text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria has had an uneasy relationship with its bigger and richer northern neighbour

bridge over the danube at ruse

Especially in recent years Bulgarian politicians of various inclinations periodically trumpet that this country has fulfilled all the "technical requirements" for membership of Schengen, the police cooperation agreement between most EU states. They have implied that it should perhaps become a member of Schengen prior to Romania, the other former East bloc state that is in the EU but outside of Schengen. And they have sought to explain the reluctance of the West to let Bulgarians travel without having to show their passports at the Greek border with what they bill "internal" problems in some Western states, notably The Netherlands (the Dutch reluctance to let Bulgaria in has been long-standing and well-known). Picked up by the uncritical media in Sofia, the idea that Bulgaria is somehow "readier" than Romania to enter the club has become popular to the TV-watching Bulgarian public. Obviously, it builds on several nice-sounding but hopelessly erroneous premises. 

To start off with, no media outlet in Bulgaria has undertaken to explain fairly and honestly what Schengen is about at all. While every hack holding a microphone in front of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's or President Rumen Radev's mouths would happily repeat the platitude about the "fulfilled technical requirements," no one has delved into the underlying issue of what Schengen means. 

Travelling without a passport between member states is not about building a fence along the border with Turkey as Boyko Borisov, his former extreme nationalist partners, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, and their contractors theorise. Neither is it about installing a couple of sometimes working gates at Sofia Airport to ease off passengers with machine readable passports. Fortifying the EU external borders to prevent illegal immigration is of course a necessary prerequisite, but it is by far not the only one. Back in the late 1990s, when neither Bulgaria nor Romania had any idea they would one day be acceding to the EU, Schengen was devised as a form of police and judicial cooperation, a step towards creating the United States of Europe, Schengenlandia. In plain language, it was meant to tally the differences between the various national police and judicial systems to an extent that they would become interchangeable. An arrest warrant issued in say, Italy, would be valid without a question in Belgium, and vice versa. Now – in 2022 – would a German court be willing to accept a warrant issued by Bulgaria's Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev? Would – indeed should – a court in The Netherlands be accepting evidence collected by the Bulgarian police, using Bulgarian police methods? If it were, flying to Schiphol Airport without a passport would not be an issue. 

How incongruous Bulgaria's claim it is ready for Schengen is can be illustrated with a simple fact of life – or, more precisely, of geography: the Danube River. Imagine Romania or Bulgaria were to be accepted as full Schengen members separately. If they were, the Danube River would instantly become an external border of Schengenlandia. Both Bulgaria and Romania have taken measures to fortify their current external borders: in the case of Romania with Ukraine and Moldova, and in the case of Bulgaria with Turkey, North Macedonia and Serbia. Who would be willing to spend a billion euros to erect fences and install infrared sensitive cameras along the 609 kilometre border with Romania (470 km of which are along the Danube River)? 

The current talk in Sofia about Bulgaria being more ready than Romania for Schengen is eerily reminiscent of the early 2000s when various Bulgarian politicians "fought," at least verbally, to pull out this country from the package with Romania in the bid for EU membership. Of course, nothing happened and both Romania and Bulgaria were accepted "in a pack," in 2007. One of the reasons was again the good old Danube River. 

As is usually the case in the Balkans where nothing is forgiven but anecdotal or officially endorsed histories get turned and twisted to suit the ambitions of whoever is in power, to understand the uneasy relationship between the two Balkan neighbours one needs to look in the rearview mirror. 

danube at vidin

Bulgaria (on the right bank of the Danube) and Romania are very much alike, yet profoundly different

In the 19th century Bulgaria was one of the last major provinces in Europe that liberated itself from the Ottoman Empire, in 1878. Serbia did it in 1817, Greece did it in 1822. What is now southern Romania was at the time called the Principality of Walachia. It gained nominal independence from the Ottomans in 1859. In the 19th century the history of Bulgaria and Walachia were closely interwoven because Walachia was a major base for Bulgarian revolutionaries. Almost all the guys Bulgarian streets and squares would later be named after – Hristo Botev, Vasil Levski, Lyuben Karavelov – spent time in Walachia, conspiring how to overthrow the sultan's reign. The Evlogi and Hristo Georgievi brothers, the chief sponsors of the establishment of Sofia University, could afford to do it because they had built up a successful business in Bucharest, the capital of Walachia. Romanian towns like Craiova, Braila and Galati have become household names for every Bulgarian school pupil. 

The main sticking point between the kingdoms of Bulgaria and Romania in the early 20th century came with the Balkan Wars and the subsequent First World War. Bulgaria lost southern Dobrudzha in the northeast. Romania became its principal, and promptly Romanised the name. It was now Dobrogea. Looking at a map of Europe from those years one would be shocked to see that major Bulgarian towns like Silistra, Dobrich and Balchik were then Romanian territory. 

In the interwar period both Romania and Bulgaria became increasingly dependent on Germany, paving the way for them to become Nazi allies when the Second World War broke out. One peculiarity was the fate of Dobrogea. In 1940, Hitler managed to convince Romania to cede southern Dobrogea back to the Bulgarians – without a war. The result was the Treaty of Craiova, which would become the only territorial treaty meditated by Nazi Germany not to be reversed by the Allies after the end of the war. Dobrogea became Dobrudzha again. 

Romania turned out to be a lot more zealous supporter of Hitler than Bulgaria. Romanian troops fought against the Soviets on the Eastern Front and even participated in the Battle of Stalingrad. The bestiality of paramilitary organisations such as the ultranationalists of Horia Sima and his Legion of the Archangel Michael cannot be compared to their much meeker Bulgarian counterpart, Brannik (or Warrior). The Romanians exposed their Jews to some of the most horrific (and still little known) episodes of the Holocaust. Nothing like the pogroms and massacres in Iasi and Regat were seen anywhere in Bulgaria. The Bulgarians did send 11,343 Jews from Macedonia, northern Greece and the Serbian town of Pirot to their death in the concentration camps, but not even the dimensions of that can be compared to the approximately 220,000 murdered in Romania. 

Under Communism, Bulgaria and Romania were very much alike, yet profoundly different. Even though it was a member of the Warsaw Pact Romania refused to send troops to quash the 1968 Prague Spring. Bulgaria, a solid Soviet stooge, was more than enthusiastic. In the 1970s Ceausescu, who feared the Russians might topple him, warmed up to the United States. Romania became the only East bloc country to be visited by an American president: Gerald Ford, in 1975. The citizens of Ruse and Silistra were privileged to be allowed to walk into Romania without the usual Communist-era redtape. They used their day trips to buy quality (in Communist standards) Chinese and North Korean goods no one else back in Bulgaria could lay their hands upon. 

The situation in Romania changed beyond recognition in the 1980s as Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, became increasingly paranoid and megalomaniacal. As a result of the Ceausescu's idiosyncratic economic policies and penchant for erecting huge edifices, the Romanians were impoverished. Food was hard to find. Kent cigarettes and packs of coffee became unofficial currencies, next to – and with more purchasing power than – the leu. There was no electricity and no petrol. The Romanians had to live in the dark and were allowed two hours of television in the evening – mostly broadcasts featuring their Communist leader and his family. Bulgaria fared a lot better at the time. The roles were reversed. The citizens of Ruse stopped crossing the Friendship Bridge to buy things in Romania because there was nothing to buy. And the citizens of Giurgiu, across the river, tried to tune in their TV sets to catch the (relatively) more interesting Bulgarian television. The regime of Todor Zhivkov, brutal and preposterous as it was, was nowhere near Nicolae Ceausescu. 

Both Bulgaria and Romania were torn by various economic crises during the 1990s, and both applied for NATO and EU membership – which they were granted in 2004 and 2007 respectively. However, unlike Bulgaria, Romania made some serious attempts to modernise and rid itself of the post-Communist malaises like corruption and nepotism. 

In the 2010s it slowly dawned on the Bulgarians that while they dawdled and simulated democracy their northern neighbours, about whose poverty and backwardness they used to tell jokes in the 1980s, were now better off. Wages in Romania were higher, stuff in the shops was cheaper, and the traffic police were unrecognisable since the 1990s when kickbacks and money under the table were a matter of course. While over a million Romanian tourists visit Bulgaria a year because the restaurants here are a bit cheaper and the climate is a bit warmer, many Bulgarians, especially from the depressed and depopulated areas along the Danube, go to Romania in search of jobs. And every Bulgarian is looking up to Laura Kovesi, the Romanian attorney who was appointed European chief prosecutor, whose determination to fight corruption has outshone anything of the kind in Bulgaria. 

Against this background any talk of a "rivalry" between Bulgaria and Romania on issues such as Schengen or the euro, and any sneering at its mistakes, is nothing but an indication for the parochialism and oblivion of both the politicians and the media in Sofia. 


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