Standing in the doorway of her modest but stylish residence in Central Sofia, Marcie Berman Ries, the new US ambassador, looks petite. But appearances, as usual, are deceptive. Whenever she speaks out, Ries asserts herself as a strong-willed woman, an achiever in fields and areas traditionally considered the domain of men. Taking in her impressive CV confirms the initial impression. Ambassador Ries, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, has held various positions with increasings seniority in both the US State Department and abroad. 34 years of experience in Europe, the Caribbean and the Middle East is no joke at all, and Marcie Ries has handled sometimes overwhelmingly complex issues: national security, nuclear and strategic policy, Eurasian affairs, non-proliferation. Her postings abroad include Iraq, where she was in charge of US military-political issues, Turkey and the Dominican Republic. Following positions in London and Brussels, Ries served as head of the US mission in Prishtina, Kosovo; as ambassador to Albania; and as the director of the Office of United Nations Political Affairs in New York.
Ries comes to Bulgaria at a very interesting time. On the one hand, the country is in the grips of a severe economic crisis, with an increasingly authoritarian government that, according to its critics, is progressively getting out of touch with reality. On the other hand, relations between the United States and Bulgaria have never been better, at least as far major topics such as fighting organised crime, counterterrorism and intellectual property protection are concerned.
Will Marcie Ries be able to strike the fine balance between promoting America's economic and political interests in what is essentially the EU's poorest member state, still struggling with an uneasy transition from Communism to democracy, and upholding concepts, such as media freedoms and human rights, that America has traditionally held very close to its heart?
One of Ries's top priorities, she says, is looking into closer detail into media freedoms in Bulgaria. The problems are many, varied and sometimes very complicated. The fact, however, remains that Bulgaria is almost rock bottom in Europe in terms of freedom of speech. What can America do to help?
"Media issues are of big importance in terms of democratic institutions. The media are known as the Fourth Estate and are really critical to a democratic society. I have already spoken with a lot of journalists and I am trying to keep an eye on what's going on in the media. There are several things that we think about when we consider media freedoms. One is of course that journalists should be responsible, objective and accurate. Another is that they should be free to write about whatever subject they choose. I have heard reports of intimidation of journalists that leads to self-censorship. Another important thing is investigative journalism. We should see responsible journalism based on research on topics such as corruption and so on," Ries says.
Another priority for the new American ambassador is facilitating business between US and Bulgarian companies. "Bulgaria is a good destination for doing business," she says. "It is in the EU, its location is favourable. It is important to work on creating a good atmosphere for entrepreneurs in Bulgaria."
To prospective businesses in Bulgaria, Ries has the standard set of advice: "Do your research thoroughly, gain local knowledge, find a good local partner to help you navigate. The most important thing is to know the local scene."
Marcie Ries has only been in Bulgaria for about three months, but she is already enchanted with the many cultural and tourist attractions Bulgaria has to offer. I would definitely encourage any US visitor to Bulgaria to visit the Archaeological Museum in Sofia. If they travel in the country, I would tell them to stray off the beaten track and explore for themselves, Ries says, adding that she is looking forward to doing all the discoveries herself.
Just a quarter of a year is a very short time to draw conclusions and make assessments, but what looks certain is that Marcie Ries's style as an ambassador to Bulgaria will be unlike that of her predecessor. Policies and priorities will probably remain unchanged, but the methods of implementing them will certainly be different.