On an afternoon with sub-zero F temperatures, at Boyana church on the outskirts of Sofia in January 2010, I met the man who was to become the next ambassador of the United States to Bulgaria. It was only his second day in the country, yet James Warlick, on his ordinal ambassadorial posting abroad, already had a tight agenda. We admired the amazing ecclesiastical murals dating back to the Middle Ages, we visited Bozhidar Dimitrov's National Museum of History, and then we sat down for a coffee and a chat. That was probably Ambassador Warlick's most relaxed day in Bulgaria. From Day 3 he swooped into the media spotlight and will probably not leave it until he departs from Bulgaria for good, which will likely happen towards the end of the summer.
To a much larger extent than any of his predecessors in Bulgaria's short post-Communist history, Stanford-educated Washingtonian James Warlick "got involved" in every possible way. He wanted to be seen attending both charity and ballroom events, he hosted receptions for Californian wine producers and bluechip companies alike, and he never missed a chance to comment on domestic issues in Bulgaria, from controversial bills being debated in parliament to individuals arrested by the police on criminal charges.
In fact, his forthright outspokenness, especially when it came to defending in words as well as in deeds the policies of the current Bulgarian political establishment, has earned him both friends and critics. These fall roughly into two categories. The most prominent of the friendly group are Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his interior minister ‒ and for good reason. Bulgaria's top politicians at the moment will probably miss James Warlick because in him they will be losing a man who was ready to come to the rescue at any time, regardless of whether shale gas, nuclear power engineering or organised crime was at stake. The critical group includes many others, especially some of Bulgaria's intellectuals. These have persistently failed to understand why the American ambassador should be overstepping the thin line between championing what would be a good, worthy cause anywhere in the world, and so openly favouring one party over another.
The examples of this type of behaviour are many and varied, but to understand why the US State Department acted in this unusual way in Bulgaria one must seek the answers in Bulgaria, not in DC.
Simply put, Bulgaria was eager for this to happen.
Unlike the developed democracies in Western Europe, the Bulgarian political top brass and the general public have a peculiar attitude to Western, especially to American ambassadors. These are seen not so much as diplomats installed here to uphold the interests of the United States, but as umpires ‒ in cricket rather than baseball terms ‒ in domestic affairs where local politicians fail to agree and where citizens do not trust them. Unlike London, Berlin, Paris and Copenhagen, where hardly anyone knows the name of the American ambassador because very few citizens care, in Bulgaria they are treated as unofficial controllers, perhaps an echo of the days of Communism when the Soviet ambassador was the highest authority to grant or withdraw endorsements.
Now, on one of the hottest days of the year, we meet with James Warlick again in the comfort of his residence on Veliko Tarnovo Street in Central Sofia. His pup, Rudy, comes in to check things, and I cannot help but think that Bulgaria ‒ where the American ambassador is given the red-carpet treatment, as well as free air time any time he wishes ‒ must be a very easy country to be posted to.
"This is a beautiful country with wonderful people, Ambassador Warlick says at the beginning. As I have said so many times before, I just don't know an American who has come to Bulgaria either to live or to visit who hasn't loved it here. It's a great honour and a privilege to be the representative of the United States anywhere in the world, but I couldn't have asked for a better assignment."
You are leaving before the end of your term.
The media didn't get it right. Reading the articles one might get the impression that I was being recalled, which I am not.
During the time you spent here, can you name a few things that have changed for the better?
At the top of my list would have to be the strong and enduring relationship between the United States and Bulgaria. I think we've seen that relationship grow in so many ways. I am not just talking about the relationship between our governments, but people-to-people ties. I've done my best to make that a priority. It is not just about politics, or economics or business. It's also about art, music, education, and literature: all of the things that should be a part of our relationship. I think this is enduring. I don't see it changing, no matter what government is in power.
But with this particular government in Sofia you have stated that relations between Bulgaria and the United States have never been better.
Many of the things that we want are precisely the things that the Bulgarians want for themselves.
Like the rule of law. To deal with problems like crime and corruption. Without the rule of law nothing else will work.
As you know, I've talked a lot about energy issues. I have worked a lot on attracting foreign investors here. We have a strong relationship in the area of defence. We fight side by side in Afghanistan. We have an excellent law enforcement cooperation that's never been better. It's no accident that the DEA is setting up an office here.
The current government is very happy to proclaim its relentless fight against crime and corruption. At the same time, there are very few convictions. Does this mean that it is applying double standards?
You are right in the sense that everything needs to work together. It's not just about making arrests. It's also about the police collecting evidence that will hold up in court, prosecutors that present strong cases and, of course, judges who are professional and honest.
These are difficult problems to solve, but I think that the trend lines are in the right direction. The current prime minister and members of the judiciary cannot just snap their fingers and make things happen. It has to be a sustained effort over a long period of time. Of course, there will be setbacks along the way. We would all like to see those guilty of committing a crime being sent to prison. Justice should be served.
You have mentioned a number of areas where we've seen positive developments. But there are other areas in which there have been significant reversals. One example is the media. Another is corruption. Possibly a third is human rights.
I too am concerned about media freedom. The foundation of any democracy is a strong, free, independent press. I am concerned that the media is falling into the hands of a small number of people. Of course, there needs to be transparency in ownership. I would like to see a vibrant press where journalists are able to do the kind of investigative reporting that they should be doing and where editors are free to publish the kind of stories that they want. Journalists should be able to question and critique. All of that has to improve in Bulgaria and I hope that it will in the future.
Do you think this is a priority for the current government?
It's a question of what the current government can actually do about the freedom of the media. As far as I am aware there is nothing illegal that's happening here, it's just that the media has been concentrated in the hands of a small number of people. At the same time, we don't want the government regulating the press in some way. It's not simply the government adopting a new law or enforcing an existing one, it is more of a systemic problem.
It is a difficult issue, and I don't have the solution.
You have been quite exceptionally outspoken on a number of issues which are essentially domestic issues. You have taken sides in local matters ranging from public affairs, judicial affairs, issues related to the current government in a manner that many Bulgarians and foreigners living in Bulgaria find unusual. This applies especially to your very outspoken support for the current government. To what extent is your attitude a matter of US State Department policy and to what your personal initiative?
I speak on behalf of the US government. I am the president's personal representative in Bulgaria. The positions that I take, at least on policy issues, represent the positions of the US government. Some people have said that I am outspoken. My intention is to stimulate discussion and maybe change.
Bulgaria needs to make its own decisions and doesn't want any advice from the outside. However, if I can stimulate discussion I will consider that I have accomplished my job well.
Is it reasonable to expect any changes in official US policy towards Bulgaria when you are gone?
I can't speak about that. You will need to pose this question to my successor.