As we sit down for some early morning tea in the splendid British residence in Central Sofia on an overcast winter day my thoughts jump back to my first encounter with Jonathan Allen, the current British ambassador to Bulgaria. It took place a little over two years ago.
Jonathan had just had his car broken into in Plovdiv and had had to deal with Bulgarian police and insurance. Not a very pleasant experience, I would have thought, but it in no way cast a shadow over his attitudes to Bulgaria and the Bulgarians. In the years to follow Jonathan would be sometimes unusually enthusiastic about this country and its people, always trying to look at realities here from the bright side and always in search of that tiny silver lining that every cloud over the Balkans has. Two years is not a very long time to come to know a country like Bulgaria, which (in)famously prides itself on its impenetrability to foreigners, but then it is not very short either. A lot of things have happened in Bulgarian politics, the economy and social life since the Allens first arrived, and now, sipping my cup of what is arguably the best brewed tea in town, I want to hear some summing-up. Is Bulgaria a better place now than it was two years ago?
Economically, Bulgaria has not changed much. I don't know if that's a great surprise as Bulgaria relies enormously on its exports to the eurozone – as does in fact the UK. The bulk of Bulgaria's growth and economic prospects depend on confidence in the eurozone markets. Some things around the margins are done very well. One example is the flat tax rate, which works very well. Bulgaria does work hard to ensure any investor gets all the permission they need. The infrastructure is improving. You can say what you like about Boyko, but the man liked a bulldozer and got many things done.
There are some positives, and there are some negatives. The main negatives would be around the state of the judicial system.
To me, that's economics – I know many Bulgarians would speak of the judiciary, law-and-order and so on as being related to politics, but I disagree. Can a British company come here in confidence and know that if it falls out with a Bulgarian partner it will be fully protected in the courts, get speedy justice and a sensible decision?
No. The Bulgarian system cannot guarantee that. It might. Probably by the time you get to third instance it will be OK, but that's a long way to go and many things to jump through. I think access to consistently high quality justice is a major problem here.
The other big thing is public procurement. It is difficult to persuade foreign companies to come and bid for funds and tenders in Bulgaria because they know – and we know – that 50 percent of all public procurement ends up with just one company bidding – еither only one company starts or only one company finishes. That's crazy. The incumbent Deputy Prime Minister Daniela Bobeva has put forward what I think is a quite sensible package to change that but, sadly, parliament has voted out most aspects that would have had an impact on corruption. This is a great shame.
So, the big picture in the economy is that Bulgaria has to wait for regained confidence in the big European markets. At the margins, there is a lot that still has to be done locally. Cleaning up procurement, sorting out the judiciary, setting up commercial courts that can administer justice swiftly will make a huge difference.
Politically, in the last two years the party system has declined. It has faced a huge challenge with two sets of protests in 2013. Frankly, none of the political parties have responded properly. To me, the political story of the past two years is positive as it involves civil society and citizens trying to make their voices heard. There is no doubt that civil society in 2013 had the politicians on the run. You see that now. You see now ministers and MPs complaining privately that you cannot do anything any more because you are being scrutinised all the time. That's fantastic! That's how it should be! A real challenge for 2014 is whether the determination of civil society can be sustained. An insistent, demanding, intrusive, loud and expectant civil society is a fantastic thing for a democracy to have.
The political parties, as I said, have disappointed. So far they have reacted by hoping the pressure will go away and they can go on acting as they have always acted. I have talked to the leaderships of GERB, BSP and DPS as well as to a number of parties that have no representation in parliament, inquiring how this message that's come from the streets will be listened to and acted upon by Bulgaria's politicians, elected and paid by the citizens to represent them. What I find really interesting is that the response tends to be that Bulgaria has changed, but there is no need for us to change: we will carry on as before.
Then of course everyone tends to blame everyone else. Each political party says that whoever is against it is paid by someone else, which I find an unlikely event.
I think it is a great shame that none of the three big political parties show any desire to change.
Visiting the vaults of the Museum for History of Sofia
Do you think that the current situation presages the disintegration of the political system in Bulgaria?
I don't know. You have two political parties, the BSP and the DPS, that you think will survive forever. Outside of these two parties there has been a shifting constellation as people try to find alternatives. It will be interesting to see what happens with GERB, which is the largest party in parliament at the moment, but I do not see any new policies there and I am not sure what GERB stands for. GERB have been out of power for nine months. Obviously, they've gone away and thought very carefully about what their offer is to the Bulgarian people. But I do not know what it is.
My impression is that there is a significant proportion of the Bulgarian people who feel they do not have proper political representation. I know it's difficult to set up new political parties, but the fact that a lot of people do not vote or vote for parties that fail to make it into parliament does create room for new political entities to emerge.
There are some things that have happened here that I can't understand. Let me tell you one very clear example which brought everyone to the streets last year and which the government is fed up with ambassadors talking about. This is the appointment of Delyan Peevski to be the head of a super powerful security agency to combat organised crime and run the entire internal intelligence service. This is probably the most sensitive security position in the country – in fact many other countries separate these offices to avoid any one agency becoming too powerful. The problem with Peevski's appointment is that no one can explain it. That seems a very odd thing. Here is a country which is a member of the EU and which has a cooperation and verification mechanism because there are still concerns about it. It is a country which, unlike Romania which also has a CVM, has a specific benchmark against organised crime. The government decides to create a super agency and in 15 minutes one Friday morning last year, without any discussion and any explanation of the merits, background or experience that the candidate has, it puts forward someone who, I think, is pretty commonly accepted to be a controversial figure in Bulgaria. Why?
The problem that I have is that no one can explain why.
If you can't get an explanation for why, then you start counting on your own explanations. And none of the explanations that you come up with are terribly positive.
I mentioned before the Procurement Bill. Deputy Prime Minister Bobeva got up and produced a number of very interesting ideas to take away some of the power invested in non-procurement specialists and do away with the group of people around certain municipalities who are always selected to decide and perhaps are more open to influence. All of that was removed by parliament. Why would parliament want to remove aspects that would make public procurement better in Bulgaria? Again, there is no explanation. No one in parliament has stood up and said this is why we've done this.
When you see that, you worry.
I hear you speak a completely different language from either the people in the street or the politicians in Bulgaria. Throughout 2013 the protestors asked a very different question. They wanted to know who proposed Peevski, not why – and consequently that's the question the politicians refused to answer. No one seemed to be interested in the why.
No one should hold Bulgaria to a higher standard than is reasonable or fair. Bulgaria is an young democracy. We can't expect Bulgaria in 25 years to have totally transformed itself into the Switzerland of Southeast Europe. But we can expect it to keep on asking questions of those who are supposed to represent its citizens.
What are the moral implications of this?
The only way to make a change is to believe in change.
What is your worst-case and best-case scenario for Bulgaria in the near future?
I think it would be very bad news for Bulgaria if the eurozone went back into decline. I think Bulgaria has weathered the storm with a gradual decline in living standards. Its business needs a period of growth even if it is more modest than the 2000s. If I were Bulgaria's investments minister I would be asking many questions around the points I mentioned before: the rule of law and judicial reform.
So, the worst case scenario would be an economic decline in the eurozone markets coupled with continuing political instability at home – political parties not responding to what the electorate wants and the electorate being unable to provide an alternative to the established political parties. That would be risky, in any democracy, because it allows populists on either end of the spectrum a lot of airtime and may create a feeling of hopelessness.
Elections in May?
Well, I am not gong to say when there should be an election as long as this government is in power. But my best-case scenario would be economic growth and people regaining their confidence. That would entail a response by the political parties that would make Bulgarians believe in politics as a solution rather than a problem to be ignored. A key part of that is what the opposition do. In theory, oppositions – especially if they've been in government – think, renew, change things and come with a new offer. In Bulgaria, that doesn't seem to be there.
In your capacity as ambassador you are presumably talking with all the political parties in parliament. Are you also talking with Ataka?
Like pretty much every EU government we do not have any formal contacts with Ataka. It is not possible for us given the values that Ataka hold and some of the things they have chosen to do and say. That said, we totally respect that Bulgarians have democratically elected that party into parliament. We are not trying to criticise Bulgarians or pretend that hasn't happened, but some of the values and policies of Ataka make it impossible for us to have a close contact with them.
Are Bulgarian newspapers to be believed that there is a concerted anti-Bulgarian "campaign" in the UK over the suspected influx of Bulgarian immigrants?
I don't think there is an organised campaign against anyone. EU migration to the UK has been a growing issue for some time. A lot of British people have very positive sentiments about the Bulgarians as so many visit and have homes here. Anybody who's spent any time in the UK knows that we have very free and very robust media. That's the way it is. Many British politicians can feel very bruised when they get involved with the British media.
The important thing is what the government does. We can't control the media rights, but we can control what we do and the way we conduct ourselves. Last year Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in which he made it very clear that the labour market controls would lift. The British parliament did not pass any measures that the controls would stay. The controls did lift in compliance with EU law. But the prime minister said he would bring changes because of concerns over access to the welfare system. That comes from the fact that our benefits system is universal – it does not rely on contributions. Our health service is here for everybody. We do not stop people for credit cards on their way to hospitals. We treat them first. This is a hugely important principle for the British people. There is concern about benefits and the rules will be tightened up on a non-discriminatory basis.
All the measures that we have introduced are, firstly, less stringent than in Bulgaria. And secondly, they apply to everyone, including Brits. If you have a British citizen living in Haskovo, they have to wait for three months before they are entitled for benefits in the UK. It's just the same for them.
You can't generalise either way, but Bulgarians for the most part work hard, pay taxes and are valued employees.