interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

German ambassador on things that 'should not be tolerated' in an EU country

Matthias Hoepfner.jpg

For the past nearly five years he's been in Bulgaria. German Ambassador Matthias Hoepfner has gained notoriety for his candour and outspokenness on issues that other Western ambassadors have chosen to eschew. In spite of – or perhaps because of – his long career in the German Foreign Ministry, Matthias Hoepfner knows how to do two seemingly self-contradictory things: remain diplomatic "to the backbone" and at the same time hit the nail right on the head. He has spared neither the previous, nor the current political establishment in Bulgaria as he has on numerous occasions been critical to both – and here I refer to a very wide range of issues including media freedoms and journalistic independence, minority rights, tolerance, the economy, the conduct of politicians, and – yes – specific political appointments. It is a pleasure to sit in Matthias Hoepfner's cosy office on the top floor of the embassy building in Iztok Quarter of Sofia, and as I know he is a no-nonsense man, I decide to shoot off with a tough question. Is Bulgaria a better place now than it was when you first arrived – politically, economically, socially? Why?

My answer is yes and no. During my tenure in Sofia I have noticed a lot of interesting developments. Some of them give reason for great hope, some of them have left me with the feeling that a lot still remains to be done. Let us start with the economy.

There have been some serious problems for German investment here. The German export credit insurance, for example, has had a major case of loss which cost the German taxpayer a considerable amount of money. I am talking about the debts still owed by Bulgarian state railway BDZh for the import of passenger trains. Cases like this makes German government support for future exports and investments quite difficult. Moreover, several German companies have had disappointing experiences with the law enforcement system and the rule of law in Bulgaria. We are continuously working with the Bulgarian government to resolve these issues, but I have the feeling that there is still a strong need for further improvement.

On the other hand, during my stay here I was able to witness some very positive results in infrastructure projects. When I arrived here, the first Sofia metro line had just been opened. Now the metro has already two lines. The metro delivers a great service for the people in the capital, it reduces road traffic and thereby improves air quality in the city. In road development, there have also been some significant successes. When I arrived, the trip to Burgas was still a bit adventurous. Today it is easy highway driving. All in all, it is a mixed picture economically.

The same goes true for political and social developments. It is very discouraging that the rating of Bulgaria in the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders has been plummeting during the past few years. When I arrived, Bulgaria was on 68th position, after an already steep fall from the 35th position it held when it entered the EU. Bulgaria has persistently dropped further to its current position 100, the lowest position any EU country has ever held in the history of this index. Free and independent media are one of the most important foundations of democracy and also an indispensable precondition for prosperity in a modern market economy.

The current state of affairs should not be tolerated in an EU country. Urgent action is necessary.

At the same time, it is my impression that many Bulgarians are increasingly determined to stand up for their rights and they are asking for more civic participation in politics. I am very pleased to see a growing, vibrant civil society which seemed hardly imaginable when I arrived here in 2009. I am confident that in the next few years the rising strength of civil society will support positive developments in all spheres of Bulgarian public life. This is an encouraging trend.

Finally, I am happy to say that I was able to witness, and in some cases to support, some very positive developments in German-Bulgarian relations. With the help of the Bulgarian authorities, we could intensify further our cooperation in education, for instance by building up our German School here in Sofia. We also managed, after long years of negotiations, to exchange ownership of our Embassy site here in Sofia with the site of the Bulgarian Embassy in Central Berlin, which opens up great opportunities for developing Germany’s presence in Sofia.

Matthias Hoepfner

Depending on their political preferences, many Bulgarian media claim that the current government is in international isolation. Is there any substance to that? What is the attitude of Germany?

The political situation in Bulgaria is clearly not easy, and the current government is facing a number of serious challenges, like establishing a stable majority in parliament. But I would not say that this government is isolated. Bulgaria is firmly committed to the EU and NATO, and of course Bulgaria continues to participate in all major international events and in all the usual consultation formats.

As far as German-Bulgarian relations are concerned, we observe some developments in Bulgaria with concern, but this does not keep us from cooperating closely. In February and March, four Bulgarian ministers paid visits to their counterparts in Berlin – the ministers for foreign affairs, for economic affairs, for labour and for health. More visits are most probably going to take place in the not too distant future. These visits are more than just courtesy calls. It is important to exchange views regularly among EU partners. This quite normally includes critical observations including in the areas I mentioned before.

The leader of the GERB opposition, Boyko Borisov, often claims he had (and continues to have) a close working relationship with Federal Chancellor Merkel. Is this known in Germany?

Of course Chancellor Merkel and Boyko Borisov have met on numerous occasions. From 2009 until 2013, they simultaneously represented their respective country as heads of government at countless EU meetings, and they have had several bilateral meetings. And of course, Mr Borisov’s and Ms Merkel’s party are in the same parliamentary group in the European Parliament, so there have been several European party meetings where they have met. Given the multitude of routinely held political contacts in international and in European affairs such meetings are not necessarily a matter of prominent public attention. The average German citizen expects their representatives to achieve the best possible results with their respective counterparts without highlighting each and every meeting.

If you were to outline the three main problems faced by Bulgaria in 2014, what would they be?

For 2014, I am still worrying about the demographic problem. A country like Bulgaria suffers a lot when so many young people are leaving, or are thinking about leaving. Combined with the low birth rate, this has serious long-term consequences for Bulgarian society and its social stability. I am glad to see that some young Bulgarians are starting to come back from abroad, maybe also because of the hope that emanates from the rise of civil society, but the trend has not yet been reversed.

Talking about the economy, I would like to stress that Bulgaria should continue its efforts to improve the investment climate for foreign direct investment and raise Bulgaria’s international competitiveness. International capital is – as we all know – shy as a deer. This is equally true for German investors. They need a reliable legal system and stable conditions for their investment decisions.

This leads directly to the third point. During my five years in Sofia I have regularly made critical remarks on the situation in the fields of justice and home affairs as well as the media sector. I believe that the challenges in these areas are at the root of all the other problems. Deficiencies in the media sector hamper the effective monitoring of governance by civil society while deficiencies in the legal system impede economic development. Slow economic development leads to young people leaving the country. It also undermines the trust of citizens in the entire political class and creates a prevailing impression of strong justice deficiencies including one-sided patronage favouring a small number of vested interest groups. The recent CVM Report of the EU Commission, although politely worded, is quite clear about these deficiencies. All these problems are certainly interconnected and require a strong political will to change. The patience of Bulgarian citizens seems to be waning.

If you were to outline the three main achievements of the current government, what would they be?

The current government has been in office for only nine months. Therefore I think it would be slightly premature and inadequate to make any comprehensive assessments.

Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the current government is not wavering in its commitment to continue Bulgaria’s long-standing policy of macroeconomic stability. I think that this government has taken a number of decisions to keep inflation and the budget deficit under control. Other EU member states could see Bulgaria as a positive example in this respect.

Two additional achievements would be the slowly improving infrastructure and the government’s clear-cut position on extremist movements. The recent joint declaration of Prime Minister Oresharski and President Plevneliev on maintaining interethnic tolerance and respect is an encouraging example.

What is your attitude to the current wave of extremist sentiments in Bulgaria – Ataka, the assault on the mosque in Plovdiv, the so-called Lukov march, which was banned by the Mayor of Sofia, but nevertheless took place at another location? Can anything like this happen in Germany?

I have followed the incidents at the Dzhumaya Mosque with concern. The German Embassy issued a public statement to condemn all acts of intolerance and xenophobia. The right of freely expressing one’s opinion must not be misused to spread hate and violence. We welcome the efforts of the Bulgarian government to stabilise the situation between the different ethnic groups and to fight religious intolerance. Ms Fandakova, the mayor of Sofia, should be credited for her decision on the so-called Lukov march. In modern societies, the question is not so much whether there is extremism. Most, if not all societies including Germany, have to deal with some kind of extremist movements. The question is rather how citizens and the state handle them. Extremists should know that acts of intolerance and xenophobia will not be tolerated by the mainstream society. Therefore it is important to speak up and oppose extremism openly, and without intimidation. I am very glad to see, that many representatives of the Bulgarian society did so in the last
few weeks.


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