Sink — or swim — together

GIURGIU, Romania – That just one bridge spans the Danube along its 500km (320-mile) course between Romania and Bulgaria is a fitting reflection of the history of cooperation between these two Balkan rivals. But in Giurgiu, a run-down frontier town, people are rather less suspicious of their neighbors than most Romanians, whose national poet Mihai Eminescu once famously accused «thick-necked Bulgarians» of plotting to take over his beloved country. «Bulgarians are very clever people. I’ve worked with them and I trust them,» said Constantin Moldovan, a 28-year-old businessman. «We would definitely be better off cooperating.» Stuck at the back of the queue of ex-communist countries hoping to join the European Union, the two will have more in common than they once thought when the others are let in before them. The only question is how to capitalize on it and catch up. «There’s a very strange tendency on the part of Romanians and Bulgarians to just ignore each other,» said one Western diplomat who has worked across the Balkans. «Traditionally, they have gone about life as though they didn’t even share a border.» Even in Giurgiu, where shady-looking traders and prostitutes lurk near customs posts hoping to do business with passing truck drivers, there are few apparent links to the people across the Danube and pedestrians are not allowed to cross the bridge. Yet after behaving like competitors in a race to join the EU, the two countries are slowly waking up to the realities of being lumped together by Brussels, which will set them a target entry date when it approves up to 10 new members in October. «Unless the 2002 report on candidates declares there are huge differences between Romania and Bulgaria, they are going to have the same target date,» a senior EU official said. Balkan syndrome on the wane? The short time left for them to do something about it looks to have sharpened the minds of politicians in Sofia and Bucharest, who have been accused of cynically stirring a sense of animosity between two nations with little to argue about. «Bulgarians and Romanians do not hate each other,» said Vesselin Georgiev, a Sofia resident who studied in Bucharest. «We have common characteristics, traditions, cuisine and a similar style of living. Politicians are to blame because they always try to set one nation against another. It’s the classic Balkan syndrome of ‘who is greater,’» he said. There has been little evidence of this phenomenon in recent statements from both governments. Instead, the new message is one that the West has spent a decade trying to drum into two reform laggards with a similar catalog of problems. «I consider that close cooperation is important and it seems that the Bulgarians also understand this is a must,» Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase told Reuters in a recent interview. «We have more to win if we play together.» Uppermost in the minds of leaders of two of Europe’s poorest countries is money – and how to get more of it out of the EU. Although the only way to accelerate accession is to enact as many of the reforms prescribed by 80,000 pages of Union law as possible, both governments say they need more outside help. This frequently boils down to extra cash. And negotiating together could help them strike a better deal on their terms as EU members than the countries joining before them, whose access to farm subsidies and regional aid will be restricted for years. «Many of the issues may be determined by what happens to the other 10, but having a common agenda will help, for example on the agricultural funding question,» said Jonathan Scheele, the head of the EU’s official delegation in Bucharest. Another looming deadline is reinforcing the new unity. Both countries hope to be invited to join NATO in November and are at pains to stress how they are working together to stabilize a region still reeling from a decade of wars in former Yugoslavia and struggling to curb trafficking in drugs and people. Legacy of suspicion But cooperation is not an ingrained instinct in a corner of Europe where national and ethnic rivalries have simmered since the Ottoman Empire fell and 20th-century wars redrew the maps. Although Bulgarians still remember that their 19th-century independence heroes rebelled against the Turks from safe houses in Romania, many view their neighbors as incurably corrupt. «Romanians are the most thievish tribe in the world,» one Sofia policeman said. «Almost every day you run into Romanian pickpockets, mainly Gypsies, on public transport here – as if we didn’t have enough Bulgarian ones.» Both countries tend to stress their differences, especially Romanians, who have long felt out of place as a Latin people in a Slavic part of the world, rather than the clear similarities. Under the center-right government of Ivan Kostov, Bulgaria considered it was better off alone after pulling out of a major mid-1990s economic crisis, while Romania’s reformist coalition members fought among themselves and watched the country’s economy shrink. However, bitterness at enduring poverty led Bulgarians to elect their exiled former king, Simeon II, as a replacement last year, and his government has reluctantly accepted that the country is in the same boat as Romania – for NATO as well as the EU. Simeon’s first foreign visitor once in office was Nastase, prompting Kostov’s UDF party to accuse the new prime minister of weakening Bulgaria’s bid by operating in tandem with Romania. Across the border, where Nastase has made tentative progress on economic reforms, some are just as skeptical of the merits of working with Bulgarians, who are widely portrayed as crooks. «They are a nation of car thieves,» said Iordache Nelersa, a 30-year-old Bucharest mechanic. «I think they are less developed than us these days and that could only drag us down.» (Additional reporting by Anna Mudeva in Sofia)

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