Ambassadors Archive 1

Bulgaria: Ambassador Elena Borislavova Poptodorova

'Heading for the West'

By Hugh S. Galford

For much of the Cold War, Bulgaria was largely overlooked. With no Soviet military bases, few natural resources and no nuclear arms, this Black Sea nation could easily be described as 'somewhere in the Balkans.' Since 1990, and especially since last September, Bulgaria has been moving more and more into the Western sphere—and Western interest.

Elena Poptodorova, the bright-eyed and dynamic Ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to the United States since February 2002, speaks quickly and confidently about why this is so. In Bulgarian public service since 1975, Ambassador Poptodorova knows her country and is working diligently to fulfill its aspirations. At the moment her primary issue is Bulgaria’s membership in both the European Union and NATO, which will contribute to Bulgaria no longer being on the border of Europe.

Reflecting on changes over the last dozen years in Bulgaria and in Europe as a whole, Ambassador Poptodorova says that while she welcomes the major changes which occurred in 1990, 'we were probably naive to think that the dividing lines of the world would disappear, and that we would enter into a more orderly, sophisticated period.' The world today faces new challenges and threats, she says, that are more difficult to grasp and to handle.

'The world has known different periods of tension. But the tensions in the pre-1990 world were more orderly, and somehow easier to control and to stop at a healthy moment. Today’s uncontrollable use of force and aggression is unlike the ‘classical’ type of aggression that international instruments tried to describe and control.'

Bulgaria, she says, fully shares the concern over terrorism, and says that it 'will take time, and unorthodox methods, to cope with terrorism and violence per se.' While not having suffered the sort of attack the US witnessed last year, Bulgaria’s local environment holds its own threats. Looking at the question of terrorism as a Bulgarian, the ambassador says, 'the threats are the same, but the reasons differ.'

The Balkans, she says, lack security guarantees on a regional basis. 'We need to build checks and balances against corruption, arms trading, and trafficking of any kind.' Bulgaria, the ambassador says, was fortunate to keep itself out of the region’s wars, but notes that there was an illicit flow of arms through her country during the conflict in Macedonia. 'Bulgaria is an island of stability and peace,' Ambassador Poptodorova notes, 'and contributed to stability and peace in the area by not being part of the conflicts.' Nevertheless, for Bulgaria to feel safe, 'we need a healthy regional environment.'

Despite the instability and uncertainty of the 1990s, Bulgaria has made remarkable progress. Politically, Ambassador Poptodorova says her country was 'emancipated. We are now a democratic society, and irreversibly so.' While the first one or two years were not without difficulties, elections 'were always judged to be fair and open.' She admits that economic reform in Bulgaria has been 'more costly and difficult. We had to entirely change notions in the minds of the people, though people were thinking differently [from the Communist system] even before 1990.'

The concept of private property was nearly non-existent prior to the change in government. While Bulgarians had limited personal property—they could own their flat, their car, their small country house—industrial property was entirely state-owned. One of the first tasks of the new system was to restitute property that had been taken from its original owners and nationalized. But the properties had to be made productive, so the question then arose: what to do with these properties?

The Ambassador offers a personal example. Her grandfather had started the knitting industry in Bulgaria. His facilities were taken in 1947, following the Communist takeover, and converted into a kindergarten. With the fall of the Communists, the property was returned to the family, divided among eight heirs. It is now, she says, 'a monument,' as the heirs cannot agree as to what to do with it and, moreover, have no available resources. 'It would serve no functional purpose, as there is no longer a knitting industry in that town—certainly not as it used to be.' Ambassador Poptodorova’s story underlines the economic difficulties faced by all of the former Warsaw Bloc countries: delivering personal justice through return of confiscated properties does not solve the country’s economic ills.

Nevertheless, Bulgaria has privatized 'almost 100 percent' of the nation’s industries. The government has also started to develop the idea of public property. What remains to be privatized are the energy sector, Bulgarian Telecommunications and one large savings bank. All other banks have been purchased by 'big buyers' such as AIG, Unicredito, Deutsche Bank, Bank of Austria, Société Générale, and some Greek banks. The Bulgarian Government hopes for robust US investment in the energy sector of the country.

Many authorities have compared Bulgaria’s transition to that of Spain, but the ambassador says the comparison is valid only politically. 'Bulgaria had to learn the ABCs of a market economy.' Bulgaria also paid a heavy price for the wars in the Balkans. 'We were cut off from Europe,' she says, 'just as we were trying to get on our feet.' The most direct route for Bulgarian goods to the rest of Europe is through Serbia. That route was severed both by war and by sanctions.

Bulgaria suffered not only these direct losses, but also indirect losses, as no investors were willing to come near a war zone. One investor that arrived in 1990—and stayed—was American Standard. They not only honored their original investment, they built a second plant. In the town where those plants are located, the ambassador says, 'there is no unemployment, and the average salary is twice or three times that elsewhere in the country.' American Standard also benefited, as the Bulgarian financial director for the original plant was called back two years later, and is now Financial Vice-President of the company.

Looking Toward a Brighter Future

Despite these difficulties, the country is 'economically stable' says the ambassador. The disruption of trade through the former Yugoslavia forced Bulgaria and its northern neighbor, Romania, to agree to construct a second bridge over the Danube—after years of quibbling as to where the bridge should be built. Construction should begin within the year, lessening both countries’ dependence on the former Yugoslavia.

Domestically, Bulgaria has a currency board, low inflation and economic growth of 4-4.5 percent. It has moved forcefully to rewrite laws that formerly allowed nepotism and discouraged—or blocked—competition. There are still problems, though: the birth rate is less than zero, unemployment stands at 17 percent, and there still needs to be a restructuring of the economy. 'We should bring about higher employment and greater efficiency of enterprises. But we need more investment.' Areas of particular interest to investors are agriculture, energy, and roads. The ambassador says that several transport corridors have been discussed. These would bring together Romania, Bulgaria and Greece; and Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania and Italy—both routes directly linking Bulgaria to its main European market.

In the international arena, Bulgaria has applied for membership to both the EU and NATO. 'When we started changes in 1990,' Ambassador Poptodorova says, 'we knew we were heading for the West. For us, the US and EU are parts of one entity.' Bulgaria, she says, has been involved in 'very intensive' negotiations with the EU. The country has opened all 31 chapters of the European Treaty, and closed 23 of them, 12 within the last year. EU membership is one reason that Bulgaria has worked so hard on economic policy. In its last annual report, the European Commission described Bulgaria as democratic, economically and financially stable, and 'close to a functioning market economy.' This year, she says, she hopes Bulgaria will be rated a 'functioning market economy.'

While membership in the European Union is important to Bulgaria, paramount for the country is NATO membership. She notes that there has been uncertainty in the Alliance whether Bulgaria—and Romania—should become members. In the last three months, though, 'there has been a positive change in attitude on Capitol Hill.' Afghanistan, the 'war on terror' and possible military action in Iraq has 'changed the whole setup.'

Bulgaria, the ambassador says, 'reacted in a prompt, unequivocal manner' to the attacks on the US last September. On September 11 itself, the Bulgarian Parliament voted to join the US immediately against terrorism. There had always been a debate within Bulgaria whether or not to join NATO, but September 11 brought unanimous political agreement. Bulgaria also formally granted an airbase in Burgas, on the Black Sea, to the US. This, the ambassador notes, 'was the first military base ever offered to a foreign country.'

Whereas the first three former Communist countries granted NATO membership—Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary—were admitted on political grounds, NATO now has action plans with specific requirements of aspirants. These requirements cover the economy, legislation, army, rule of law and democracy—'they are a complete picture of transformation.' Bulgaria’s military reforms have been lauded by the US. Formerly, the country of eight million had an army of 120,000. The army is now down to 60,000, with a target of 45,000.

Bulgaria is also gradually moving from a conscript army to a professional one. There has also been a large release of high officers; following the Soviet model, the Bulgarian army had more officers than NCOs. Soldiers are undergoing training in English, as communication and interoperability are a challenge. Military bases have been closed, and obsolete small arms taken out of service.

As a military alliance for most of its history, NATO was pledged to protect its members against the enemy. Given the changes of the last dozen years, that section of Bulgarian society that has been wary of joining NATO has been asking: who is the enemy now? Ambassador Poptodorova noted that the classical paradigm of enemy/friend has changed, especially with the recent cooperation between the US and Russia. 'For us,' she says, 'joining NATO is not an issue of pinpointing an enemy, but an accreditation to a club we want to belong to—it is a way of life, an identity.

'To be a member of NATO is also a certificate of democracy.' She says this last point is important even to investors. 'I have had CEOs of companies come up to me and ask, ‘Is Bulgaria in NATO?’' EU membership, she continues, 'is a different flavor—it is more an economic issue, allowing us to share in a common market. NATO membership is more an ideological answer to the past. NATO membership would mark a real closing of the Yalta page of history.'

Summarizing her country’s arguments in favor of admission to NATO, the ambassador lists six items: Bulgaria has been a source of stability in the region; it is a model of ethnic tolerance; the country granted airspace rights during the Kosovo crisis; it has been a de facto ally of the US after September 11; and it is politically, economically and financially stable, which is good for investment.

Ambassador Poptodorova lays particular emphasis on Bulgarian ethnic tolerance. She notes that during World War II, not one Bulgarian Jew was sent to German concentration camps—despite Bulgaria being a German ally at the time. She also notes that today Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister is Jewish and 'enjoys the highest approval rating of any minister.' In addition, the junior coalition partner in the current government is the Turkish ethnic party, showing that the country’s Muslims are integrated into Bulgaria’s society and government.

Bulgaria’s Attraction for Tourists

For visitors, Bulgaria has a lot of everything. On an ancient crossroads of peoples, Bulgaria’s oldest archeological find dates to 4600 BC. Thracian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman sites are found throughout the country. Its artistic heritage is equally varied and rich in architecture, painting, music and folklore. The Black Sea coast offers beaches and resorts, the mountains that cover the country’s interior—some of the largest in Central Europe—offer hiking and camping in summer and skiing in the winter. Bulgaria has some 3,000 species of flora and 13,000 of fauna. Bulgaria has over 600 natural hot springs, which have been used since Roman times. It is a must destination for historians.

At the moment, the focus of all Ambassador Poptodorova’s high energy is NATO membership. This, she says, will largely monopolize her time until late November, when NATO meets in Prague to decide on the seven aspirant countries’ accession. After November, Ambassador Poptodorova says she would like to divide her time between politics and business. 'I would like to use the good offices of the Bulgarian Caucus, established in June, to help identify chances for investment.

As she is called to her next meeting, the Ambassador says that she is glad Washington is such a vibrant city. "If it weren’t, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself."