Bulgaria's media need a 'balanced mix' of regulation and self-regulation
interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff
In recent years German ambassadors to Bulgaria like to come and go by... water.
As we sit down for a chat in his office in the German Embassy in Sofia (for those not in the know, this is an architectural oddity erected by the former GDR and still preserving some of the lights known as the "Honecker Lamps" – ubiquitous in the East bloc 30 years ago), I cannot help remembering my first meeting with Matthias Hoepfner back in 2009. He came to Vagabond's offices one early morning – it must have been his first or second week in Bulgaria, and he announced he had arrived on the Balkan peninsula on a ferry from Italy. This happened shortly after his predecessor, Michael Geier – now a retiree in Berlin, but still an avid reader of this journal – had departed from... the Danube port of Vidin, upriver all the way to Germany. Two years later, ambassador Hoepfner sailed all the way through the Bosporus to arrive in Sozopol.
A lot of water has flown under the bridges since then. Bulgaria in 2009 was quite a different country from what it is now. Then, the economic crisis was just beginning, the housing market bubble had not yet burst, foreign investment was still flowing in, expats were vying to buy properties near the Black Sea or in the mountains, and the post-Communist country seemed to be pretty secure on its way to a Western-style democracy.
Obviously, some things have gone very wrong in Bulgaria during Matthias Hoepfner's sojourn here. Because I know that he is a man who measures his words with German precision but at the same time is not scared of running the risk of being billed too outspoken for an ambassador, I go forthwith by hitting the nail on the head.
What would you advise a German prospective businessman to do in Bulgaria in 2013?
My first and most important advice would be: Get to know the country well before you invest your money here.
With only 10 percent corporate tax, a strong macroeconomic performance, a well-qualified work-force and an improving infrastructure the Bulgarian business environment has some obvious advantages.
Yet, there are a number of pitfalls an investor should be aware of. The law enforcement system has a number of weaknesses, especially regarding its predictability and reliability in commercial disputes. Risk assessment and risk management in this country are not always easy.
Therefore, get to know the people you work with and get acquainted with the general conditions of your investment. Look for qualified advice and consult with experts of long-standing experience and personal integrity to avoid bad surprises. The German-Bulgarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce is more than willing to help you.
Second, be prepared to respond flexibly to changes in the business environment. Your future competitors might have some surprises in store. They do not always see competition as a necessary and helpful market economy instrument. Be prepared for sudden administrative requirements you did not expect, and do not exclude sudden changes in the legal framework.
On the positive side, I observe a massive improvement of the Bulgarian infrastructure and a lot of interesting plans and and projects in this field. This means major investment opportunities. They are partly driven by the EU structural funds and other multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the European Investment Bank, partly they are driven by private investors.
Bulgaria will receive under the new multiannual financial framework more than 12 billion euro net between 2014 and 2020 and is among the four EU countries set to receive more money during the next EU programming period. This is the result of the agreement reached by the heads of government during their last European Council meeting. The increase of over 50 per cent is the largest for an EU country, making Bulgaria the largest net beneficiary in the EU.
There will also be new opportunities for private concession or management contracts for eight Black Sea and Danube River ports, as well as opportunities for private management contracts for water supply and waste processing services.
Last but not least: Read tenders carefully and be strictly compliant. There is no use in doing business with intermediaries who promise to be friends of certain helpful friends. Do it "the German way": Deliver high quality, be reliable and treat everybody the way you want them to treat yourself.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers