text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

New British ambassador speaks out on Bulgaria's ups and downs, getting robbed and the importance of registering with the consulate

Jonathan Allen 2.jpg
We sat in a side room of the British residence in central Sofia a day after someone had broken the window of Jonathan Allen's Landrover and stolen his GPS. Of course, this could happen anywhere, Allen laughed, noting that his car has been broken into three times in five months, the other two in the UK. The Bulgarian police were very efficient, he told me. "At the end of the report-filing procedure – I did learn some new vocabulary, ogled – the policewoman said, because you are a foreigner we will have to inform your embassy. OK, I said, I am well connected with the British Embassy."

Sofia is the third overseas posting, after Nicosia and Brussels, for the 37-year-old Nottinghamian, Jonathan Allen. Having served in various FCO positions, including having responsibility for East Africa and the Great Lakes and founding an intergovernmental counterterrorism communications unit, Allen arrived in Bulgaria at the beginning of 2012. Initially, he spent a month living with a Bulgarian family in Plovdiv and studying Bulgarian, as part of the Foreign Office procedure to acquaint its diplomats with local culture and customs. Famously, he went to a chalga bar in Plovdiv, an event that the Bulgarian press instantly picked up and circulated, much to the bemusement of the Bulgarian public, split as it is along the Great Pro-Anti-Chalga Divide.

There is nothing more boring than talking with an ambassador...

That's true. You should ask my daughter...

... unless you make it very informal.

One of my views is that people misuse the word "diplomatic" far too much. People perceive "diplomatic" as not saying anything and looking inscrutable, in which case I don't think it is the right job for me. Talking diplomatically is getting the message over in the most appropriate way. I was asked to give a lecture on bilateral relations at the Diplomatic Institute in Sofia. I said, no – I will give you one on what is the point of diplomats. We have to be actors, not observers.

What are the most common issues your embassy has regarding expats living in Bulgaria?

People getting caught up in the police system for whatever reason. My advice: remember you are not at home. They do things differently in different countries. Some people do overseas what they would never do at home, in every sense. If you are in trouble, just follow the procedures, stay calm, be polite.

Another issue we encounter quite often is property investments. There have been lots of problems there. You can always look at a particular case from two sides, and it's never absolutely clear what really happened. When you have investors who don't use independent legal advice or who don't check what the rules are in a foreign country, they would be doing things they wouldn't do at home. So, be quite careful.

Jonathan Allen

There are other cases when people have followed all the rules and what's happened to them is wrong. We do raise that a lot. I've done it with the minister of regional development, the minister of justice, the foreign minister, and I've mentioned it to the president. There is a real problem for the image of Bulgaria if people cannot enjoy their assets. Actually, quite often it comes to the slow justice system. Take an example: a British company becomes partners with a Bulgarian company, but the Bulgarian company goes bust because they've overextended themselves. In the UK that sort of problem would be over very quickly. Here you have to go through a much longer civil process. One of the things we are trying to achieve is that Britons in Bulgaria do not get especially preferential treatment or special justice, but swift justice. I think the vast majority of cases against Bulgaria at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg are about slow justice. This is not an issue for Brits, this is an issue for the Bulgarians.

What is worse in Bulgaria, slow justice or police brutality?

I haven't had any experience of Britons getting caught up in police brutality, but like every Bulgarian I followed what happened to that poor girl, Miroslava, in Pernik, and the odd circumstances that followed. My observations are the same as every Bulgarian, probably. We were all watching the news on the telly every night, and it was very hard to understand how this happened. My understanding is that most Bulgarians are hoping that at some point there will be an explanation. I don't think we've had one yet that everybody feels makes sense.

In 2006, when we started Vagabond, there were an estimated 60,000 expats living in Bulgaria, a significant proportion of them British. Now, according to the 2011 census, the number has plummeted to about 3,000, which I think is quite unrealistic. Do you have precise data about how many Britons there are in the country at the moment?

A lot of people don't bother to register with the embassy. I have heard all sorts of reasons for that. Some people moan that it takes ages, that the system is very slow. Other say – oh no, we will be linked up to the tax or child benefit offices. I wish that the British government was that efficient. Believe me, it's not. It really is incapable of doing that. This is my personal guarantee that this system cannot communicate with other government systems. It is simply used to locate people in a crisis. A lot of people think that can't happen in Bulgaria. But we've had this situation with a dam bursting, and it could have been a lot worse if it'd happened in another area. Also, Bulgaria is in an earthquake zone. So, it is very simple. If something happens here and we don't know where you are, we cannot come and get you.

We do not have the precise data, but we think that there are about 7,000 Brits living here permanently and another 7,000 have holiday homes. We have about 300,000 UK visitors per year.

Most expats seem to be very happy with their Bulgarian neighbours and feel very welcome. The complaints we hear concern mainly the authorities. For example, we heard that the water had been turned off in one area. A Briton called and said there was no water. It was no problem for him because he could stay with some friend elsewhere, but his next-door neighbour was an elderly Bulgarian woman who couldn't move. He was outraged on her behalf.

You have a small child. Is Bulgaria a good place to raise kids in?

My daughter Lucy, or Svetla in Bulgarian, will be seven months old this month. She has two teeth which she is very proud of. I come home and give her a bath every night. That's my way of not overstaying at the office. 

What aspects of Bulgaria would impress a Briton most?

A few things, really. I was very struck by the personal ties that people form with each other before they do business. When they are friends and colleagues, and when they've done business together, they keep these ties up. And I can see why this is so important. When you have a justice system that is a bit patchy and does not always deliver, you need to know who the person you are doing a deal with is. That's a very profound thing and probably dates back to the Balkan history of trading and never being really sure which court is going to enforce things and whose justice you should trust.

In Plovdiv I was struck by the amount of home-made food I had. Lukanka and rakiya and red wine, and lots and lots of pickled vegetables and lyutenitsa – all of those are homemade and stored in the garage. You wouldn't go to Manchester and find pots and jars and sausages in the garage... this indicates that in Bulgaria, even if you are living in a city, your heart is still in the countryside.

One thing that, as a historian, I find very striking is how much people in Bulgaria talk about the Ottoman period. It's as if people are still living the Ottoman atrocities every day. I know that in modern terms Bulgaria is a fairly new country; although the Bulgarian nation has existed for centuries, the modern country only dates back to 1878. Bulgaria's economic future perhaps lies with its powerful neighbour, Turkey, which is a major economic force in the region. Bulgaria is a country that sits between Turkey and its markets in Western Europe, yet I only hear about Turkey in the context of 1877 and the 500 years of Ottoman rule. I don't say it doesn't matter because it does: it is a matter of where this country came from, it is a matter of Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev and Ivan Vazov. But it's also history. It is not the future. I find this very interesting. Perhaps there ought to be another way at looking at Turkey. Bulgaria has a very good reason for supporting Turkey's membership of the EU, because in the EU you don't have wars among countries, you don't even have economic wars. You only fight over subclauses in the committee rooms in Brussels.

Should you be a pessimist or an optimist about Bulgaria?

Many Bulgarians seem to be pessimists. Many foreign ambassadors also seem to be pessimists. I hope I'm not being naive, but I think this can be a very interesting time for Bulgaria.


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