A question of responsibility
As we sit down for a chat with Kaare Jansson, Denmark's ambassador to Bulgaria since 2007, I cannot but think that next to me is a not only a man with a vast experience in international diplomacy and a long-serving ambassador to Bulgaria, but also the doyen of the diplomatic corps in Sofia at the present time. Kaare is an educated historian and in the past we have had many conversations about history, both in the Balkans and in Western Europe. Most of the things he says about current affairs are inevitably viewed from the grander perspective of history and tradition, so I am now trying to get him to disclose his views, from that standpoint, on a fact that Denmark and the Danes are often talked about in Bulgaria with envy: Denmark is traditionally the country which emerges in polls as having the happiest citizens in Europe. Bulgaria, on the other hand, is always the unhappiest. Bulgaria and Denmark are not only on the opposite tips of Europe, but also at the opposite ends of the happiness index. What accounts for that? Is it perhaps the climate? History? The feel-good factor? Rakiya versus akvavit?
Bulgaria and Denmark are not only from a geographical perspective on the opposite ends of Europe. The same is the situation when it comes to economic wealth.
Denmark is so fortunate that history has placed it in the Protestant part of Europe. The Protestant part of Europe is the richest part of Europe and at the same time the principle of rule of law is very strongly embedded in the Protestant part of Europe.
So the Danish Protestant heritage is part of the explanation. The other part is a Danish Protestant vicar called Grundtvig who lived 150 years ago. Grundtvig was also a member of our Constitutional Assembly in 1849. Grundtvig and his followers taught people living in the countryside – 90 percent of the population – that "all men are equal."
So Danes are wealthy Europeans, they are governed by rule of law, therefore there is no corruption, they regard no other person as better than themselves, and they live in a beautiful kingdom of islands. To be honest, how could you feel unhappy?
You mention corruption. Why is there no corruption in Denmark? Is it only the Protestant tradition? Are the Danes different as human beings from the Bulgarians? Or are there sufficient checks and balances in society to prevent corruption?
If a society is governed by the rule of law then you have no corruption because in such a society corruption is by definition illegal – and the people in such a society are law-abiding citizens.
Protestantism and Max Weber have a lot to do with this – but of the same relevance is also that apart from Switzerland, Europe’s Protestant countries were ruled by kings and princes with almost absolute powers. These kings and princes were interested in making all their civil servants loyal to the state and to themselves because of fear of betrayal, civil wars, helping the enemy and so on. As a consequence, the rulers made the civil servants non-corrupt since it was harmful to the well-being of the state and in this context also to the taxation prospects of the kings and princes.
So if you want to understand why Northern Europe is where it's at today, you have to consider these three ingredients: Protestantism, absolute kings and princes, and strong Social Democratic parties. It is this cocktail Northern Europe has in common. It is this cocktail that has made it prosper compared to other parts of Europe with other traditions and legacies.
Is there anything the Bulgarians can learn from the Danes, and vice versa?
In Denmark responsible people – high or low, professionally or in private – try to acknowledge their responsibility. In Bulgaria there seems to be a general fear of taking responsibility for anything – in Bulgaria responsibility in general seems to be something that should be disclaimed. Bulgarians should consider rethinking their approach to the concept of responsibility. Otherwise it could prove difficult for Bulgaria to move into the 21st Century for real.
Bulgarians can teach something very important to Danes: showing kindness to foreigners.
When there are national elections in Denmark, over 80 percent of the population turn out to vote. In Bulgaria, this percentage is about 50 – sometimes less. How would you explain?
In Denmark people generally feel fully integrated in society. Perhaps this is not the case in Bulgaria.
Denmark also has a long tradition of having been ruled by minority governments. Is that model applicable elsewhere at all?
The Danish system may seem odd to outsiders. Indeed, we have had minority governments for most of the time since the Second World War. There are advantages and disadvantages. An obvious advantage is that any important decision is being made with a broad consensus. A disadvantage is that any decision may take a long time to make. In practice, any government that wants to pass a rightwing-leaning decision turns to the rightwing parties for support. If the same government wants to pass a leftwing-leaning decision, it turns to the leftwing parties for support. This is a peculiar Danish system that I do not think may be applied in many other countries.
You have been a keen observer of Bulgarian politics. I know being a diplomat you can't say much in favour or against any of the current political players in Bulgaria, but let me put the question in this way: what three things do you find unusual about Bulgarian politics since you came here?
In my country it is exceptional that a government sits its full four- year mandate. Whenever a Danish prime minister feels that the government looks good and the opposition looks bad, we have a new general election. So for me it was surprising that Bulgaria did not have an election in 2012.
Bulgaria has very many municipalities outside the cities – why not make these municipalities fewer and bigger so they can shoulder bigger responsibilities?
In Denmark it would be unusual that parties so different as DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and Ataka could join political forces.
In your opinion, did the GERB government, which many Bulgarians perceive as having enjoyed the broad support of the West, develop Bulgaria's still young and fragile civil society?
I came to Bulgaria in 2007. During those six years I have only seen governments that tried to develop civil society.
You have also been a keen observer of the media in Bulgaria. You are aware of the plummeting media freedoms as reflected in all international freedom-of-speech surveys, you are aware of the direct and indirect pressures the previous government put on the media – especially the private media. What should be done to rectify the situation?
Press freedom is crucial in any democratic society. Therefore, the question on how to protect and expand it is on the agenda in all democracies. Perhaps the answer is a combination of strong anti-monopoly laws, and more news and analysis on the Internet and the social media.
If a friend came to visit from Denmark, what would you advise him or her to do?
I am so old – and so are my friends – that I am not any more interested in sun and beaches. I have become a cultural tourist and so have my friends. Therefore, I would recommend a visiting Danish friend to see as much as possible of your fantastic Thracian legacy. The whole world would come and see your Thracian gold and silver if you were able to put it all in one museum.
If a friend came to visit from Denmark, what would you advise them against doing?
If it was a true friend I would strongly advise against having rakiya with the salad – especially if it was moonshining.