ANICK VAN CALSTER

interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Belgian ambassador stresses importance of accountability

Anick Van Calster.jpg

A fragile woman, who is the mother of three, Anick Van Calster is unusually outspoken for an ambassador. She has been in Bulgaria for just a year, but that appears to have been sufficient for her to get to know not only the Bulgarian politics of the day – an achievement in itself having in mind how complicated, opaque and irrational this can be; but also to travel round the country and explore Bulgarian culture, heritage and cuisine. With wide experience in various diplomatic postings in the Middle East (The United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and so on) and with special appointments at the Belgian Royal Court behind her, Anick seems to be feeling pretty much at home in Sofia – in the heat of possibly Bulgaria's most turbulent summer since Communism collapsed in 1989.

One year may be enough to get to know a country the size of Bulgaria, but is it a sufficiently long period to get to know its people?

When I arrived here last August the election campaign had already started, of course unofficially. What struck me was that the debate was very harsh and very personal. Well, the election came, and it came earlier than expected. In February, there was a spade of protests about economic issues that forced the former government to resign and call a snap ballot. At the time there were various media speculations: were the protests organised or not organised, did people get paid to participate and so on. One thing is clear, however. The economic reality is very harsh for many Bulgarians especially in wintertime when they are faced with having to pay high electricity bills.

Is Bulgaria a better place now than it was a year ago?

The facts are these: you had an election which produced a difficult result. For any politician anywhere in the world this would be a difficult situation. Still, a government was formed. Very soon after that, following a controversial appointment, we saw many people taking to the streets to protest.

What does this indicate?

In my view, people demand accountability. There have been free elections, now there is a government, and they feel the government has to work for the interest of the whole population. The protesters have doubts whether this government is able or willing to do this, but it is also a message of grander proportions that seeks to address not just the incumbent government but the whole political class.

When I came to Bulgaria I was told that civil society was not very strong. There were a number of movements mainly around environmentalist topics, but apart from them not much happened. Then all of a sudden there appeared a large group of people who did not take to the streets for economic, but for purely political reasons. I think it is positive that people show their concerns about the political system, and I trust that there will be more civil society control over the politicians.

What do you think will the ongoing protests evolve into?

That depends on a number of circumstances. There are similarities between the Bulgarian protests and massive protests in other countries, and of course there are differences. The similarities include the common call for accountability and the way the protests are organised – mainly through social media. This has an obvious advantage: the message spreads very quickly. But it is also its weakness – they have no leaders. This makes it also difficult to dialogue with them.

What the protests lead to depends not only on the protestors but also on the way the authorities, including the police, react.

In Bulgaria, the police have been a positive example in that there have been very few incidents.

Let me put the question in a slightly different way. Can something like this happen in Brussels? You've got over 60 days of continuous rallies in the middle of town, disrupting the traffic and the daily routine of many citizens who do not subscribe to them. The police do nothing except protecting the protestors. Could that conceivably happen in Belgium?

In Belgium, I guess the government reaction would depend on many factors but here would probably be a stronger political reaction, there would probably be an invitation to dialogue – to which then of course there would have to be a reply from the other side.

I think there are two ways for the situation in Bulgaria to develop. One is for the protestors to define their demands in a more clear-cut fashion, or to disperse. The other, which we should hope for, is for those citizens who have clearly shown an interest in politics and a concern for the future of their country to get involved through new parties or the existing parties. That's for me the best possible outcome.

What is the worst-case scenario?

I think there are many other people that are much better than me at imagining worst-case scenarios.

If you were a Bulgarian, what would you do?

I am a civil servant and that's the way I try to contribute to the prosperity of my country. If I were a Bulgarian I would probably also look for a way to contribute.

Do you think Bulgaria can overcome the current impasse on its own, or does it need outside help?

It strikes me that Bulgarians very often look to the outside to find solutions or problems. In the difficult situation now I see Bulgarians asking around, who is going to help us?

I think the Bulgarians have to do it for themselves. Of course, Bulgaria has friends, being a member of the EU and NATO and so on. There can be sharing of examples, best practices, encouragements, and so on. But ultimately the Bulgarians will have to do it themselves. The Bulgarians should trust that they can do it.

Does Belgium have a stand on parties like Ataka?

We do not have a stand on any foreign political party. In Belgium, we are concerned about the legality of any action by any political party. If a politician in Belgium indulges in antisemitic language or hate speech or is be breaking the law in any other way, you can start a court case against this person.
We come again to the issue of tolerance.

As I said, what strikes me in Bulgaria is that the political language has been very brutal, both before and after the election. Still, this is a representative democracy. Each member of parliament represents the people who voted for him or her but the government also has to represent the people who did not vote for them. If two political leaders do not like each other, this is their problem. But their dislike for each other should not be allowed to influence the development of the country. I often see little room for compromise or large consensus, something we Belgians are said to be champions at.

It is one of the basic principles of democracy that politicians acknowledge their responsibility to the citizens – and that they try to gather a large consensus.

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