Ireland's man in Sofia
Through the many chats, lunches, dinners and obviously drinks we've had with John Rowan, Ireland's ambassador to Bulgaria, we have discovered that, perhaps surprisingly, Ireland and Bulgaria have a lot more in common than meets the eye. The two couldn't be more different if geography and topography are your guidelines of course, but that's about as far as the differences go. The Irish and the Bulgarians have a very similar history, both having been oppressed by neighbours and both having undergone a sometimes painful search for a national identity. Some major figures in the Bulgaria of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were Irish. Both the Irish and the Bulgarians are explorers and both nations are spread on five continents. Both the Irish and the Bulgarians are very family-oriented, both love their lands, and both are ready to pick up a fight when matters of honour are concerned.
More recently, both Ireland and Bulgaria suffered heavily from the economic crisis, but while Ireland is fast on the road to recuperation, Bulgaria's economic plight has deteriorated.
Just three years ago Ireland was a major investor in Bulgaria. There were dozens of Irish companies with interests varying from real estate and construction to banking and manufacturing putting their money in Bulgaria. Now but a handful are here. Everyone else has left. John Rowan, a senior Irish diplomat with vast experience in Europe, the Middle East and the United States, outlines some of the reasons. The deterioration in the economic climate turned into a full-scale recession. The property and construction sectors were the worst hit and Irish companies were heavy investors in those markets. The collapse in property prices and the drying up of credit lines were a combination of setbacks most companies could not survive. Irish companies in other sectors found trading conditions becoming increasingly difficult here for a variety of factors, global and local, and in the end, decided they couldn’t continue.
Is it realistic to expect some of the Irish businesses will return to Bulgaria? What can and should Bulgaria do to improve?
On the face of it, Bulgaria is an attractive location for businesses seeking to expand. Low cost base, flat 10 percent tax rate and an educated workforce are real incentives. However, when a company begins operations it often finds it difficult to negotiate the bureaucratic obstacles. Also, when there is recourse to the judicial system there is little certainty and some lack of transparency. The scarcity of those two elements is detrimental to foreign investment.
Ireland went through a financial crisis several years ago, but it seems to have recuperated quickly. Bulgaria started on its downward turn almost at the same time, but in Bulgaria the worst is yet to come. What can Bulgaria learn from the Irish experience?
I wouldn’t say we have entirely recuperated but we are on the road to recovery. We are entering our third consecutive year of growth and we are seen as the most attractive country to foreign investors for investment incentives. We have to turn this sentiment into jobs. I’m not sure what Bulgaria can learn from the Irish experience other than not to allow the banking sector to outgrow the real economy or become over-reliant on any one sector for tax revenues. I think progress has to be made on creating good-quality jobs, developing a middle class of consumers and reducing the grey economy. It is crucial that the country halt the decline in population.
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 this way: what have you found unusual about Bulgarian politics since you came here?
The low standard of political debate. Most arguments are conducted on a personal level with the participants trying to outdo one another in the amount of abuse hurled. Issues take a second place if they get mentioned at all. This does a real disservice to the Bulgarian public. Second, the bewildering range of political parties. Thirty-eight parties and seven coalitions have registered to contest the election. Parties and coalitions seem to form, implode and re-form with incredible speed. This perpetual state of evolution makes for uncertainty. Third, like most people, the mass protests of recent times took me by surprise. What is not surprising is that no coherent movement has emerged that might form a new force on the political scene.
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?
The assessments of international bodies like Reporters Without Frontiers are cause for concern. Every democracy needs a vibrant and independent media sector. Concentration of ownership of print and broadcast media in the hands of a few is unhealthy. Paid coverage should carry a label identifying itself as such. Publicly funded notices and advertisements should only be awarded according to objective criteria and in an open and transparent manner.
What can Ireland, in its capacity as the rotating president of the EU, do to support free and independent media in Bulgaria?
The embassy has tried to include subjects of current interest in its programme of events. We have used our connection with James Bourchier, the Times Balkan correspondent at the turn of the 20th Century and national hero in Bulgaria, to organise seminars on issues like freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary. Our aim is to stimulate debate among practitioners, academics, NGOs and, of course, politicians. No country can say that freedom of the press is assured and, exchanges of views and information are invaluable in keeping track of the situation. In our meetings with Bulgarian political figures, EU ambassadors consistently make known our readiness to provide any assistance we can when a problem, such as perceived threats to press freedom, becomes apparent. We all report on the situation as we see it to our capitals and the member states feed into consideration of the issue in the EU institutions.
What do you enjoy doing most in Sofia?
I enjoy attending the diverse cultural events on offer here. From the philharmonic concerts in Bulgaria Hall to the jazz sessions at the Sofia Live club; from impromptu gigs at a friend’s café to a feast of Balkan traditional music and dance in NDK. The quality of Bulgarian folk music and choral work is astonishing and it is a tribute to the Bulgarian people that they have maintained its richness. My daughter, who lives in San Francisco and is a professional musician, was enticed to Sofia to broaden her repertoire and took the decision to do a PhD in Bulgarian musical composition at the National Academy of Music. So we have the music scene here to thank for seeing more of her in the last two years than we did in the previous 20. To accompany the music, there’s always the excellent Bulgarian cuisine and wine, and, at local prices, you can indulge your tastes.
If an Irish friend came for a visit, where would you take him to?
The mountains first, Rila, Pirin, the Rhodope. Seeing them unfold, one range after another is breathtaking. The area around Melnik and Rozhen is fascinating with its strange sandstone formations and there’s the unique wine of the area to sample. Being Irish, we have to smell the sea, so a trip to the coast north of Varna is essential.
If an Irish friend came for a visit, what would you advise him against doing in Bulgaria?
Don’t drink any non-Bulgarian wine.