Bridge to a new era for Bulgaria and Romania

Bridge to a new era for Bulgaria and Romania

The New York Times

VIDIN, Bulgaria — Construction has not yet begun, but a new bridge over the Danube is already lifting hopes among Bulgarians and Romanians on both sides of the river.

The bridge, which will span the Danube from this downtrodden city to the dusty Romanian town of Calafat, will not just forge new connections, but is also meant to help one of Europe’s least developed regions.

After eight years spent arguing over the location and four years of looking for funding, the €230 million, or $290 million, project is expected finally to enter the construction phase next year thanks to European prodding and finance.

It will be only the second crossing of the 470-kilometer, or 290-mile, river border between the two neighbors, which have never been close despite their geographical proximity.

While the Danube has always been an essential artery for cultural and commercial exchange in Central Europe, for historical reasons it formed a barrier between Romania and Bulgaria.

The bridge is the first concrete result of the neighbors’ shared political will to emerge from isolation and join the European Union. This cooperation has brought them closer together than at any other time in their history.

“For the people of Vidin, this bridge is the bridge of hope,” says Ivan Tsenov, the mayor.

Vidin, in Bulgaria’s northwest corner not far from the border with Serbia, is the main city in one of the country’s poorest regions. The official unemployment rate is 26 percent, the streets are broken, and the shops are devoid of customers. But the scrappy buildings retain architectural signs of the city’s former Viennese opulence.

“They’ve been talking about the bridge for so many years, we have high expectations,” said Angel Krustev, 70, shaving a customer at his bare and tidy barber shop in Vidin, where he has worked since 1952. “It’s important for the young people to have work here so they don’t have to leave.”

Across the river in Calafat, Mayor Petre Traistaru said locals are very optimistic about the long-term economic impact in the region. “The bridge will not be so important to the development of Calafat as what will be built around the bridge,” he said.

While the neighbors were formerly allied in the Soviet bloc, Romania and Bulgaria have remained largely estranged from each other, separated by politics, prejudice and language.

In the 1990s the two countries were paired involuntarily when they sought membership in Western institutions, first the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and then the European Union, but instead of forging ties this created competition. “Both sides tried to score points at the expense of bilateral cooperation,” says Dimitar Bechev of the European Studies Center at Oxford University.

The two countries joined NATO in 2004, and both recently signed agreements to host U.S. military bases on their territory. Now, their top political priority is membership in the EU, which both hope to join on Jan. 1.

Romanian-Bulgarian relations are developing “very intensively” because of EU accession, said Lyubomir Kyuchukov, the Bulgarian deputy foreign minister. “We exchange delegations at each and every level in order to cooperate in the process.”

Trade between the countries has increased more than sevenfold since 1995, to $1.12 billion in 2005, according to the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute.

“We have never been as close as we are now,” said Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, an analyst at the Romanian Academic Society, a nongovernmental policy research organization. Historically, she said, the countries sought security in strong bilateral relations with a big Western power, not their neighbors.

Romania and Bulgaria have never had any serious conflicts, other than a territorial dispute over the Dobrudzha region in the first half of the 20th century, now largely forgotten.

But during the Communist era, official Socialist brotherhood between the two Warsaw Pact states was strained behind the scenes.

The leader of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, led an aggressively independent foreign policy, while Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria was Moscow’s most loyal ally.

Language is one of the most divisive factors, Mungiu-Pippidi said. Most East Europeans are Slavs and can understand other Slavic languages, while Romanians speak a Latin language close to Italian.

Many Romanians still maintain an idea popular during the Communist era: that “the best neighbor of Romania is the Black Sea.”

In Bulgaria, the first and only opposition to the Communist regime was the eco-glasnost movement in the 1980s, based in Ruse, at the foot of the “Friendship Bridge” to Giurgiu, Romania, the only other crossing over the Danube between the two countries.

Ruse is more than 300 kilometers from Sofia, but only 67 kilometers from Bucharest. The movement was directed against pollution from chemical plants in Giurgiu; such protest was tolerated in part because it was not focused on the Bulgarian regime.

The Ruse-Giurgiu bridge, also known as the Danube Bridge, was built in 1954. More than 50 years later, the new Vidin- Calafat bridge is expected to give an economic jolt to the region after trade and transport disruptions caused by the Yugoslav wars and embargo.

According to a consultant’s report, the construction itself will directly create 980 jobs and pump €57 million into the local economies on both sides.

“Both Romania and Bulgaria are lagging behind, and one of the main factors is that they were literally cut off from Europe by the wars in Yugoslavia,” Kyuchukov said.

It was the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, an international institution meant to promote stability in the region after the Yugoslav wars, that got the two countries to sit down and agree on the Danube Bridge II project in 2000.

In 2004, financing for the bridge was secured from the European Investment Bank, EU pre-accession funds, France, Germany and Bulgaria. Five contractors have been approved and Sept. 18 is the deadline for project proposals. A contract could be signed by November, and the bridge is expected to open in 2010.

Vidin and Calafat have perhaps the closest relations of any towns along this lower section of the Danube. There is a regular ferry service, so locals here have regular interchange with their neighbors across the border. The ferry has no schedule and leaves only when filled with six trucks.

The sidewalks of Calafat are straight in comparison to those of Vidin. The small public buildings on the main street display pompous baroque ornamentation and have gardens with manicured lawns and bright flowers. It is a smaller town, with a population of 18,000, compared with Vidin’s 68,000.

At the town’s market, Stefan Vrajitoru, 50, sells fishing tackle from a folding table. He said he earned enough to live and does not complain. “People are expecting jobs,” he said. “The bridge will mean people will have more money.”

Doing business with Bulgaria is difficult, Vrajitoru said, because of all the documents required for buying and selling goods across the border.

At another row of stalls, for Bulgarian traders, Ala Vulkova sells lighter fluid, plastic cups, lids for home jarring, window cleanser and Turkish flip-flop sandals. A retired mechanical engineer with a doctorate, she used to work at the dairy production institute in Vidin. Vulkova says her daily profit at the Calafat market averages about 10 levs, or €5.

“Bulgaria needs to be resurrected,” she said, sewing a torn cardboard box with thick thread as she spoke. “With a bridge or whatever it takes. It’s getting really bad. We’re forced to come here because we have no other options.”



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