Outgoing American Ambassador John Beyrle speaks out on the legacies of Communism, the amalgamation of organised crime and politics, Sofia's traffic jams and Bulgaria's minerals
"An ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country," once said the English diplomat Henry Wotton Jr (1568-1639). In the world of diplomacy, Wotton's wisdom largely holds true to this day. But there are exceptions (that only confirm the rule) - especially if you ask the Bulgarians. During the past three years they have become used to an unusually honest and straightforward American ambassador who's rarely hesitated to call a spade a spade. Indeed, this is exactly where outgoing American Ambassador John Beyrle has made his mark in a country that's become accustomed to a political establishment infrequently saying what it does and even less frequently doing what it says.
When John Beyrle arrived in Bulgaria in September 2005 he instantly shocked the Bulgarians with a number of things. First, his Bulgarian was excellent: he had served in the American Embassy in Sofia in 1985-1987, at the beginning of the end of Communism when Todor Zhivkov and his cronies were forcing the Bulgarian Turks to change their names into Bulgarian ones. Beyrle would never forget that period - and the language.
Confident with the language, John Beyrle would show up everywhere - including places few ambassadors would be seen in.
One of the highlights of his day would be the long walks from the Doctors' Garden, where the American Residence is, to the outer reaches of the Borisov Park. He would dine with presidents and prime ministers, but immediately after he would sit with ordinary folk and discuss everyday problems with them. He would visit Vagabond's editorial offices and then be seen in attendance of the launch of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - with his wife Jocelyn Greene and daughters Alison and Caroline.
Most important of all, however, is that he would speak on issues the Bulgarian political establishment keeps quiet about. This is exactly what endeared him so much to the Bulgarians. In a country where some media would quote Reuters and the BBC on sensitive issues taking place right in the middle of Sofia, John Beyrle has been forthright, sometimes even blunt. He would make no pretence that there has been any progress in the fight against organised crime, he would persistently refer to the links between the local mafia, the big businesses and the politicians, and he would constantly inveigh about corruption as a way of life.
Yes, John Beyrle will be remembered and missed by many honest and forward-looking Bulgarians now that he is leaving to become the American Ambassador to Russia. Here is his final touch before his departure for Moscow.
Three things that have changed for the better since you came here three years ago?
The economy is stronger, definitely. Many people don't feel that, especially in some of the more depressed regions of the country. But incomes are up. And when I talk to Bulgarians and they complain about the economy, I say to them sometimes: “Did you buy a DVD player last year? Have you bought a new washing machine recently, a new car?” And the answer is yes. There is a consumer boom going on here, but obviously there are still economic problems. So the economy is better. Investment has improved tremendously. It's almost tripled since I arrived here.
It's very hard to produce numbers because it depends on how you actually calculate American investment. A lot of American investment flows through banks in Western Europe - so it's not coined as American investment. But the three largest investments in Bulgaria now are American: BTC, AIG and the Maritsa Iztok Power Plant that AES is building. I can also mention the Tishman Sofia Airport Centre. So those are three things that have changed for the better.
The Bulgarian nurses spent eight years in Libyan jail before being sent back home as a result of an international diplomatic effort where the United States played a key role
OK, but these were two. Economy, investment and..?
Bulgaria is a member of the EU. I'll tell you what the biggest change for the better is, the number one change for the better is – the Bulgarian nurses are back home from Libya. That for me will always define my stay here. The nurses are back. That's a huge change for the better. Thank God.
There have been speculations about the US involvement in this…
Well, we made it very, very clear to the Libyans that the kind of relationship that they wanted to have with the United States was impossible as long as those women and the doctor were held unjustly in prison. That was made very clear to them. And it was very clear that they wanted to improve their relations with the United States and with the EU. That's where we played a role.
And the three things that changed for the worse?
The traffic in Sofia. I hate to speak in the language of clichés, but the number of cars on the road today versus what I encountered when I got here three years ago is markedly bigger and almost out of control. It's a very bad situation. Related to that is the quality of the roads. I would say that the quality of the roads is even worse now than it was 20 years ago, simply because of the increase in car purchases. This is obviously a side benefit of an improving economy, but this is the negative aspect of it. The third thing that has changed for the worse is the mood of the Bulgarian people. It is a bit more pessimistic now than it was when I first arrived. Part of that is because of the usual cycle of governments. When you come to the end of the mandate of a government, whether it's in the United States or in Bulgaria, people's expectations to some degree haven't been met and that's reflected in the way they feel.
Worse than Manhattan?
Is it only unfulfilled hopes, unfulfilled promises, or is it in general the mood?
I think it's hard for the Bulgarians to deal with the world that Bulgaria is a part of now. For many, many years the Bulgarians had the luxury of seeing their country as a small Balkan entity, whose fate was really in the hands of someone else. I think part of the negative attitude is linked to the fact that the Bulgarian fate is really in the hands of Bulgarians now. People need to work harder. There needs to be a stronger strategic sense of where Bulgaria fits into Europe and even globally as a member of NATO, as a member of the EU. And it's hard for people, it's hard for a new generation to come to terms with this reality and that inevitably makes some people a bit more cynical.
You are describing a classical example of an identity crisis.
Right. But I think Bulgaria can come out of the identity crisis in pretty good shape because of the natural advantages that the country has.
Bulgaria's geostrategic location means that it will always matter, as so much commerce travels across the country and it's a good jumping point, not only to Europe, but to Africa and Asia. Also in terms of global challenges - whether we are talking about non-proliferation issues, weapons of mass destruction, gun running and trafficking of persons - Bulgaria, for better or for worse, is always going to be a major player because of where it sits. I think it's shown through the relationship that we've built with Bulgaria over the last six-seven years that it can be a force for good.
Which brings us to the question of organised crime in Bulgaria. What or who has blocked the fight against organised crime in Bulgaria? Is it a matter of (mis)management? A matter of lacking political will? Of corruption?
Firstly, there is lack of political will on the part of some political leaders here to make a clean break from the shadowy way that things have been done in the past. There needs to be a clean break, but some politicians here are reluctant to make that break. Second, there is the lack of enforceable legislation, regulations regarding the financing of political parties here. A large wellspring of corruption here is linked to the fact that political parties get funding from questionable people or entities in a way that is totally intransparent to the Bulgarian media, to the Bulgarian people and to the members of the parties themselves. Party financing is a big problem. The third obstacle is the apathy and cynicism that I described earlier. Too many Bulgarians just don't believe that change is possible and they don't see how they themselves could have any effect on how their country is run. But this is a democracy now - people need to learn that in a democracy you gotta do things. Things don't just happen. I mean democracy is not a theory, it's something you do every day. If you stop doing it – then you don't have democracy. But that mentality perseveres, especially when you put it up against entrenched business “interests” here that are so entwined in corruption. It's a bad fit.
Attending an Orthodox mass to commemorate the victims of 9/11
Has organised crime and corruption become amalgamated with the political establishment?
Absolutely, because shadowy business entities are able to finance political parties and politicians directly, without any light being shed on what they are doing. That's an invitation to the distortion to the way normal societies should work.
At the end of his term in Bulgaria John Beyrle was awarded with the highest state order
Can you be more specific? Can you name names?
No, I don't name names. Naming names doesn't help the problem. It is a distraction. It causes the people who are named to defend themselves. We are not talking about named individuals; we are talking about a system in which a large number of people are able to operate in ways that are not in the long term interest of this country.
The tripartite coalition ruling Bulgaria since 2005. Is it effective? Can it be more effective?
I think that the tripartite coalition has gotten a lot of things done, more things than people initially expected. All grand coalitions by nature tend to be slow because managing a broad political spectrum in a ruling coalition requires compromises. It's hard to push bold things forward. But we've seen things pushed forward here: for instance, reform of the intelligence services and now reforms, hopefully, of the Interior Ministry itself. So I think expectations have to be manageable, obviously, in this last year of coalition. But I think that the prime minister in particular has shown his ability to get things done in spite of the restraints of working in a grand coalition.
What do you value most - stability or the quality of democracy?
Bulgaria could have both. Democracy is a process of improving your country. For me, the more stable and predictable a country is, the better the chances that democracy can flourish - in the sense that at the end of the day the rulers feel they are accountable to the people they rule. Creating a stable and predictable economic, electoral and judicial environment all contributes to that.
Are the Bulgarian rulers accountable to their voters?
No, I don't think so, based on many conversations that I had with Bulgarians across the country. And they've come up to me because they know I speak Bulgarian and they just let forth. So I know that there is a lot of feeling here of disconnection between people and government. Even though they vote for their representatives and their president, they don't feel a connection between their participation in the society and the decisions that are made at the top. That needs to be fixed.
Now a couple of questions about Bulgaria's past. We are seeing some of the Communist-era State Security archives being declassified, making Bulgaria the last former Soviet satellite that is trying to come to terms with its repressive past. What are your views on this process? First of all, is it necessary?
It is necessary for any society to examine its past. It's necessary for the United States to continually examine what happened to the Native American Indians in the 19th Century. This is part of being a healthy society. You look at your past and you try to speak the truth. You try to understand what happened. But it's difficult in all of these societies to judge people and individuals. I lived in Communist countries, including the Soviet Union and Bulgaria, for most of my adult life but because I was an American diplomat I was not subject to the same pressures as the actual citizens of those countries. However, I certainly felt those pressures in people I came into contact with. I know that surviving in that environment entailed daily compromises: compromises to put food on your table, compromises to help your kids see a doctor, or get into university. And so it's very difficult for me to see the judgement of anyone based on incomplete, distorted and sometimes outright incorrect information in archives. But those archives need to be looked at. All of that information needs to be studied. Scholars, citizens and the society at large need to come to their own conclusions.
Of course, there is the question of the authenticity of what remains in the archives.
That's exactly my point.
But still, something does remain in the archives. They've got a panel now. They are looking at those things. We have a very famous example of the president himself, who apparently signed a declaration of collaboration with the former security services a few days before Communism came to an end in Bulgaria. Now the question that many Bulgarians ask at the moment is how can we believe the president?
It makes no difference to people whether he was indeed a collaborator because obviously whatever he did as a collaborator presumably didn't harm anybody. The issue is that he actually lied about it. Do you have a standpoint on this?Again, I don't like to get into individuals here. It seems to me that the Bulgarians are frankly not that concerned. They are happy that there is a commission looking at this. The commission appears to be doing a much better job with this than a lot of people predicted. Many people had thought that it would be a political enterprise and no one would have any faith even in the people doing the work. I think that hasn't been born out. They've done this in a very professional and credible way. Many Bulgarians are just following the old biblical admonition “Judge not, lest ye be judged”. It's very difficult for any of us today to speak about what pressures, what influences, what threats any Bulgarian was working under in what was a very repressive system from 1948 until 1990.
My point is that it doesn't matter who collaborated and who didn't collaborate, but a matter of who made Bulgaria what it is now, in 2008. During the 1990s, the Communist money obviously went to people who had connections or relationships with State Security. In the 1990s, when Bulgarian capitalism was being forged, the big money came from breaking the international embargo against Yugoslavia, from arms smuggling, from running smaller or bigger rackets by former wrestlers. Behind every great fortune there is a crime. Do you think that this panel needs to look at that particular aspect of Bulgaria's Communist past, or should it let bygones be bygones?
That really is for the commission or the Bulgarian people to decide. My understanding is they are looking at the archives before the changes. What happened after the changes happened in a different country, in a very different country that was freer. And that needs to be held to a different standard than Communist Bulgaria. It presupposes a whole different set of assumptions on how you go about trying to establish who did what in the 1990s. This is not unique to Bulgaria. All the countries of the former Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet Union to a greater or lesser degree went through a very uncontrolled period in the 1990s. And there is no question that crimes were committed. But how many of those crimes are actually able to be adjudicated now?
The Rhodope will never cease to amaze
Moving on. What's your favourite place in Bulgaria?
Really, I love the Rhodope. Probably my favourite place is Krichim - I need to get a map out to tell you the route. As you take a road down through Batak and then down towards Devin, there is a place with a beautiful overlook of one of the dams. It's just a magical place. I'd say if I could just transport myself anywhere on a nice morning when the air has that sort of Rhodope morning smell – that's where I would stop time and just sit for a while and enjoy myself. Yeah, you are very high up and looking down on the city, the reservoir and the mountains – the very low Rhodope. At that moment you want to be a bird because you just want to go off the balcony.
Your favourite place in Sofia?
It's in Borisov Park, what I call the wild side of Borisov Park, across the Peyo Yavorov Boulevard. If you go deep into that forest there is a clearing and in the middle of that clearing there is a huge cedar tree that's probably 30 metres taller than any of the trees, easily 50 metres. And there is a clearing around it. There is a bench. It's deep inside. You almost can't hear the traffic. Sometimes I'll just walk there and I'll just sit. It's very peaceful. The tree − the power that comes from that enormous straight cedar. I have a lot of favourite places, but I tend to like nature. When you live in the city, I think your favourite places sometimes are far from the maddening crowd.
Three pieces of advice you have for Americans who come to Bulgaria to do business?
My first piece of advice is: schedule a meeting with the American Chamber of Commerce in Bulgaria. Meet with the executive director. He is one of the most positive, forward-looking Bulgarians I know. Get plugged in the chamber. That will help you a lot. Second - this is a good advice for any businessman working in a foreign environment – hire yourself a good lawyer to help you understand the sometimes unpredictable environment here. And the third thing is, get to know your workforce, get to know the Bulgarians that work for you and understand why they are working for you, how they see their future because how they see their future is going to influence your success in doing business here.
And a bit of advice for travellers and visitors?
Get off the beaten path, find a place that's not overrun by tourists, in other words – not Bansko in January, not Zlatni Pyasatsi in July. And when you go there, find a way to meet real Bulgarians. Get to know the spirit of Bulgarian people. Apart from politics, apart from economics, get to know who the Bulgarians are as a people because that to me is what I'll miss most about this place. It's just the spirituality of people.
The three things you are leaving Bulgaria with?
They are all mineral. One is a rock that I got when I went out to Belogradchik, which is also one of my favourite places. It's second on the list, right after Rhodope. Belogradchik to me is also kind of a magical place. And there are a lot of orange rocks lying around. Second - I collect sand from beaches that I visit all around the world. I have some sand from the beach in Sozopol. And it's, you know, a little less developed and quieter, so the sand is of a higher quality too. The third thing - I hope by the time this is published, I hope when they do the repaving of the yellow bricks in the centre of Sofia, they will have one brick left over that they can give me as a souvenir.