HIS DIPLOMATIC career has brought him repeatedly to the Czech and Slovak lands. He was a representative of Bulgaria to the former Czechoslovakia from 1988 to 1992, witnessing the fall of the communist regime here. After the country split, he returned to the region as ambassador to the Czech Republic between 1996 and 1999. And since 2006, Ognian Garkov has been ambassador to Slovakia. Fortunately, he likes it here.
Garkov has witnessed Slovakia join the Schengen zone and its preparations to adopt the euro. He believes that Slovakia and Bulgaria are naturally allies in the European space: not only because they are both small post-totalitarian countries with similar historical baggage, but also because they share similar ambitions. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Garkov about the challenges of Schengen, nuclear power and energy security, as well as reviving tourism contacts between the two countries.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Bulgaria has not yet entered the Schengen zone. When does Bulgaria hope to join Schengen and what are the main challenges for your country in this area? Could the Slovak experience of joining Schengen help Bulgaria in any way?
Ognian Garkov (OG): Bulgaria has been preparing itself for months for accession to the Schengen zone. A national framework programme for the 2007-2009 period, with a budget of €161 million, has already been approved. Bulgaria plans to wrap up negotiations on Schengen by the end of 2009.
The date for Bulgaria’s actual accession is expected to be 2011, bearing in mind that the country has more than 1,500 kilometres of external borders for which technical preparations would take a substantial length of time. Furthermore, we have to join at the same time as Romania, with whom we have 686 kilometres of shared river border.
Securing our borders is one of Bulgaria’s greatest challenges since we will have to make arrangements to block the so-called southern drug-path used by smugglers, which unfortunately leads partly through Bulgaria. We will also need to have illegal migration completely under control.
TSS: Several post-communist countries, since joining the European Union with great enthusiasm, have faced a sort of ‘EU fatigue’ or a decline in public interest in EU affairs. Are Bulgarians genuinely interested in EU affairs? Which EU-related issues are the most widely discussed in your homeland?
OG: Bulgarians continue to show a high level of commitment to European affairs. There are things that Bulgaria can contribute to a united Europe. We play an important role in south-east Europe, for example through our energy policies and our active participation in Black Sea Synergy, an initiative launched by the European Union to increase cooperation among countries in the Black Sea region.
Bulgaria has been learning how to pursue its national interests in the EU under conditions which are tougher than when the 10 new member states were accepted in 2004.
By ‘tougher conditions’ I mean the increasing Euro-scepticism following the three unsuccessful referendums over the EU constitution in Western Europe [the EU constitution was rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands in 2005; the subsequent Lisbon Treaty, encapsulating much of the failed constitution, was rejected by Irish voters in June this year – Ed. note].
We have been overcoming communication problems within the EU and learning lessons from other EU members. There have already been some achievements: we are among the 10 fastest developing countries in the area of tax reform, having the lowest corporate tax in the EU; we also hold a leading position for the amount of investment per capita. A total of €6.5 billion was invested in 2007.
In the first quarter of 2008 our economic growth was 7 percent, compared to average growth in the European Union of 1.7 percent. Bulgaria is ranked third in the harmonisation of its national policies with EU regulations.
The second year of membership is critical in several areas. Bulgarians are interested to see what progress the country has made in specific areas, such as justice, internal affairs or the absorption of EU funds.
We also plan to join the eurozone in 2012, and are meeting almost all the Maastrich criteria except inflation, which is very high in Bulgaria because of lower unemployment and rising incomes.
TSS: Slovakia is facing serious questions regarding its energy supply. The current government has placed much hope in nuclear energy and Slovakia is now to set to finish two nuclear blocks at Mochovce. Bulgaria has also made plans to build a new nuclear power facility. What is the position of your country towards nuclear power?
OG: Our position towards nuclear energy is that it occupies a significant place in the world’s energy sources. Bulgaria is definitely determined to develop its nuclear energy in the future, thus ensuring the security of energy supplies for the country and the region as a whole, and taking into account the aspect of environmental protection.
Bulgaria is now working on a project to build its second nuclear power station, called Belene. The plant will consist of two 1000 MW reactors.
TSS: As part of the EU membership deal, Bulgaria also agreed to decommission some of its nuclear facilities. How has this process worked?
OG: As part of the EU Accession Treaty, Bulgaria closed the 3rd and 4th nuclear reactors of Kozloduy power station at the end of 2006, and was granted €510 million by the EU towards the process of decommissioning. However, we consider the money completely insufficient to cover the process.
Moreover, the decommissioning of these two reactors will cause quite large losses to the Bulgarian economy: we are losing over €800 million, and there is now a considerable shortage of energy in the whole Balkan region.
This is the reason Bulgaria is now beginning an initiative to negotiate with the European Commission over the re-starting of the 3rd and the 4th nuclear reactors at Kozloduy power station. We believe they are safe to operate for another 15 or 20 years.
Another option would be for the EC to double the amount that we received for the decommissioning process.
TSS: Within the Soviet bloc, Bulgaria was one of the most attractive tourist destinations for Slovaks. How has the situation changed since the fall of the Iron Curtain?
OG: In the mid eighties, Czechoslovakia sent a record number of tourists, about 250,000 to Bulgaria. After the fall of the Iron Curtain the dynamics changed and there was a natural decline.
However, last year’s statistics show that Bulgaria was among the three most popular tourist destinations for Slovaks, together with Greece and Croatia.
In 2007, there was a 34 percent increase year-on-year, with 118,000 Slovak tourists choosing to visit Bulgaria. Slovaks are especially interested in our seaside resorts. Now we would also like to promote our spa tourism.
TSS: Just as employment barriers are falling, many EU countries face a serious lack of qualified labour. Are Bulgarian businesses able to find enough qualified labour on the Bulgarian market? Is ‘brain drain’ a problem in your country? How has the government been dealing with this phenomenon?
OG: Bulgaria faces the problem of insufficient qualified labour, just as many other European countries do. Recently the government adopted a strategy aimed at Bulgarian communities living and working outside Bulgaria, to inspire them to return home and work in their homeland. We need to create encouraging conditions so that young, educated Bulgarians return home.
TSS: Corruption remains a serious challenge for many post-communist countries, with political ethics watchdogs warning that corrupt behaviour and cronyism still has its roots at all levels of public administration. How has Bulgaria been dealing with this problem?
OG: The government has created a new vice-prime ministerial post to monitor the absorption of EU funds, and last year the State National Security Agency, which unites financial intelligence and counter-intelligence, was created to reduce corrupt behaviour. The Bulgarian public, non-governmental organisations and mass media are very critical of corrupt behaviour and there is now a public consensus that this negative phenomenon needs to be treated effectively. Bulgaria is now ready for maximum openness and transparency in the fight against corruption.
TSS: Has the potential for business between Bulgaria and Slovakia been fully explored? What branches of the Bulgarian economy might be attractive for Slovak businesses - for example, to set up joint enterprises?
OG: There are some unexplored opportunities in bilateral trade, the volume of which has been increasing every year. There is substantial potential for Slovak companies to invest in the Bulgarian construction sector.
They could also set up joint enterprises in the area of machine production and agriculture, as well as in the food industry and in infrastructure projects.
TSS: Are there close ties between Bulgaria and Slovakia?
OG: Slovaks and Bulgarians share some common traditions even though they are not neighbouring countries. There is the bond created by the fact that they are both Slavic countries. Being both small and post-totalitarian, Slovakia and Bulgaria share common interests within the EU as nations that have been through the same challenges and have had to tackle the same legacy from communism.
What has changed in the dynamics though is that whereas before you said “us Slovaks” and we said “we Bulgarians”, now there is more common ground to say “we EU members” since we are in a shared European space. The fact that we are smaller countries binds us together more than larger countries.
Though the Slovak foreign ministry has not really said which country was the first to acknowledge Slovakia as an autonomous state, I think it was Bulgaria since I prepared the proposal in September or October 1992.
The Bulgarian government in a secret protocol acknowledged the state. I say secret because we did not really know what was to happen. The MFA said that Bulgaria was among the first five to acknowledge Slovakia. Of course, we really appreciate the fact that the Slovak parliament was the first to ratify the EU accession treaty with Bulgaria.
On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of Slovakia’s independence, our embassy was one of the very few which in fact commemorated the event by announcing an essay competition to which 28 people responded. The winner was awarded a one-week stay in Bulgaria.
TSS: What are the most important recent cultural events that have brought Bulgarian culture closer to a Slovak audience? What aspects of Bulgarian culture are of interest to Slovaks, and vice versa?
OG: By tradition, cultural exchange between Bulgaria and Slovakia is intensive. After the project ‘Bulgaria greets Bratislava and Košice with the longest horo [Bulgarian folk dance]’ in 2006, in late autumn of the same year we held ‘Days of Bulgaria’ in Slovakia, involving not only Bratislava but also five or six larger Slovak towns.
The activity of the Bulgarian Culture Institute in Bratislava has continued throughout Slovakia. And the Embassy has carried out four or five larger educational and cultural projects over the past two years within the EU Communication Strategy for Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian primary and secondary school “Hristo Botev” in Bratislava and the Cultural Union of Bulgarians in the capital and Košice have been actively involved in cultural and educational exchanges.
TSS: Post-communist countries have been seeking a good model on which to base reform of their education systems: one that meets both the requirement of business but also provides a decent general education. While doing so they have had to face the challenge of a lack of funds. How has Bulgaria handled this demanding task?
OG: Bulgaria too has been attempting to reform its education system so that it meets the demands of the labour market and addresses demographic problems, and a new law on education has been passed.
The government also relies on EU funds from some of the eight operational programmes, such as “Competitiveness” and “Human Resource Development”, and seeks out the expertise of other EU members to facilitate the absorption of EU funds in this area.
As for educational exchanges, these have not been very intense in recent times. Comenius University has a programme with Sofia University through which they exchange doctoral students: the Bulgarian university has a lecturers’ department in Bratislava.
In September, a new Bulgarian language programme will begin, in combination with another language.
Other Slovak universities, such as Trnava’s Cyril and Method University or Constantine the Philosopher University [in Nitra], have contacts with Bulgarian universities. The Slovak Technical University has long-standing links with the university in Varna.
Total area:111,000 sq kilometres
Bulgaria's main exports include light industrial products, foods and wines.
Source: EU website: