US ambassador: ‘America stands with you and will support the choices you have made’

Written by on April 7, 2016 in Perspectives - Comments Off on US ambassador: ‘America stands with you and will support the choices you have made’

United States ambassador to Bulgaria Eric Rubin, who presented his credentials to President Plevneliev on February 24 2016, addressed an Atlantic Club meeting in Sofia on April 7.

This is the text of his speech.

I am very happy to be here at the Atlantic Club to give my first speech as U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria, and to continue in the tradition of U.S. Ambassadors using this venue as their first opportunity to speak publicly.  And I’d like to pay a special note of thanks to Solomon and Gergana Passy, for their role, their contributions to Bulgaria, to our Alliance, to our bilateral relationship. They are too numerous to mention, but also too historic to fail to recognize.  To the entire Atlantic Club leadership team, this week marks the 25th anniversary of the Atlantic Club, and the 67th anniversary of NATO’s founding.  You have been a beacon shining the way for all of us in this past quarter of a century.

I cannot fail to acknowledge His Majesty and his role in achieving the dream, the goal of Bulgaria integrated with Europe, a full member of the Atlantic Alliance, a historical role that we are all deeply grateful for, and I think worthy of special mention.

I know this is a time of challenges and crises.  We need to face them together, as Allies, as friends, as partners.  And as members of societies that share a set of values: peace, freedom, democracy and prosperity.  And as people who share the original vision with which we ended the lengthy and awful Cold War: One Europe, whole, free and at peace.

These are not easy times for anyone in the region, and certainly not for Bulgarians.  So let me say from the outset that America stands with you and will support the choices you have made: for Europe, for the Transatlantic Alliance, and for a free and more hopeful future for you, your children, and your grandchildren.

And let me add that America’s commitment to the European project is fundamental.  From the first days after the horrors of the Second World War, we stood with Jean Monnet, Robert Schumann, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Paul Henri Spaak and so many others to support the vision of a united, peaceful and prosperous continent, one linked to North America by bonds of friendship, shared values and solemn defense commitments.  We stand by that vision now, and will do everything we can to help Bulgaria pursue its future as a full member already of the union, and as an indispensable part of the North Atlantic Alliance.

To very briefly answer some of our critics, let me add that we are here as your friends, we care deeply about your security and your prosperity, and we are not going away or losing our commitment.

In that regard, let me say that I am very optimistic about Bulgaria’s future.  As your great poet Hristo Botev once said, “Българският народ не е в гроба на своето минало, а в люлката на своето бъдеще.”

I had the opportunity to spend some time in Bulgaria shortly after the transition to democracy in the early 1990s, and I can see the progress that has been made – incredible progress – politically, economically, and socially. In fact, I remember when it would have been almost inconceivable to talk about Bulgaria as a full member of NATO and the European Union, about Bulgarians being free to travel, work and study anywhere in Europe.  About the enormous improvements to the quality of the infrastructure and the quality of life.  And about the broadened and deepened U.S.-Bulgarian relationship, from the American University in Blagoevgrad to the thousands of Bulgarian young people who travel to the United States to work, travel and meet new friends.

Please let me add that we are deeply committed to supporting the government of Bulgaria and its leadership in confronting the difficult challenges of the moment and in setting Bulgaria on a course toward a safe and prosperous future.  President Plevneliev, Prime Minister Borissov and the entire Council of Ministers have before them a daunting list of objectives.  I will do everything I can in my time here to help them succeed.

Our gathering here takes on increased meaning in the wake of the horrific, horrible terrorist attacks in Brussels.  Our thoughts are with the people of Brussels and the people of Belgium, as well as the families of the victims of so many other nations.  When madmen can kill at will in public, our first thought is, of course, to withdraw, to hug our own loved ones close, to retreat behind the walls of our homes and fight for civilization only in our immediate environment. In every generation, it now feels, our common humanity has been tested by those who seek to impose their will through fear, violence, and eradication of free choice – by those who resort to violence because they can’t succeed in open and tolerant democratic societies.

So if our own hard fought transatlantic unity is to mean anything – if we are to live up to the words of the North Atlantic Treaty, the Treaty of Rome, and the United Nations Charter, let the terror in Brussels call us once again to unite in defense of our security, our freedom and our democratic values. As a number of world leaders have said, we can neither hide from today’s threats nor face them alone.

Bulgaria does not have to hide.  In fact, none of us can hide.  We have to confront the challenges and defeat the threats before us. Bulgaria, as you all are well aware better than I, is affected by multiple crises confronting Europe overall.

Russian annexation of Crimea, the continuing non-fulfillment of the obligations of the Minsk Accord and continuing military aggression and fomenting of instability in Ukraine is one.

Another is the awful Syrian conflict and the closely related migration crisis that has affected every country in the region and indeed all of Europe.

And finally, the threat of foreign fighters and the continuing evidence of spillover from the conflict that challenges the security of every country in the world.

Many countries in Europe are confronting the consequences of at least one of these challenges, maybe two, but Bulgaria faces all three. It is precisely in times like these that our unity is most vital, and our democratic values are our best guide.  America’s approach to protecting our values and to advancing a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace will remain constant, as they have for 70 years, as we work to build communities of common action to add to our traditional alliances whenever we can. In other words, let me emphasize that in these uncertain times, Bulgaria has the best of friends.  The United States views Bulgaria as a key partner and ally in facing common challenges, whether they come from the east or the south, from migration or terrorism or any of the other host of issues that confront the nations in the modern world.

From the first American missionaries who came from Robert College to establish the American College in Samokov in the days before Bulgarian independence, to the Peace Corps volunteers who came in the 1990s and early 2000s to help Bulgarians get back on their feet after 45 years of Communism, this has been about Americans and Bulgarians working together as friends, partners and now Allies.  We must continue that work.

One of the things that struck me after my arrival here was how often I find myself in conversations about Secretary Kerry’s visit in January 2015.  As you are aware, he and Prime Minister Borissov jointly reaffirmed the strategic partnership that exists between our countries, and they also announced the formation of several bilateral working groups.

Why is that important?  I think it is because these groups have created a platform to address the challenges I have already named, and more.  Let me look at each one briefly in turn.

On defense and security we’ve done a lot in a very short time. As a NATO ally, the United States is supporting the countries on the Alliance’s Eastern edge that worry about  threats to security in the region. Our persistent military presence in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states sends a powerful message of deterrence. In fact, through our European Reassurance Initiative and Operation Atlantic Resolve, our bilateral military activity over the past years has increased more than 400 percent.  Our troops stand shoulder to shoulder with their Bulgarian counterparts ever more frequently.

But much more remains to be done, and we are working across many dimensions to realize the kind of transformation Bulgarians desire. For example, we have broadened our security cooperation in multiple areas to allow for activities and training that lead to joint capacity and interoperability. These activities have included multi-country exercises on the land in the air and at sea. In the sphere of building leadership and command capacity, the U.S. provides 7 million dollars per year in military equipment and educational military exchanges.

Regarding infrastructure, the U.S. and Bulgaria now have four joint facilities.  These are sovereign Bulgarian facilities which are being used to co-locate troops and stage joint training and exercises. Our Department of Defense is helping with significant infrastructure improvements to two of the facilities in ways which will benefit the Bulgarian armed forces for years to come.

On the Economy and Energy Diversification working group – I think we can say that it is entwined with defense and security in many ways. That is why, for example, we consider it a security issue, not just as an economic issue, that we conclude negotiations with the European Union and its members on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, T-TIP.  Not only will T-TIP bring jobs and growth on both sides of the Atlantic, it will strengthen our open, free-market economies and our leadership position in setting the global standard in environmental protection, in labor protection, in protection of consumers and workers, and in trade agreements.

I’ll note that the American Chamber of Commerce recently celebrated its 20th anniversary here. And I want to salute AmCham and its membership for its contributions to building the U.S.-Bulgarian partnership and to creating jobs and mutually beneficial trade. This deserves our applause and gratitude.

In fact, the economic situation in Bulgaria is quite dynamic, and there is much to point to as indicators of progress.
Bulgaria’s GDP growth last year was significantly higher than the EU average. Foreign direct investment was up 23 percent in 2015 and, at 1.6 billion euros, was the highest since 2009. And unemployment has continued to go down.

Major U.S. companies have decided to make significant investments here.  AES, for example, built the largest, most environmentally friendly, state-of-the-art power plant in Bulgaria, a plant that employs hundreds of local residents. And tomorrow, I will be visiting a new U.S. investment in Bulgaria – a plant that is a world leader in manufacturing sensors for automobiles.

In other words, American companies see opportunity in investing in Bulgaria, and they are here to stay.

And it’s not just change in the macro economy.  There are significant positive developments in the energy sector, as well.  When Secretary Kerry and Prime Minister Borissov jointly announced the Strategic Dialogue, Secretary Kerry promised Bulgaria assistance in the energy sector, particularly to bolster energy diversification and therefore energy security. We’ve been true to our word.  Through multiple visits by our Special Envoy for Energy Affairs, both here and in the region, we have helped Bulgaria work with Greece to move toward the realization of the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria, IGB.

In particular, I would like to congratulate the government on signing a Final Investment Decision on the IGB in December.   This is a significant step forward in realizing this vision. And what, exactly, would the project mean for Bulgaria?  Because as some say, it’s not the biggest energy project in the region,

I think that it’s not the size counts, but the impact. And here there is a lot of evidence already that it would be of strategic importance for Bulgaria.

As many of you know, energy markets are changing, and that includes here in Southeast Europe.  Much of this has been spurred on by supplies of gas being brought onto the market from the United States through the so-called unconventional gas revolution.  While the United States had anticipated being a net importer of gas, we are now starting to export domestically produced gas, and, in fact, the first cargo was shipped just weeks ago. To take advantage of these changes, some countries have built, or are considering building, liquified natural gas terminals, which create a diversification alternative to pipelines that simply did not exist just a few years ago. Lithuania is one of the European Union members that has done so and has already seen a significant benefit to consumers in terms of price.

By building the IGB, Bulgaria would also increase its access to alternative supplies of gas – from Azerbaijan, for a start – and reap similar benefits, we believe. Moreover, it could be the first step in building and connecting infrastructure throughout the region that could change energy markets for years to come to the benefit of Bulgarians consumers and consumers throughout the region.

That’s why we’re working together through our Energy Working Group with Bulgarians to try making progress on all these issues.

Let me say something about our Rule of Law working group. One of the things that is interesting about the Strategic Dialogue announcement, if you read it carefully, is that Secretary Kerry and Prime Minister Borissov made their most specific and precise commitments under this rubric.

Specifically, they mentioned Bulgaria’s work through the Open Government Partnership, or OGP. OGP is not especially well-known, but its aim is easy to understand.  It’s focused on helping governments to create transparency and accountability.

We can again ask ourselves how this fits in helping Bulgaria face the challenges it faces today in its security or the building of its economy.  From my perspective, continued democratic and economic development – the transformation that began with the changes in 1989, but which is by no means yet completed – are the long-term arc of Bulgaria’s storyline in the twenty-first century.

These kinds of rule of law improvements are fundamental to continued democratic and economic growth.  And that, in turn, is fundamental to increased political stability, increased business, increased trade and a higher quality of life for all.

One of the areas we’re most proud of is our Education and People-to-People Exchange Working group. This working group coordinates a wide range of programs and initiatives to further develop Bulgaria’s professionals and to provide youth with the skills that they will need to build Bulgaria’s future. Every country’s future depends on its ability to collaborate with external international partners.  The issues that we face today are regional and global, and no single country can solve them alone.  Countries that have developed this expertise have a distinct advantage, as they are more able to respond not only to threats and problems, but also to opportunities. In that regard we are very, very proud that we have committed closely working with the Bulgarian people through our exchange programs, and this commitment amounts to more than just simply words.

Every year, the United States facilitates and funds thousands of exchanges between the United States and Bulgaria – among researchers, artists, students, politicians, musicians, educators, journalists, and community organizers, at a cost of millions of dollars annually. Our Embassy provides professional exchange opportunities to professionals, activists, journalists, educators, members of the government and others to observe America’s experience in dozens of different areas, including teaching, governance, civic engagement, agriculture, entrepreneurship, and innovation, to name just a few.

Many of you have heard of Bulgaria’s Fulbright Commission, which brings American scholars and professionals to Bulgaria, and Bulgarian scholars and professionals to the United States, to allow them to share perspectives and experience. Through assistance from the U.S. government and the America for Bulgaria Foundation, over 1,100 Bulgarians and Americans have participated in our Fulbright program, advancing graduate and post-graduate level collaboration in science, technology, language, math business, journalism, and cultural arts. The Fulbright Program also funds an annual cadre of thirty native English language-speaking teachers in high schools throughout Bulgaria.

The America for Bulgaria Foundation, although not part of the United States government, is our partner and is doing a great deal to develop Bulgaria’s human capital and to strengthen people-to-people ties between our countries. Their programs train education professionals, including teachers and principals, to help them develop their full potential as leaders at school and in the classroom. By creating opportunities for closer interaction between universities and high schools, ABF stimulates Bulgaria’s intellectual potential by investing in the next generation of Bulgaria’s leaders.  ABF is also improving education in Bulgaria by modernizing classroom settings and introducing new classroom technologies, such as language and science labs.  Other programs target educational inequalities among schools and students by working with not only the top programs, but also with some of Bulgaria’s struggling institutions.

We will soon issue the 100,000th visa for the popular Summer Work and Travel program.  Many of you know young university students who spent a summer in the United States on this exchange program, gaining work experience, practicing their English, and learning more about American society.  Students are often motivated to participate by the financial incentive, but they return to Bulgaria richer than they anticipated, with new skills, new friends, and a global perspective. To ensure that participants benefit for a lifetime, we launched in 2015 a Summer Work and Travel Alumni Association, which provides networking opportunities and helps support the alumni in their endeavors and in their communities here in Bulgaria.

Our Education and Culture working group is also responsible for cooperation in the cultural sphere, including supporting a range of performances, exhibitions and festivals throughout the country. We are dedicated to continuing our longstanding contributions to Bulgaria’s unique and diverse cultural heritage.  Under the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation that I oversee, the Embassy is implementing an almost $700,000 project to preserve the 14th century Saint  John Aliturgetos church in Nesebar.  Other cultural preservation projects include the conservation of two 4th century Christian tombs in central Sofia, the preservation of the 4th century BC Thracian Tomb of Kran II in the Valley of the Thracian Kings, the restoration of the 17th century Kurshum Mosque in Silistra, the preservation of 3rd century mosaic floors in the ancient provincial capital of Philippopolis – modern-day Plovdiv, and the preservation of the early 19th century library and mosque of Osman Pazvantoglu in Vidin.

It’s easy to see how these activities strengthen our bilateral relationship, but how do they help us in addressing the problems that we face?  Through these programs and initiatives, people learn to solve problems across cultures.  Without those skills, we cannot hope to address the regional issues such as the migrant crisis or global issues such as terrorism or global climate change.

I’d like to mention the newest of our working groups and the last one, which is counterterrorism. We created this last year because of the obvious complexity and challenges of the situation we are all facing in the world today. It’s a legacy to the excellent cooperation that the United States and Bulgaria had after the tragic Sarafovo bombing in 2012, and the capacity and the lessons that we have built have created stronger capabilities for both of our countries to address this terrible challenge that everyone is facing. And we are continuing to work together to help train investigators and prosecutors, to help Bulgaria work on strengthening its legal code for dealing with terrorism and foreign fighters. And the goal, of course, is to keep our citizens on both sides of the Atlantic safe and secure.

We talked earlier, I talked earlier about the international challenges that Bulgaria is facing, but I want to emphasize – these are shared challenges, they are joint challenges, and we have to work together to face them.  And thus we have created this platform of the working groups to further advance the key goals that we have together with Bulgaria in supporting Bulgaria, which is to further advance Bulgaria’s complete integration into the European Union in all the areas that it is working on, to complete the modernization of Bulgaria’s NATO-interoperable and capable military and continue an ambitious schedule of training and engagement, to encourage energy diversification that can make Bulgaria more independent and also more prosperous, to bolster transparency to enable democratic and economic development and lay the foundation for stability, and to create institutions and train people to deal with transnational terrorist threats.

So that’s what we’ve been doing.  The question now, I think, is where we’re going in the U.S.-Bulgarian relationship. And that’s at a time, as I mentioned, when the world is getting more complex, not less. In such a situation, I think it helps to simplify, so let me put it this way: we see the U.S.-Bulgarian  partnership as an anchor in a sea of instability.

And whether we’re talking about strengthening NATO, improving global security, defeating terror, or strengthening our prosperity for our citizens, the United States, Canada and Europe need each other more than ever.  We, the transatlantic community, are strongest, safest and most prosperous when we stand together against today’s evils and challenges, and when we live our values at home and support them globally.

Bulgaria is our friend, ally and partner in this endeavor.  And at the end of the day, this is about how we want our children and grandchildren to live, and what kind of world we want them to inherit.  The foundations are in place for a great, bright future, but there are so many challenges along the way that are facing us.

What I can tell you is that in my time here in Bulgaria, I will do everything in my power to be a good friend, to leverage all the resources I can to help Bulgaria as it meets these multiple challenges, and to speak to the vision that we share, a vision of freedom, prosperity and security.

Thank you to so many people in this audience who are also working toward those goals.  I hope to be a friend and a useful partner to you as we pursue solutions and progress together.  Thank you very much.

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