interview by Antony Georgieff; photography by Dragomir Ushev

Britain's new Ambassador to Bulgaria is not new at all - he was here in 1984-1987,during the sunset days of Communism

Steve Williams

Steve Williams is a man of many interests. Having held senior positions in the Foreign Office and various diplomatic postings from Argentina to Norway, he transferred from being head of the Americas Department at the FCO in London to the ambassadorial position in Sofia. During all those years, however, Mr Williams never lost his interest in sports, mountain walks and good music.

You are the new ambassador to Bulgaria, but you are first and foremost a man. Tell us about your family and pastimes?

My wife, Fiona, is a qualified Montessori nursery school teacher. She is also qualified as a teacher of English as a foreign language. Right now, obviously, she is busy settling into our new life in Bulgaria. We've got three children, at high school and university, and they will be coming out during holidays. In terms of pastimes, my family - hardly a pastime - pleasurably takes up quite a lot of my time. In terms of true pastimes - I love hiking and mountain walking, so Bulgaria is a great place to be coming to for that. I like all sports, both as an armchair spectator and a participant, though sadly I'm better at the first than the second.

Having been in Bulgaria in 1984-1987, when Todor Zhivkov was in charge, the Revival Process was underway, and there was neither free speech nor human rights, do you recognise Bulgaria of 2007?

Yes, and no. I've been here for only a short time now, and it's clear that the country is completely transformed in many ways. My wife and I walked up to the top of Vitosha, and we also went for a walk around Sofia. We walked past the flat where we used to live, we went out for a meal, we had some delicious Bulgarian food, and all that brought back very happy memories from the 1980s. These things haven't changed and I'm glad they haven't. I recognise this Bulgaria. But Bulgaria as a member of the EU, a member of NATO, the Bulgaria that has such a variety of free media, that has shopping malls, and such a range of commercial activity in the city, I don't recognise that Bulgaria. On a personal level for a Westerner, particularly for a Western diplomat coming back to Bulgaria, the biggest change is that now there is open, free communication, whereas in the 1980s the local population, for very understandable reasons, were afraid to have contact with Westerners. Now, to be coming back, and having that opportunity to interact normally with the whole community, is fantastic.

There's an increasing number of Britons coming to Bulgaria to buy property, and also a huge number of people trying to explore Bulgaria's business opportunities. What would you advise them to look out for, are there any pitfalls of moving to Bulgaria on a long term basis or in setting up a business in Bulgaria?

My general advice is the usual message: do your research properly, make sure you have a clear business plan, take local advice, work with, in most circumstances, a local partner, and take the best legal advice you can get. All these things I think are relevant if you're going to go into business in any country, including your own, but particularly if you're going into business overseas. You need to do the necessary research carefully.

Are there any outstanding issues between Bulgaria and the UK at the moment in terms of politics, apart from the UK's recent decision not to lift labour restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians?

If you use the word outstanding to mean points of difference, then I think the bilateral relationship is in extremely good shape. The continuing labour restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians are only for a transitional period; outstanding in the sense of unfinished business, yes. We've got a very dynamic and rich relationship now: multilayered bilateral cooperation at European level; working within NATO on big issues like the fight against terrorism, climate change, the fight against drug trafficking; reforms in the EU to make it more competitive; some of the regional issues where Bulgaria has a lot of expertise to advance relationships with the countries of the Black Sea region as a whole; the Western Balkans. So in terms of outstanding business in the positive meaning, we've got a lot going on. In terms of outstanding in the sense of areas of disagreement, any countries, however close their relationship, will always have some points of discussion, but as mature partners within the EU we deal with these in the normal course of business.

What about things that happened in the past, for example, the assassination of Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov in London, in 1978?

The case is still open in Britain, but no one seems to be doing anything in Bulgaria. This issue is obviously from a sad and different chapter in Bulgaria's history and in our bilateral relations. What I can say is that in terms of cooperation in law enforcement and the fight against different forms of crime, the law enforcement agencies of the two countries work very closely together.

Will Bulgaria manage to come to terms with its repressive past, by opening up the former Secret Police' archives?

These are internal decisions for Bulgaria as for any country that chooses to face its own past. My last overseas job was in Argentina, and there were many discussions, a debate is going on there about how the country can come to terms with its past. The same is true here. I think - this is a personal observation - it can take time, but in general it's better when people understand the reasons why things happened the way they did in the past. It helps people to understand how they got to where they are now. But how that is done is very much a matter for each country, and for its citizens to decide.

What should the British community in Bulgaria know about you being here as the new ambassador?

I'm delighted to be here, and I am delighted that there is a thriving, growing British community in Bulgaria, and growing numbers of British tourists coming to visit Bulgaria. I look forward to meeting different members of the community.


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