With a significant career in the US State Department, spanning over 30 years and including posts in countries as varied as Honduras, Thailand, Ukraine and Russia, Eric Rubin, America's new ambassador to Bulgaria, is not a man who beats about the bush. Concise and to the point in the telltale American way, he is no newcomer to the former East bloc. In fact he remembers vividly his first visits to Bulgaria in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Of course, Bulgaria in 2016 is a very different place and not all that's changed since the heady years of post-Communism has changed for the better. Plummeting freedom of speech (in fact, the lowest in Europe, according to the various reports and indices) comes to mind as we sit down for a chat in the makeshift broadcasting studio within the US Embassy compound in Sofia.
No democracy is perfect. Every society, including the United States, is still wrestling with issues like press freedoms, media ownership and so on, so it is not a surprise that a relatively new member of the EU like Bulgaria may have more work to do compared to other member states. It is fair to say that there are challenges. One of the serious ones is ownership of the media, corporate influences on media content and the lack of transparency. I would single out the lack of transparency as the most serious issue in the media environment in Bulgaria today. I think readers and viewers have the right to know who owns the media they are watching and reading. As in so many other areas of democracy, transparency is the best way to address problems like this. This is something I will be speaking about and pushing for.
I would add that there are different kinds of press freedoms. In Bulgaria the media are free in the sense that they can criticize the government and the people in power. But that doesn't mean that the media are completely free because the government is only one element in society that can exert influence with pressure. I think we have to draw distinctions. I was first in Bulgaria before the end of Communism. Obviously, we have to acknowledge in perspective the enormous progress that has been made.
Compared to the days of Communism, certainly there has been great progress. But compared to the years before accession to the EU, in 2007, press freedoms seem to be declining. Don't you agree?
I come back to the issue of transparency. If you don't know who owns the media, then you don't have a way of assessing whether they are objective or not. Ultimately, the goal is to have independent news media that give the facts to citizens so they can make their own judgments. That's the goal. As I said, no country is perfect and I will personally be acting to encourage greater transparency in order to address these issues.
Anyone who lives in Bulgaria at the moment knows that there are strong pro-Russian sentiments, for a variety of reasons – historical, cultural, linguistic and so on. Many of these are being encouraged by some Internet media which are clearly very hostile to the West in general and to the United States in particular. There is talk of a hybrid warfare being fought in Bulgaria, a major concern for many Bulgarians who want to shake off the legacies of Communism and embrace Western values. Do you have any observations?
The important thing is to emphasize what we are for. I am here and our embassy is here first and foremost to support the right of Bulgarians to make their own choices, to determine their own future independent of pressure and interference. It was Bulgaria's choice to join the EU and it was Bulgaria's choice to join NATO. It is the choice of the Bulgarians to pursue the course they are on. Obviously, people want to see faster progress in the economy and in job creation; in the standard of living, in anticorruption – in a lot of things. I feel very strongly that we should support the choices of the Bulgarian people rather than engage in negative Us-Versus-Them wars, turning it into some kind of a game. This is not a game. This is real people's lives and futures. As an ally and partner of Bulgaria we take very seriously our obligations to help Bulgaria achieve what it wants and get where it wants to be. We don't think it's helpful to engage in some kind of false struggle of civilizations or something like that. Obviously, we want to see Bulgaria have good relations with all of its neighbors and everyone in the region. We think it's wonderful that Bulgaria can have profitable trade and tourism. We don't need to draw new dividing lines, we don't need to break up Europe into blocs again.
But dividing lines are being drawn – by pro-Russian politicians, by pro-Russian media, by pro-Putin forces in the Bulgarian society. This is clearly visible in daily life.
Our answer to that is not to engage in that "game" and reply with a positive vision. This has been our vision ever since the end of the Second World War with our support for European unity and for the founders first of the European Coal and Steel Community, then the Common Market, then the European Community and now the EU. We've been there all the way. That vision is still our vision. Together with the Transatlantic vision, it is inclusive rather than exclusive. We are going to hold on to that. My preference is to answer negativity with positivity.
What are the main challenges facing Bulgaria at the moment?
To be fair, there are a lot of challenges. This is a difficult time for the region, for Europe, for the United States and for the world. I don't think it's helpful to deny the challenges. First and foremost, they are economic. I think the key challenge in achieving success in Bulgaria's full integration in the EU is prosperity, jobs, an increased standard of living, an improved support system in the society. As long as the minimum pension remains what it is today, as long as you have unemployment of 9 percent there is going to be unhappiness and dissatisfaction. One of the goals I have is to try to boost trade and investment, help increase the number of good jobs available especially for young Bulgarians to encourage them to stay here. We have had some success here in terms of joint US-Bulgarian ventures and investments.
The second highest priority is security. This is a dangerous time. Our highest goal is to support the efforts of the Bulgarian government to protect this country and its borders, and ensure its citizens are safe from terrorism and from any kind of external threats, including smuggling, organized crime and human trafficking. We have a very good cooperation with the Bulgarian authorities and law enforcement, which is mutually beneficial.
Then I would really like to help boost contacts between Americans and Bulgarians. One unfortunate effect of the otherwise very positive fact that Bulgarian joined the EU has been the decline in academic exchanges between Bulgaria and the United States. This partly reflects the fact that Bulgarian students can now go to universities in Europe, America being farther away and frequently more expensive. Unfortunately, owing to our legislation, we did not continue our assistance program to Bulgaria once it joined the EU. We still have big success stories like our summer Work and Travel Program. We've had over 100,000 young Bulgarians participating in the past decade, a huge number. We also have the Fulbright Program. But I want to do more to energize these programs.
Your favorite places in Sofia and beyond?
Hiking in Vitosha is probably my favorite activity around the capital. The Doctors' Garden, right in the middle of Sofia, is magical, especially in spring and summer. Sofia has wonderful museums. I just had visitors from the United States and we spent an entire Saturday going from museum to museum. My wife is also enjoying the gallery scene in town.
Suppose you have a friend visiting from the United States. What would you advise them to do while in Bulgaria?
Get out of Sofia, provided you have spent a few days here and enjoyed the cultural heritage and the city life. I would recommend the Black Sea, but probably not the classic beach resorts. I had the opportunity to go to the Saint Anastasiya Island near Burgas – pure magic. Hiking in the mountains as well as visiting the ancient cities are hugely impressive.
And what would you advise them to be careful about in Bulgaria?
I would advise people against eating too much, though this is difficult provided the food is so good.