Vladimir Mitev is a Bulgarian-Romanian journalist based in Rousse, a town on the very border between the two countries. He is the editor-in-chief of the Romanian website BARICADA Romania, which initially started as a Romanian language version of the Bulgarian portal by the same name.
Below is the ILNA's interview with this authoritative journalist about the parliamentary elections in Romania and recent tensions between Sofia and Moscow.
ILNA: Romanian lawmakers have approved a new center-right pro-Western coalition government headed by U.S.-educated banker Florin Citu. He has been a liberal senator since 2016 and has served as finance minister for the past year. What do you think of the government led by a pro-Western PM?
It is not something exceptional to have a pro-Western government in Romania. It is a country that assumes as its national interest to be a Euro-Atlantic pillar in Southeastern Europe. Even the Social Democratic governments in the times of the strongman Liviu Dragnea, who was criticized by Brussels, signed multi-billion contracts for military acquisitions from the United States.
So it is not the government’s Westerness that is so characteristic for it. What matters is whose interests will this government represent. If we look at the professional career of the prime minister we see that before becoming a politician he was a high-ranking expert and manager in the financial sector in Romania, which is to a large extent foreign-owned. Another hint at what to expect is the presence in government of the Alliance between Save Romania Union (party of young professionals, urban middle class and the young generation in Romanian politics) and the Plus party (associated with its leader and former European commissioner Dacian Cioloş). The forces in this alliance are members of the pro-Macronite Renew Europe political group in the European Parliament.
So the government, led by Cîţu’s National Liberal party and this Alliance has a clear pro-business, technocratic profile. Those who didn’t vote for them expect austerity, privatization of public services, directions of EU and public funds towards the social layers that have been on the winning side of the Romanian transition. However, there are hints that things could be more complex to judge because the government intends to dedicate 6% of the GDP for health, another 6% of the GDP for education, and 1% of GDP for research and development. This is an opening to the cravings of the civil society, which emitted a document in this sense - The Cluj Declaration, at the protests of 2014, which led to the election of the president Klaus Iohannis for his first term as Romanian president.
Finally, the media headlines that it is “a pro-Western government” are clearly aimed at building trust in the Euro-Atlantic public towards the government in Bucharest. It will be a government, which will continue the strategic partnership with the United States as Joe Biden enters the White House in 2021. There has been an ongoing militarisation in Southeastern Europe with Romania being a frontier state of the Euro-Atlantic forces. A hint at the importance of the military is that the former chief commander of the Romanian army - general Nicolae Ciucă, is the minister of defense, while 2% of the GDP are to be allocated for the army. Ciucă is the commander who led in May 2004 at Nasiriyah in Iraq the first battle, in which Romanian soldiers actively participated after World War II. In December 2020 he was awarded the Legion of Merit by the American ambassador in Bucharest, which is a sign of the great level of trust Western partners have for him.
ILNA: Following the December 6 election, PNL formed a center-right alliance with the newly formed USR-PLUS alliance and the UDMR ethnic Hungarian party. The leftist PSD, the heir to the Communist Party, won the most votes in the election -- some 30 percent -- but failed to find partners to form a government. What do you think is the reason for the failure of this left-wing party in forming a coalition?
In most of the countries of the Eastern part of Europe, there is a stigma on the left. It is considered nostalgic, devoid of perspectives, oligarchic, clientelistic, etc. In Romania, the stigma upon the left is especially strong. The Social Democratic Party has been perceived by the Romanian urban middle class as a party of less-educated, less-modern, provincial people. If you follow more closely Romanian politics, you may get the feeling that each and every election has one very simple intrigue - will the Social Democratic Party be beaten or not.
But for me, the news is not so much that the Romanian social democrats are isolated politically. It was expected that they would have a worse result, that the right-wing forces will have a clear majority. The right-wing government has a majority, but it is not so big. In fact, the results of the Social Democratic Party showed that maybe the stigma against it cracks. Many people seem to have been willing to create some hardship for the new government if its reforms go too far and become antisocial. So in the context of these worries, the social democrats got a good result. But they themselves don’t seem to have a strategy for governing the country right now and will probably be content to be opposition in the forthcoming years.
ILNA: The new government of Romania presented an ambitious reform program; developing transport infrastructure, fighting corruption, strengthening the judiciary system and last but not least improvement of the health-care network. Can the new government overcome obstacles and deliver on its promises while the country is currently embroiled in the Corona pandemic?
This is a government, which also has the trust of Brussels and that is necessary in the current crisis so that European funds can flow freely towards the Romanian economy and support its development. Under the special program for recovery and resilience, Romania is expected to receive 30,4 billion euros in grants and loans, which are in addition to the standard EU funds (such as the cohesion ones or the agricultural ones). The social democratic governments, which ruled until 2019, modernized the country through innovative fiscal policies, raise of incomes and consumption. The model, which the new government will follow, will probably be related to development through public and private investment, through the business. The judicial reforms from the times of Liviu Dragnea that tamed Romanian anti-corruption will most likely be undone. So business and technocratic lobbies will get strengthened, but that might have a social price, which could be paid by the salaried workers, by labor.
Any measures that strengthen capital should as well come with some gestures for the larger population so that it doesn’t get alienated. In the conditions of a low voter turnout (33%), many people are not represented and that might make them protest or flock into new parties, such as the nationalist and conservative Alliance for Romanian Unity.
The government will have a lot of financial problems to resolve. It will rely predominantly on the EU funds, because Romanian tax collection is not sufficiently effective. The government announced in its program that it will not raise taxes or introduce new ones, but will take measures to improve the tax collection. In any case, its ambitious modernization policy will need funds. One solution it announces is that public-private partnerships will be established for various projects so that the business invests in the country’s development.
I have long observed that Romanian elites are ambitious. The government programs outlines reaching a level of GDP/capita (purchasing power parity) of 85% of the European one until 2024, which is viewed as a necessary condition for the application for entrance in the ERM II mechanism (the so-called eurozone waiting room) and the eurozone itself.
The corona crisis will most likely continue. We don’t know what to expect from the new strands of the coronavirus, discovered in the UK and in the Republic of South Africa. In any case, it looks like Romania needs to rely on its Euro-Atlantic partners and this government is the one that is trusted by them, so that money and support can flow towards the country. As for how much it will manage to deliver, it is not known, but at this moment there is simply no alternative vision for Romania's development.
ILNA: Many were surprised at the parliamentary election result in Romania, which saw a far-right populist party the Alliance for Romanian Unity (AUR) take 9% of the votes. How does this party which was only formed in autumn last year passed the 5% threshold and entered parliament?
There was a lot of talk about the unexpected good result of this party. It wasn’t known to many Romanians until election night. Neither its results were visible when opinion polls were announced before the elections.
Some say that it is engineered from the outside - with pro-Russian or pro-Trump lobbies, considered as “the evil minds”. Others point out that it is a unionist party (meaning that it supports a policy of unification with the other Romanian-speaking state - the Republic of Moldova) and that its leaders have been promoted by a number of Romanian media, academics, even the civil society. So the political engineering behind its success might have been Romanian as well. Also, there are claims that the Romanian orthodox church has lended unofficially its support for this party, which relies on values such as conservatism, family, and orthodox Christianity.
There are different interpretations of whether this new party will remain solid and will withstand the political test of survival. My guess is that whatever interests find expression through this party, its existence could be seen as well as an answer to the ongoing changes around the world and in Romania. Before the electorate of this party used to vote for the Social Democratic party. But the social democrats liberated themselves from some notorious political figures, improved their ties to the European socialists, and disowned the nationalist vote. Now the existence of AUR in parliament allows the Romanian political system to react in a more complex way to the challenges that might arise internally and externally.
ILNA: On the 18th of December, it was reported that Bulgaria had expelled another Russian diplomat over espionage. The Russian diplomat is the sixth to be expelled by NATO member Bulgaria since October 2019 for suspected espionage. How did Bulgaria become a hub for the espionage acts of the Kremlin in Europe?
Bulgaria is traditionally a country with various geopolitical currents being present. Romanian foreign policy elite seems very unified when it comes to foreign policy preferences. But Bulgaria has always been a more interesting country to live in and has had a more complex geopolitical role. Just like Romania, Bulgaria is a NATO and EU member with all the obligations and loyalties that come from these allegiances. But the Slav essence of the Bulgarian language opens us to a number of Slavic countries, the orthodox Christianity leads to similar proximity with other Orthodox states, while Bulgaria is also the EU country with the largest percent of the population that is Muslim.
I would say that the news is not that the Kremlin or somebody else spies in Bulgaria. For me, the interesting thing is the logic of the Bulgarian state, which is managing so many cultural and religious affiliations that also lead to political and geopolitical bonds. While Bulgaria was expelling Russian diplomats, it finished the Balkan Stream gas pipeline, which is effectively a continuation of the Turkish Stream pipeline on Bulgarian territory, built with Bulgarian funds as a juridically Bulgarian project. On the morning of the 1st of January of 2021, Vucic opened the Balkan Stream gas link to Serbia. That happened after in the summer of 2020 Mike Pompeo - the state secretary in the American outgoing administration of Donald Trump, threatened that there will be sanctions for those who build Russian energy projects in the EU. Before this announcement, Bulgaria bought 8 new American F-16 warplanes in something, which was presented to our media as a bargain that allows some greater freedom to engage other partners. In September 2020 the prime minister Boyko Borissov announced that Bulgaria considers buying 8 more F-16s, while other military acquisitions with Western partners have been arranged in 2020 as well.
We may learn more about the Bulgarian state logic, when we notice that Russian diplomats are expelled with accusations that they have looked for information on NATO drills in Bulgaria - an issue that certainly matters to the Euro-Atlantic partners, but in the energy domain, Russian business interests seem to be accepted.
ILNA: Given the fact that parts of Bulgaria's political establishment insist the country could act as a mediator between Russia and the West, or at least capitalize on its good ties with Moscow, what do you think of the future relations of Sofia-Moscow?
There is some mysticism in Bulgaria, related to the role of the American embassy in our political and social life. I guess that the relations between Bulgaria and Russia will advance as much as our Euro-Atlantic loyalties allow them to go. Joe Biden is about to enter the White House with promises of being tough on Russia and Turkey. The militarisation of Bulgaria has been advancing with arms acquisitions from Western partners, with joint drills and cooperation with NATO allies in our region. Bulgaria participates actively in the Three Seas Initiative, which unites countries of Central and Eastern Europe and is considered to represent a barrier to Russian influence in the region. In fact, in 2021 Bulgaria will be the chair of this initiative, which is a role expected to unfold under the leadership of the Bulgarian President Rumen Radev. All those signs hint that there would hardly be any big change in the relations between Sofia and Moscow in 2021 unless some unexpected event takes place.
Interview by: Kamran Baradaran