the plant. However, determined to prevent the regional energy market from falling into Romanian hands, it announced plans to build a new plant at Belene, 13 kilometers (eight miles) from the Romanian border.

Although most local observers doubted whether there were sound economic reasons for such an endeavor, Sofia pushed on with preparing an assessment of the enterprise's environmental impact.

Romania responded with anger. In September 2004, Romanian NGOs demonstrated against the planned Belene nuclear plant, denouncing the prospect of “another Chernobyl.”

Bucharest remains concerned about the environmental impact of the planned project and insists it must meet European standards. But as with the pollution row, the key appears to lie in harmonizing standards on both sides to European requirements.

When it joins the EU in 2007, Bulgaria will not be able to continue building the new plant unless it complies with high safety standards. At the same time, Sofia will not be able to continue to block Romanian penetration of the Balkan energy market.

One sign that relations are now improving over this thorny issue came late last year, with the formation of a joint expert group to analyze Bulgaria's nuclear power plant project.

The year before, in late 2003, the two states also agreed to deregulate their energy markets, starting in mid-2004, and to allow each other’s utilities access to the other’s infrastructure. Plans were also announced to link the entire Balkan energy grid to the main EU grid, to which Romania is already connected.

Despite provisionally closing their energy negotiations, Romania and Bulgaria still have to work on the issue, according to the European Commission update report of October 2004.

But both countries are making strides to modernize their nuclear facilities with strong support from the EU. In December 2002, Bulgaria stopped units 1 and 2 at Kozloduy and it will close units 3 and 4 in 2006. In the meantime, it is modernizing the two newer reactors with EU financial support worth 500 million euro.

Romania’s sole nuclear power plant in Cernavoda on the Danube, which provides about 10 percent of the country’s power, will also be completed and upgraded, with a second unit expected to start operation in 2007. In March 2004, the EC approved a 223.5 million euro loan to support Romania’s nuclear power operator.

The Second Bridge Over the Danube

A third area of conflict, which a combination of EU help, pressure and mediation is helping to solve, concerns the long awaited second bridge over the Danube.

But Bulgaria and Romania, remarkably, possess only a single bridge across their 500 kilometer river border and this facility is also their sole road connection.

This lone monument of Romanian-Bulgarian socialist friendship is now 50 years old and is heavily congested - the two road and rail lanes being wholly inadequate for increased volumes of traffic.


The only bridge across the Danube linking Bulgaria and Romania (Photo courtesy Monica Getzova)
Lying south of Bucharest but about 300 kilometers (200 miles) east of Sofia, its location is inconvenient for Bulgarians trying to access Central Europe through Romania. As a result, most Bulgarians, as well as most travellers from Asia Minor and Middle East, take the route through Serbia and Montenegro. The two countries started plans to build a second bridge more than 10 years ago but disagreements and lack of funds have impeded the project.

Work was put off for eight years while Bulgaria and Romania argued about its location. Bulgaria wanted an upstream site and Romania a site downstream, each country hoping to boost the level of road traffic through its own territory.

Again, EU pressure coupled with financial assistance have resulted in an agreement being reached in 2003 linking Vidin in Bulgaria and Calafat in Romania.

The bridge is estimated to cost 230 million euro and is due for completion in 2006. In February this year the European Union announced it will grant Bulgaria 70 million euro to help it build the new bridge, from the EU’s Instrument for Structural Policies for Pre-Accession, which supports infrastructure projects in applicant states.

The Vidin-Calafat bridge will have two motorway lanes and a rail track running in each direction. It will form part of a major EU transport corridor, Corridor IV, connecting Dresden in Germany with Thessaloniki in Greece and Istanbul, in Turkey.

Businessmen like Ivan Zhuvetov, owner of an antique shop in Vidin on the Bulgarian side, await the new connection eagerly. He often travels to Calafat but currently has a choice only of a small Bulgarian ferry, which runs without a schedule and an old Romanian boat. “Boarding that is more suited to lovers of extreme sports than businessmen,” he said. Residents of Vidin stand to benefit greatly from the increased traffic and cooperation that will stem from opening the new bridge.

In Calafat, gloom over poverty overshadows most public enthusiasm for a new bridge. “It’s a good news for the politicians but not for me,” said Gabriela Mocanu, a local housewife.

But if many locals are indifferent, businesses here are not. News of the construction of the second bridge has sent the price of real estate soaring on the Romanian side. “We expect increased interest from foreign investors buying property or starting business in the region,” said Petre Calin, a local real estate agent.

“I hope integration into the European Union will bring back the prosperity that Romania had before,” said Ion Popica, a taxi driver in Calafat. “I hope soon to cross the new bridge and make some good money transporting tourists and businessmen.”

Two Neighbors Rediscover Each Other in Europe


Sunset over the Danube River (Photo courtesy Municipality of Ruse)
Pollution, power and the Danube bridge are only some of the areas where a common involvement in the European project has helped two neighboring states, long divided by suspicion, prejudice and a wall of ignorance, to overcome differences and work together.

Opinion polls show that the desire for a common European future unites both peoples. More than two-thirds of Romanians and Bulgarians support EU accession, mainly because they both see it as a guarantee of future security and growth after 40 years of communism left them trailing behind Western Europe.

But while both countries are rediscovering their links to the wider European family, they are also discovering each other – perhaps for the first time. A combination of EU political pressure, common goals and a common reforming agenda has brought about this positive change.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Albena Shkodrova and Marian Chiriac are IWPR program managers in Sofia and Bucharest respectively. They are also directors of IWPR’s newly localized Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. Vanya Miteva, a freelance journalist in Vidin, contributed to this report.}