"We wouldn't be mistaken if we say that trans-border mobility is at zero level" - Eleonora Ivanova, director of the Bulgarian-Romanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry
"It was a wonderful city for a child. You could hear 7-8 different languages spoken every day and knowing various foreign tongues was a must," says Elias Canetti, laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature and probably the best-known resident of Ruse, in his book "The Saved Language".
In the hundred or so years since Canetti left his birthplace, Bulgaria's largest city on the Danube River has changed. This is not because it is no longer a perfect place to raise a child, but because it has shrunk. Not only in terms of population, as compared to its heyday at the end of the 1980s, but in terms of spirit. There is little left of its XIX century cosmopolitan vogue apart from the architecture in the centre of the city and, instead, an air of provincialism envelops it.
It is a blow of historic proportions, and it is not a unique feature of the city: a similar shrinkage is being felt in many places in Eastern Europe, but also in parts of the West. The problem for cities like Ruse is not how to restore their past, but how to build a new future for themselves. The city has a large foundation to build on.
Ruse boasts large parks, and original and beautiful architecture in its centre, comparable to few other Bulgarian towns. Unemployment is also low with a number of big foreign companies having chosen to develop their production lines near the city because of its location on the Danube and its multidisciplinary university. Salaries are going up, like the rest of the country, and on a par with the general rise in most macroeconomic indicators.
Ruse's citizens visit museums, and go to the theatre and cinema more often than the average Bulgarian. In the daytime, a passer-by can see well-dressed people walking through the streets (or at least those that are not undergoing repairs) and cafes are brimming with people, with children's laughter echoing from playgrounds. In general, when compared to other big cities in northern Bulgaria like Silistra, Pleven or Vidin, the atmosphere doesn't seem too gloomy and its motto "Free Spirit City" sounds almost in place.
Yet, why does the spark fail to ignite the potential of the city?
Geography and other problems
In theory, Ruse has two significant advantages compared to the rest of the country - the river that connects it to Central Europe and its closeness to the Romanian capital of Bucharest, which is only 75 km away. However, the city barely benefits from either of these advantages.
Let us start with Bucharest. The first and, until recently, only bridge connecting Bulgaria and Romania is in an appalling state and simply fails to absorb the huge seasonal tourist traffic and year-round flow of heavy trucks. One could sometimes wait for over two hours to cross the bridge connecting two EU member states which is absurd. The tragic condition of the road infrastructure on both sides of the bridge disrupts the connectivity between Ruse and Giurgiu, the town on the opposite side of the river, and Romania's capital. Consequently, the number of local businesses that take advantage of their location, as well as the number of people who work in Bucharest, where salaries are 3-4 times higher, are few and far between.
Much can be done to improve the situation. The launch of a roll-on/roll-off ferry connection between Ruse and Giurgiu to ease the haulier traffic over the bridge would be a quick fix. It would also be cheaper than constructing a second bridge nearby. The infrastructure investment can instead focus on the extension of the express road to Veliko Tarnovo and the modernization of the rail line over the bridge. Both measures are outside the scope of the local authorities but they can take smaller-scale actions to improve connectivity. These can include the creation of a joint public transport link with Giurgiu and the introduction of Romanian-language classes in one of the city's language schools. A plan for joint development of the two cities exists but it remains only on paper.
With backs to the river
The proximity to the largest navigable waterway in Europe is also underutilized, to say the least. Ruse launched a project to revamp its promenade just over two years ago. The effects of years of neglect became not only national but world news in the autumn of 2018 when local journalist Victoria Marinova was brutally murdered on an unlit part of the quay wall. And it is not only the waterfront - almost all big businesses connected to the river, from the shipbuilding and the ship repair industry that employed thousands during Socialism, to the major river transportation companies, are either bankrupt or on the verge of going under.
"We will only look at the Danube," the Bulgarian Socialist Party local head Plamen Rashev says. The party's representatives in the city council are trying to create a lobby group that would seek out an investor for the shipbuilding company of the city, which used to be part of the portfolio of the now-defunct Corporate Commercial Bank (Corpbank). So far, they have not achieved much, while the repairs facility in Giurgiu has taken the ship maintenance business and got over 7 million euro of investment since it was launched in 2002.
A huge nationwide problem is the maintenance of the shallow river bed of the Danube, which makes the river difficult or outright impossible to navigate over a large part of the year when the water is low. Lastly, Giurgiu is also investing in its "Green Port" that aspires to become one of the best ports in the lower Danube, striving to attract both yachts and bigger tourist ships to the city. This would have been great news for Ruse if the town had better links to its northern neighbour.
Many visual clues betray the shrinkage of the city: many of the best retail spots on the Alexandrovska main pedestrian boulevard remain empty for months on end. The same goes for the shopping centres and for the only mall still open - out of five that were planned and three that were completely constructed in the late 2000s amidst expectations of an explosion of Romanian shoppers to Ruse after the two countries joined the EU. Even though the region attracts some private and public investment from EU funds, the Sofia-based Institute for Market Economics (IME) says that both are below the median line for the country. The same holds true for salaries which went up by 60 euro in two years, reaching 465 in 2018, but remain way below the average of the other big economic centres in Bulgaria.
In general, according to IME metrics, Ruse scores "average" in all indexes compared to the rest of the country. It is difficult to say if this is a consequence of, or a reason for, the city's biggest problem - the shortage of young people. Beyond the hazy summer days or the winter holidays when thousands of young people flock back to their hometown, nightlife in Ruse is almost non-existent.
One can only wonder why the beautiful city centre is half-empty after 6 p.m. on a weekday and almost deserted after 10 p.m. Beyond the theatre and celebrity concerts, there are few interesting events to attract young people, because many have left. A quick look at the National Statistical Institute figures shows that between 2010 and 2016 the population of the city decreased by 11,000 people, with 6,000 of them in the key age bracket of 15-24 years. This is a huge youth brain drain for a city with a well-developed university. To put it simply, Ruse remains a wonderful place to raise children but is not attractive enough to keep its adolescents. The owner of the most famous business in town, Econt express delivery service, Nickolay Sabev sums it up: "Everyone I try to attract back to Ruse asks me one thing only - for how long?"
Change of atmosphere
There is no good reason for the city to lag behind. . Its economy is strong enough, bearing in mind it has been squeezed by the neighbouring Silistra and Razgrad regions, which are in a much worse shape, and by the outdated infrastructure connecting it to the rest of the country and Romania. The construction of an expressway to Ruse and a new bridge over the Danube as well as an upgrade of the four main roads connecting the city to the rest of the country are a must, says former mayor Plamen Stoilov. "When you fix the infrastructure of a city, make places for rest and recreation and fill the calendar with events, people come to stay," he adds.
At least, the infrastructure plans are on track. The connection to Veliko Tarnovo is in its project phase and should be finished in the next few years. There are promises that the river bed will be dredged, which should bring more foreign cruise ships to the city, increasing tourist numbers. The private and social initiative is on the rise as well: Econt runs a foundation that sponsors the revamp of old houses in the city centre, the Gradored initiative of young people who recently came back from abroad organizes motivational events that bring together different generations and many other people come back to run their family business.
The city, which has always gone against the tide politically, ousted mayor Stoilov from governing GERB party for a fresh young face from opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, 41-year old Pencho Milkov, in the October 2019 elections. Many locals joke that whichever party loses Ruse, they lose the country sooner or later, referencing elections in the last 25 years but also the fame the city had earned as the first hotspot against the one-party Communist rule before 1989. Ironically, the reason for the upheaval then was air pollution from the Giurgiu-based Verachim fertilizer plant - a problem that still haunts Ruse albeit because of different sources.
People still march regularly against air pollution coming from the city's Industrial Zone East, unreasonably constructed on the way of the strong steppe air drafts that enter the country from the northeast.
The three top culprits, according to a 2014 report by the Environment Ministry, are the Thermal Heating Plant owned by a company linked to Bulgarian business mogul Hristo Kovachki, the ceramic tiles plant of Keros Bulgaria, a unit of Spain's Keros Ceramica, and the car parts plant of France's Montupet, but it is only the latter that has ever been fined for air pollution.
Ex-mayor Plamen Stoilov, who had the support of the ruling party, failed to pressure any of these companies to limit their polluting activities and told Capital Weekly that the state-level legislation restricted him from doing much to resolve the problem. Only time will tell if the new mayor, Mr Milkov, will do better, even though he comes from a party in opposition to GERB. It will be a serious test for him, as Ruse citizens are very touchy about air quality. Fixing that problem may signal that hopes for change and better times to come are not so far-fetched, after all.