Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Special Report: Europe Heals Old Divide Between Bulgaria and Romania

Two neighbouring states - long divided by walls of prejudice and ignorance - are finally discovering they have more in common than they once thought.
By Albena Shkodrova

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 neighbours 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 coloured by historic prejudice. Moreover, recent rows over pollution and energy, in particular, have not been solved entirely.

But the pressure of their future joint membership of the European Union as well as their own political and economic interests are bringing the two peoples closer together for first time in a century.


From the end of the Second World War until 1989, Bulgaria and Romania were both part of the Soviet bloc. While the communist regimes in both countries proclaimed their desire for bilateral cooperation, the superficial nature of these proclamations became obvious at the end of the communist era, when the two countries found their relations bedeviled by disputes

From 1965 to the end of 1989, Romania was ruled by Nicolae Ceausescu under a regime characterised by dictatorial centralisation, a personality cult and a form of nepotism that Romanians nicknamed “Socialism in one family”.

Todor Zhivkov's regime in Bulgaria was equally dictatorial, and as a fervent ally of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria sought to comply with Moscow’s policy of promoting close multilateral relations within the bloc.

To show solidarity between the two neighbouring dictators, they staged regular official visits to each other, while Zhivkov even had a special wing for Ceausescu family built near his border town residence at Ruse.

At the same time, the two countries diplomatically played down differences between their regimes - Romania being the more totalitarian of the two, while Bulgaria was the more loyal member of the Warsaw Pact.

For all the surface harmony, the Ceausescu -Zhivkov axis was unproductive and temporary. For more than a decade, the only big common project was the construction in the mid-1950s of the “Friendship Bridge” over the Danube, linking the Romanian town of Giurgiu with Ruse in Bulgaria.

Relations became strained in the 1980s by Romania's independent foreign policy, its opposition to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of “perestroika” and by mutual accusations of environmental pollution.

Deteriorating personal relations between Zhivkov and Ceausescu contributed to the decline in their two countries’ friendship. But in the name of Warsaw Pact solidarity, the Zhivkov regime subdued criticism of its neighbour, especially of the chemical pollution emanating from Romanian plants across the Danube.

After the regime changes of 1989, these suppressed quarrels came to the surface and the environment emerged as a serious issue.

As accusations became more strident on both sides, joint commissions formed in 1991 attempted to reach a compromise on the environmental issue and restore the pragmatic, relatively amicable, postwar relationship.

But this was not immediately fruitful. The pains of the democratisation and economic reform process absorbed most political energies in both countries and diverted their attentions inward. Even the joint political goal of EU membership failed to bring them together.

The decision by Brussels to separate Bulgaria and Romania off from other East European candidate countries and let them join together, three years later than the others, in 2007, ought to have bound Sofia and Bucharest in a new kind of partnership.

But only in the last few years has this partnership become meaningful. For several years, it seemed more like a competition.


As cross-border trade has increased by a factor of seven from 1998 to 2004, businessmen on both sides have taken a leading role in bringing the two countries closer together.

But dismantling the legacy of mutual ignorance has not been simple. As Emil Vutchev, manager at the Bulgarian office of S&T, an information technology company, recalled, "My first meeting with my Romanian colleagues was a surprise as I half expected to see men with beards wearing sheep wool coats.”

Vutchev added, “What I met were sophisticated people with polished English and classy manners. Later, I found they had had the same initial suspicions of me as I had had of them”.

A Bulgarian journalist, Georgi Kalenderov, agrees the wall of 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.

Both peoples continue to draw on traditional Balkan stereotypes, which were reinforced in the recent Socialist era but which stem from much older folk memories.

Take their nicknames 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.

“We think of Romanians the same way they think of us,” said Kalenderov. “They tell the same jokes about us that we tell about them - only where we say ‘Romanian’, they say ‘Bulgarian’.”

Pejorative nicknames reflect the two nations’ different histories. Romanians are intensely conscious of being a Latin island in a sea of Slavs. Bulgarians, on the other hand, view Romanians mainly as poverty-stricken peasants.

There have also been serious territorial disputes, especially over the southern Dobrudja region, which Romania seized from Bulgaria in 1913 and was forced to return after the Second World War.

“There is almost no difference between the stereotypes from one century ago and those from today,” remarked Daniel Cain, an historian from the Nicolae Iorga Institute of History in Bucharest.

Cain, who has also studied in Bulgaria, added, “It’s hard to understand how poor their knowledge is about each other, given that these two peoples have been neighbors for centuries.”

Mutual prejudices faded briefly in the 1980s, when Romanians – groaning under the Ceausescu regime – began to look more favourably on their southern neighbour as the more developed and liberal of the two.

As food and energy were subjected to ever worse rationing in Romania, (part of Ceausescu’s policy of eliminating foreign debt) Romanians living near the border began crossing the Danube to Ruse to buy food, oil and other products. They also began watching Bulgarian television, to evade state-run Romanian TV’s turgid diet of Ceausescu speeches and communist propaganda.


The coming of political freedom to both Romania and Bulgaria in 1989, ironically, ended this period of tentative rapprochement. Difficult internal reforms absorbed both nations’ energies to the exclusion of almost everything else and further divided them.

As both countries began competing for the approval of the EU and the US, they paid less and less attention to each other. 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 implication was that Romania survived only on the support of other Latin states, such as France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Growing concentration in both countries on EU membership failed to unite them. Instead, the media on both sides stressed the element of competition in reaching a 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.

When Romania completed its negotiations, the Bulgarian media put an unfavourable spin on this, too, saying Romania had signed up to a bad package of terms simply to conclude the EU talks in time.

Against a background of negativity and competition, however, the two nations have gradually found themselves cooperating more, and in the process discarding their inadequate and stereotypical images.

As Emil Vutchev recalled, “On my first trip to Romania, I played a game: find the 10 differences. Then I concluded that in fact there were no dramatic differences. For instance, Bulgaria has better roads but Romania has better hospitals.”


One project that symbolises 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.

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 harmonised city plan for both Ruse and Giurgiu, which will mean drawing up joint infrastructure plans.

It all marks a stark change from the rancour 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 industrialisation.

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

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 privatised, 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 Danube river border if they wish to remain open after the two states join the EU in 2007.


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-oriented 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 per cent of its energy from the plant, located on the northern border with Romania, and its output is important both to Bulgarian consumers and to the country’s exports, as it supplies power to Greece, Turkey, Albania and Macedonia.

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 promptly 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 kilometres from the Romanian border.

Although most local observers doubted whether there were sound economic reasons for such an endeavour, 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 harmonising 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 analyse 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 modernise 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 modernising the two newer reactors with EU financial support to the tune of 500 million euro.

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


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-km 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.

Lying south of Bucharest but about 300 km east of Sofia, its location is highly 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, takes 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 long 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 reach 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, ISPA, 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 most local people’s 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 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.”


Pollution, power and the Danube bridge are only some of the areas where a common involvement in the European project has helped two neighbouring 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 discovering (or rather 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.

For the time being, the change remains largely politically or business-driven, but there are important signs that interest is growing between the two nations at the level of ordinary people, too.

“We need a revival of economic activity between Romania and Bulgaria,” said Daniel Cain. “Infrastructure and investment is what is most needed in the region now and the EU has to play the main role in this process. The good years are yet to come.”

Albena Shkodrova and Marian Chiriac are IWPR programme managers in Sofia and Bucharest respectively. They are also directors of IWPR’s newly localised Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN. Vanya Miteva, a freelance journalist in Vidin, contributed to this report.