interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Happy Norwegian in unhappy Bulgaria

Tove Skarstein.jpg

One is cold and the other is warm: the differences between Norway and Bulgaria by far outnumber the similarities. One is traditionally tolerant; the other has been trying to become tolerant for just 20 years. One is rich - the richest in GDP-per-capita terms in Europe; the other is the poorest.

Norway's society is extremely well-organised, with rules are regulations for almost everything that are being adhered to; the other - at least in the eyes of the majority of its citizens - is a mess. In the former almost everyone is concerned about the preservation of nature; in the latter - nature is being "conquered," notwithstanding the recent efforts of some groups of environmentally-minded Bulgarians. If you add up all that Norway has to offer and compare it Bulgaria you will end up with some of the happiest people on the planet versus the indisputably - if indices are anything to go by - the unhappiest.

We have discussed those and similar issues with Tove Skarstein, the beaming 60-year-old Norwegian ambassador to Bulgaria, ever since she came here in 2006, just a few weeks before Bulgaria was accepted into the EU. Yet we never sat down for a formal interview.

Now, as I set the iPhone rolling in Skarstein's magnificent - and very Norwegian - residence on the northern slopes of the Vitosha I cannot help but think that the clock has already ticked away: Tove will be leaving Bulgaria for good in September, to take up her new post as Norwegian ambassador in Budapest.

Happiness is individual. People in Norway are happy in the sense that they don't have to worry about not having a good health care system, or a good retirement system, or good schools to send their children to. The material basis is there. But many people get depressed in wintertime because it's cold, it's dark... The Bulgarians have more material challenges, but they also have the sunshine, the climate, good food, good wine and a good café life.

If the Bulgarians have all that, why do they complain so much?

In some areas there are very clear reasons for the Bulgarians not to be happy with their plight. However, I am told that the tendency to whine is a part of the Bulgarian "soul." I must admit that people seem a bit grumpy sometimes without a clear reason.

Boyko Borisov, the Bulgarian prime minister, has a different explanation, which he voiced at the time of the 2011 Utøya massacre. He said that the Scandinavians are so happy that they are killing themselves as a result.

Prime ministers sometimes can have slips-of-the-tongue as well, if his statement is correctly reflected in the English version. I must add that we received many words of condolences from his cabinet and him personally in the wake of the 22 July 2011 incidents and I have no doubt about his understanding and sympathy for all Norwegians in this situation.

You have spent five-and-a-half years in Bulgaria now. Not a very long time in global standards, but enough to be able to acquaint yourself with the country, its people and its problems. Can you name three things in Bulgaria that in your opinion have changed for the better?

The road signs. Previously, they were only in Cyrillic - and thus unreadable to a foreigner. Now when you drive you can understand whether you are on your way to Kulata or to Burgas.

Then Sofia looks better kept now in terms of garbage collection. The city looks tidier.

I came to Bulgaria when it was accepted as a member of the EU. I remember the fireworks and euphoria on 31 December 2006. Now the Bulgarians seem to have become more balanced about the advantages and disadvantages of being in the EU. I think the expectations of EU membership were somewhat unrealistic. And I think that the majority of the Bulgarian people have today a better life.

A few things that have changed for the worse?

One of the things that is worrying is media freedom. Ownership of the media is not always transparent, and there is too much concentration in some areas. Bulgaria doesn't have the variety and the general access of everybody to the media. This is an issue to reflect upon.

Corruption and organised crime are the usual things that come to mind when one speaks about problems in Bulgaria. Let me make it clear: all countries have corruption, the difference is to what extent society and the politicians permit it. I think that the current government has done quiet a lot to fight corruption. I can see some changes in the general attitude towards corruption in the sense that it has now become more shameful. Previously, my impression was that to be corrupt was seen by some people as being "clever" and "able." I think an increasing number of Bulgarians have started to realise that you don't have to live with corruption, it's not in the nature of everything in Bulgaria and that it can be eradicated if there is a political will.

Bulgaria is still some way from eradicating corruption, but the citizens will have made a huge leap forward if they have started to view corruption as morally unacceptable.

What are your sources of information about what's going on in Bulgaria? Is it the the media, or what the government is telling you or do you speak with individual citizens?

We try to have many and varied sources of information, then we analyse it and we form our standpoints. Of course we listen to the official sources. We also have contacts with journalists, think tanks and NGOs.

I must point out that it is impossible to get the full picture because as a foreign embassy we lead a life that is different from the lives of ordinary Bulgarians. For example, when I have to go to a doctor I will not be confronted with the same problems as a Bulgarian.

The reason I am asking is that many people in Bulgaria have in fact the opposite view. They think that corruption has actually got worse under the current rulers. Corruption may have been curtailed on the low level - for example when you get stopped by a traffic cop, but the higher up you go it is monstrous. One example: the prime minister was got recorded on tape ordering senior officials to stop a tax investigation, to appoint someone at Sofia Airport, and so on. The tapes were pronounced genuine. Yet nothing happened.

Different people have different views - that's a part of democracy. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on this issue.

What would you advise a Norwegian visitor to do in Bulgaria?

See the incredible rich cultural heritage. Very few Scandinavians have heard about the Thracians, for example. Food and wine are self-evident. Bulgaria's diverse nature is also something to write home about. I would also advise visitors to get off the beaten track and explore for themselves.

My favourite places are Sozopol on the BLack Sea Coast, the Rhodope mountains, Plovdiv, and Boyana where I live.

What would you advise a Norwegian investor in Bulgaria?

Any Norwegian investor should contact the embassy. We have a lot of information and advice for business people. Another avenue is to establish contact with the Nordic-Bulgarian Trade Chamber. The general advice is to prepare yourself well. Legislation in Bulgaria is not the same as in Norway, and there are specific issues to be very careful about. As Norwegians we take some things for granted, but they should not be in Bulgaria. Some Norwegians are naive in that they take all formalities and documentation to be "in order," while in Bulgaria this is not always the case. You have to verify the documents here, you have to be aware of Act 16, which we know nothing about in Norway. Do your homework well. If you do that, you have many chances to be successful in Bulgaria.

What will be your most pleasant memory from Bulgaria?

That was 31 December 2006. The euphoria and the expectation of everyone in the street: that was the beginning of a new era for Bulgaria. That was when I really understood what EU membership meant to people in this region.

Conversely, what would be your most horrid memory?

When I was cheated heavily by a taxi driver, but that can happen everywhere. The most irritating was that he did not understand my protests in English. I did not manage to get to tell him what I meant about this kind of culture in an EU-country.


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