Out in the Cold: Romania and Bulgaria look away from transborder collaboration

This article first appeared in Serbo-Croatian on the web journal Bilten.

East-Central Europe and the Balkans experienced a period of exceptionally cold and snowy weather in January 2017. Flights and shipping services were suspended in some areas, there was major disruption to power supplies and other essential infrastructure, and there were a number of deaths due to the cold temperatures.

Backed up at the border. Source: Sofia Globe.

The energy and infrastructure relations between Bucharest and Sofia are marked by a general reluctance to develop them. While flows of people and cargo grow on the border crossings, the price for the lack of mutual projects is to be paid by the people of their underdeveloped border regions.

On the evening of Sunday, January 8th, 2017 Bulgaria requested urgent help with electricity deliveries from Romania „for needs of prevention” amid temperatures between -11 and -16 degrees Centigrade. According to the national private TV channel BTV as of 19:00 the same day the consumption of electricty reached the unprecedented amount for the last 20 years of 7 700 MWh.

It was also revealed that in the very same evening Bulgaria attempted to “awaken” the so-called “frozen reserve” of a few coal power plants, which usually are not active, but stand ready to start generating electricity. While in the beginning there were difficulties in activating those plants, the process eventually was successful and the electrical system managed to meet the greater needs of the population.

Romania refused the Bulgarian request citing its own “delicate situation” with regard to electricity production and supply. Justifying his government`s refusal, the Romanian energy minister Toma Petcu pointed out that he expected electricity consumption to amount to more than 9 500 MWh and natural gas consumption – to reach 74 million cubic meters per day amid the colds that set temperatures in Romania between -10 and -15 degrees and in some places at -29 degrees Centigrade.

Bulgaria, in fact, refused similar Turkish and Greek requests for electricity exports. The Bulgarian Ministry of Energy announced that there had been a record consumption of natural gas too – 16 million cubic meters per day.

It is curious that these days and nights of dire straits for the Romanian and Bulgarian governments were taking place while both countries continue their electricity exports to their neighbours. On 10th January at 8 o`clock in the morning the whole capacity of the Romanian electricity export network to Hungary of 438 MWh had been occupied. The overall amount of the Romanian electricity exports at 11:15 on the same day was 1000 MWh, “a figure which has been often reached in the recent times”, writes the Economica.net.

Bulgaria too continued to send electricity in the coldest days to countries like Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, with a certain part of the power being its own export and another being a retranslation from the Romanian electricity system. Sofia started limiting its electricity exports only from 13th January on.

Bulgarian authorities rushed to assure the nation that asking for electricity help from its northern neighbour is something which is in no way extraordinary. In resignation, the then-acting energy minister, Temenuzhka Petkova, even underlined that the cap on electricity exports is business as usual and no one needs to worry.

However, the Bulgarian social networks on this cold evening were busy sharing and commenting on news about the Romanian refusal to back up Bulgaria and the impression the Bulgarian energy system had approached dire straits. Discussion spread even though the Romanian difficulties were generally met with understanding in the Bulgarian media. The Bucharest – Constanta highway and other important roads in South-Eastern Romania remained closed for long time due to the heavy wind and snow…

Achievements and disappointment in the countries` bilateral projects

The media discourse about the cold and the various energy and infrastructure difficulties in both nations unveils without much effort that both Romania and Bulgaria face similar difficulties. It is no secret that their social problems, levels of income, etc. also are strikingly similar, putting them in the bottom of various EU rankings. Both countries have been treated as a group by Brussels and comparisons between them on various economic and other indicators are easily found in various articles in the Romanian and the Bulgarian media.

Still, there is at least one more thing that unites both nations – a certain reluctance to cooperate. The energy and infrastructure projects can serve as a good example of this overall lack of commitment and interest.

The picture is more nuanced after Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU. In 2013 the New Europe Bridge across the Danube was opened for circulation. It linked the Bulgarian town Vidin and the Romanian town Calafat by road and railway.

Also, in November 2016 the gas interconnector Rousse – Giurgiu (the other place where a bridge with road and rail connection across the Danube exists)  was unveiled with an annual maximal capacity of 1,5 billion cubic meters of natural gas and a diameter of 500 mm.

However, even these achievements in bilateral energy and infrastructure integration, realised with EU financial and political backing, demonstrate the aforementioned reluctance to cooperate. The gas interconnector at this moment is only one-directional – from Bulgaria to Romania. A compressor station would need to be constructed on the Romanian side of the border so that the pressure in pipeline is increased and gas could flow to Bulgaria too. Temenuzhka Petkova expects that in 2 years time  the interconnector will start working in both directions, supplying Bulgaria with up to 4 million cubic meters of gas per day.

In other words, Bulgaria has still barely achieved anything with regard to its long cherished diversification of natural gas sources. While some tend to blame Bucharest for the odd „one-way interconnectedness” there are also hints that the Bulgarian government might not have negotiated well on this issue.

On the other hand, the New Europe Bridge (also known as Danube Bridge 2) is a success. It has become the shortest route from Northern Greece to Central and Western Europe and has redirected at least a part of the Greek cargo traffic which had been passing traditionally through Macedonia and Serbia.

However, it took 13 years to build the bridge after the treaty for its construction was signed between Sofia and Bucharest. The construction process was sped up only after the entrance of both countries to the EU as a result of European pressure. Romania was generally reluctant to build the bridge, because it shortens the distance and time that foreign cars and trucks destinated for Central and Western Europe spend on Romanian soil.

Today, the traffic is sizeable, and an income of more than 20 million euro was generated in the first nine months of 2016 from fees on passing motor vehicles by the company managing the bridge. But the road and railway infrastructure that links to the bridge on its both sides remains to be developed. The mayor of Calafat Lucian Ciobanu and citizens of Vidin express their dissatisfaction that the promised economic revival of the underdeveloped region around the bridge hasn’t come yet.

Both countries to blame for border regions` underdevelopment

In April 2016 Maria Chakarova – the director of the “Strategic development and investment projects” Department in the Bulgarian National Company “Railway Infrastructure”, declared that the upgrade of the railway that leads to Vidin “has not stopped to be a priority”, but at this moment “it has no positive economic value”, because “between Calafat and Craiova, in Romania, the railway is not electrified”. “The logic demands from us to work on the railway Vidin – Sofia parallel to our Romanian colleagues` work on their side”, believes Chakarova, who also notes that the Romanian part “is currently doing what Bulgaria has already done – preliminary surveys regarding the modernization of the railway from Calafat  to the Hungarian border”.

However, Chakarova’s analysis omits the fact that under the governance of the recently-resigned GERB-dominated government of Boyko Borisov the Bulgarian State Railways (BDZ) company has become a disaster. Railway transport in Bulgaria is not attractive at all for the citizens of the country and the few passengers who use BDZ services constantly complain of delays, poor quality of the service and other problems.

While Bulgaria makes investments in highways and railway infrastructure, including with money from the EU, these investments are limited to Southern Bulgaria, which is economically more advanced than Northern Bulgaria. While it can be argued that the grand transport corridors from Istanbul and Thessaloniki through Sofia to the West are worthy of being developed because of their economic potential and importance to Europe, Northwestern Bulgaria, where Vidin lies, continues to be the poorest and the most underdeveloped region of the EU.

North-Eastern Bulgaria is also generally a place of lower economic activity, in part because of the lack of investment in infrastructure. Rousse – a city of 140 000 people on the border with Romania, located less than 70 km away from Bucharest, realizes more and more that its natural economic center is the Romanian capital, Bucharest. The whole region between Rousse and the Black Sea port of Varna seems to be understanding the same fact.

The Bucharest airport “Otopeni” is used en masse by the residents of this part of Bulgaria, while their tourist excursions, business relations and university studies in Romania flourish. A similar opening to the neighbors of the south has been observed among Romanians in recent years. Approximately one million Romanians visit Bulgaria as tourists every year and a large part of them goes to the Bulgarian resorts at the Black Sea.

All these transfrontier flows of people require an upgrade of the existing infrastructure. The Bridge of Friendship at Rousse-Giurgiu, constructed in 1954, has only one lane in each direction, apart from the railroad. Often the capacity of the bridge or the capabilities of the border crossing points on its two sides can’t answer the amount of traffic from both countries, from the Middle East, and from Western and Eastern Europe that wants to cross the Danube.

Romania and Bulgaria have signed an agreement for the construction of two more bridges between them, and one is set to be between Silistra and Călărași – 120 km to the east of Rousse. At present it is another frequently used crossing point by way of a ferryboat, because the Bucharest – Constanta highway passes nearby. However, there’s been no announcement or sign of action on the construction of these bridges or other agreed upon infrastructural projects such as a joint water electricity plant on the Danube.

Looking in different directions

It can be argued that generally Bulgaria is more eager than Romania to boost bilateral cooperation. But the reluctance to act can be seen on both sides of the Danube. While there have been advances in the construction, development and planning of some littoral countries’ respective parts of a highway that would circle the Black Sea, Romania and Bulgaria still can’t agree where it should pass on their territory. Generally, Bulgaria has been willing to see it entering its territory at Silistra via the aforementioned but yet-to-be-constructed bridge. But Romania thinks it would be better if this highway passes through Northern Dobruja.

There is a lack of agreement also over the Romanian desire to construct a submarine electricity power line upon the shelf of the Black Sea that could connect its Dobruja-located Cerna vodă nuclear plant with the Turkish market. This cable needs to pass through Bulgarian economic waters, but Sofia has rejected it for the time being.

In the present circumstances Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey are in the European network of system operators for transmission of electricity. The countries in the network allow the transfer of electricity from one neighbour to another without impediment, charging standard transit taxes. In other words, Bulgaria cannot, nor is it eager to, stop the Romanian export to Turkey. Sofia argues, however, that should a cable be pass across its sea shelf, this would mean the end of surveying for energy resources in Bulgarian waters. Nevertheless, Romania insists on pursuing a direct electricity cable to Turkey.

What might be amazing to a foreign reader is that Romania and Bulgaria – two member-states of the European Union entered the union without achieving an agreement upon the borders of their economic zones in the Black Sea. Waters spanning up to 350 sq.km are still under dispute with no resolution on the horizon. This unresolved question puts certain limits on the shelf exploration and could potentially influence other developments and balances in the Black Sea.

Romanian-Bulgarian divergence on the energy and infrastructural issues might be explained also by the priorities of each nation`s foreign policy. Bucharest`s foreign policy strategists see the nation’s future on the regional level in expansion of relations with Poland. Apart from the eternal vector of interest towards the Republic of Moldova, they look to the West and North, and take far less interest in the South. At the same time, Bulgaria’s foreign policy priorities appear to be shifting under different foreign ministers, but generally Sofia is more active politically with regard to its southern neighbours Greece and Turkey, and in the Western Balkans.

And the good news is….

The hope for Romanian-Bulgarian relations in any sphere could come not so much from the governments, but from the people of the two countries. Romania has been the third largest trade partner of Bulgaria in the EU after Germany and Italy for years, with a trade turnover that approaches or might have even surpassed 4 billion euro in 2016 (the statistics are still unannounced). As of 2015, there were more than 2100 Bulgarian firms registered in Romania and 2500 Romanian firms registered in Bulgaria.

Cultural and interpersonal communication also is on the rise and can be observed especially in Rousse where there are regular exhibitions, poetry readings, theatre plays, concerts with participation of Romanian artists. There are also transborder communities who communicate intensely, promote collaboration and overcome national egoism. All these economic and cultural accumulations might eventually bring a change of mind for both countries’ governments in the future.

There is certainly some rationale behind each nation’s reluctance to act bold on bilateral issues. There are historical, cultural and political stereotypes that continue to form the attitudes of Romanians and Bulgarians toward one another. Rivalry between Bucharest and Sofia also forms an important part of the states’ rationale vis-à-vis bilateral relations.

But there is also an economic and humane logic behind a reciprocal and equitable opening. 10 years after Romania and Bulgaria’s integration into the EU, there is a need for new thinking, as the old one keeps people and regions underdeveloped. Up until a few years ago, there were only 3 public motor vehicle transport lines that directly connected Rousse and Bucharest daily, apart from the railway lines, the taxis and the so-called shared cars (where people in social networks who might not even know one another in advance organize themselves for joint travel). At present, the number of daily public transport bus/microbus lines has risen to 8 lines, and 2 of them link Varna directly too. In other words, the people of these countries are already setting a rising pace for Romanian-Bulgarian interconnectedness. Will the politicians follow?

Translation: Alexandru Țîrdea

 
  • Ronald Young

    Sorry there has been response so far to an excellent overview of an important issue – the mutual indifference (to put it most euphemistically) between the two countries. As a retired brit who has divided his time over the past decade between both countries, I’ve been wondering recently whether there might be any role for outsiders to help catalyse some movement….last year I did a quick analysis of what was available on the internet and feel it might be useful to put it on record (it’s 40 pages with several hundred hyperlinks) – http://media.wix.com/ugd/e475c8_aa975938542447c69abbc3e7e2130d94.pdf