In conversation with the king at the British Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce

The British Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce

in conversation with King and former Prime Minister

Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha at the British Ambassador’s Residence

September 20

The latest meeting in a series of high-profile events presented by the British Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce (BBCC) was held at the British Ambassador’s Residence in Sofia, based on ‘A Conversation with His Majesty King and former Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha’, led by one of his advisers in the Prime Minister’s office, Bill Drysdale, now chairman of the BBCC. The fascinating 40-minute interview before a full house of members and guests was followed by questions to the King and discussion, with Ambassador Allen also on the platform.

After the opening of the event by Drysdale, which included setting the ground rules about how to address a monarch who became King (Tsar) of Bulgaria in 1943, then after 50 years in exile served a term of office as prime minister, Jonathan Allen gave a delightful introduction to the distinguished but modest and self-effacing man behind this remarkable story.

Saxe-Coburg traced the very early days as child king, exile first to Egypt then Spain, education in Alexandria and Madrid, military college in the US, a business career spanning Spain, North Africa and the Middle East, a lifetime of contact and encouragement to Bulgarians word-wide through the communist years, return to Bulgaria in the 1990s and after a landslide election victory in 2001, appointment as prime minister from 2001 to 2005. These years were ones of development, growth and inward investment for Bulgaria, accession to Nato and final preparations to become, 18 months later, an EU member state. A unique feature of the man and strength of his role as PM was broad experience outside politics and his fluent command, in depth, of seven languages. However indelicate it is to mention birthdays, ambassador Allen closed with congratulations to the King on reaching 75 in June this year, and to his wife Donja Margarita – who accompanied him to the event – and himself on having recently celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary.

Highlights of the conversation:

Bill Drysdale: An enormous pleasure to welcome you and your wife this evening Sir. We have a distinguished guest list. It was a great honour to be appointed as your adviser in 2002, and for me it led to a unique working relationship. Our event today is an opportunity to reflect, to bring views from the outside, from the international scene. While you were PM we typically spent an hour together every 10 days or so, and you gave me an extraordinary range of things to do. Perhaps this evening we may replicate the flavor of some of those meetings, the conversations I remember so well.

Your memories as the ‘boy King’?

It was difficult; far away. A particular thing I remember: I had to behave as a grown-up at the age of six. Recollections from there on are partly family, domestic, partly ceremonial, but not very clear cut.

As prime minister I visited Japan: PM Koizumi at the meeting first spoke some words in Bulgarian, not in the established protocol; there was very special seating. He would ask me technically precise questions, high-level, challenging. But first “How did you feel when you heard that you became King?” Koizumi is known as an economist, a down-to-earth person. This was his way to put you at your ease.

School in Egypt and Spain, military college in the US

It was very cosmopolitan in those days. Victoria College in Alexandria was highly thought of. People from the Middle East countries studied there. I made lots of friends, kings, sheikhs and commoners. The Gulf States were still being formed, new boundaries and Kingdoms. How much has changed over 60 years! School and further education in Spain were very formative years. Early exposure to life in the US as a soldier was important.

Marriage and family. Congratulations to you and Donja Margarita on your Golden Wedding Anniversary earlier this year! Life and business in Spain and internationally

Being a Bulgarian family in Spain, and marrying an ‘insider’, made for a good base. The fast developing economies of southern Europe were our habitat, familiar ground. With the family becoming larger, I went into business in Spain. It was a challenging stage. Appointments also came for ventures outside Spain.

Long range contact with Bulgaria  – how you stayed in touch?

An obvious fact, my mother was adamant about us keeping in contact with Bulgaria. Difficult, as Bulgarians, being in exile. I helped with cultural initiatives, different communities overseas. In the political sense, come 1996, I was well acquainted with the situation.

Bulgarian/British links and trade. Bulgarian City Club in London.UK investments here.

The City Club has become an institution. Mr Lingorski (here tonight), Prince Kiril, Honorary President of the City Club, and some of my ministers came from there. Britain has always been respected in Bulgaria as quite a role model. Some fine British companies have come here, and more would be very welcome.

Queen Elizabeth II and your warm contacts with her family. Her Diamond Jubilee photo: you were sitting immediately on the Queen’s left! How did you get to be such a central figure in her celebration?

Strictly protocol, by date of accession to particular thrones. It is certainly not any personal merit. I was touched and delighted to be in this position. I descended from the family of Prince Albert, which led of course to links with Queen Victoria. She was a great horticulturalist, like my cousin the Prince of Wales is now: Victoria famously said that for the best relaxation, “I garden furiously”.

How many other monarchs around the world are you in contact with?

With all of them, most are relatives, we know each other. It is not an organizational club or a secret thing. It’s history. Prince Charles, Prince ofWalescame here a couple of times: it was on the Prince’s initiative that I made an offer to Mr Drysdale to work in the PM’s office.

How surprised were you when your party so decisively won the 2001 election, and you became PM? Your time as prime minister – highlights, and any regrets?

From 1996, I made short visits to Bulgaria. I was carefully observing, watching, trying to get the feel. So not that much of a surprise. But it wasn’t in my wish list to actually be prime minister. Overall, I believe our term of office, our mandate, was very good for Bulgaria – Meglena Kouneva helped prepare Bulgaria for EU accession. I had a strong team of ministers, and circumstances demonstrated a need for change, for new, progressive policies. Things weren’t easy, but less difficult than now.

Would you choose the same Cabinet if you had your time again? Who would definitely be included? (I want to spare the blushes of Nikolai Vassilev and Lydia Shouleva, both here tonight)

What a question!  My view has always been that the right people, with qualifications, capacity, working in a functioning environment, will do well. I would feel happy, thankful, at ease with the same team if I was starting again.

How would things have been different if you had become President instead of PM?

It’s difficult to tell, to re-write the history of events. If everybody had thought I should be President, the relevant legislation would have been changed to allow me to run for President. We can’t turn back the clock.

The subsequent three-party coalition’s achievements, including the actual EU accession.

I can now think things over with hindsight. At that stage, I was convinced, and still am, that we had to keep to certain principles. Joining the EU was the only solution, and now there can be no turning back. Pulling or pushing the car in the same direction. The triple coalition: what an extraordinary experiment it was as a political phenomenon. Coalition mentality: when needed, it is extremely important for democracy. For us it was the right model but a very difficult exercise: three parties working together did achieve a lot.

The latest EC monitoring report on Bulgaria: when will we really bite the bullet and show decisive progress? When will we put organised crime, corruption and a flawed judicial system behind us?

A tough pill to swallow. Getting a clear vision for our own good: we should resolve the problem areas because we want to, not because we are pushed by Brussels or others to do so. Being the most recent EU members, clearly they are watching us and Romania closely. Sometimes, I feel resentful being branded in a negative way. Some highly respected countries are not accused of such weaknesses but still have them! But that does not excuse our faults. Yes, there has been delay in adjusting. People must realise how the rest of the world functions. We have to go along with the same rules and we are privileged to be in the EU. Last night, I heard some news about Mexico and thought that everything was relative. In Mexico last year there were 3000 murders in one district, which is staggering. The world does not turn its whole attention to that. We are a small country, transparency and other measures that are being taken; Big Brother Brussels must be patient.

How about the new Meglena Kouneva political party, looking ahead?

She worked for us, a very successful member of the team. Forthcoming elections: an interesting development. At this stage, the outcomes depend on programmes, voters and what can be offered. A good thing in democracy is that you can choose. We have to believe in democratic values. Listen to different proposals, policies, developments and make your choice.

Bulgarian press/media: how free, how fair? Bulgarian press and media are criticised. The best investigative journalists don’t feel comfortable (perhaps even not safe?) in Bulgaria.

I am not close enough to the media circles. I did not feel restrained in any way. I preferred the media to have government freedom rather than the government being free from the media. I was not appreciated, nor understood. If it can be objective, positive, creative, not invariably negative, one-sided, that’s good. I don’t have a degree in journalism, so I should not talk about it, nor do I have all the answers.

Hello Magazine, Vanity Fair, BBC World Hard Talk, Bloomberg’s Charlie Rose, etc: do they have to twist your arm to be featured?  You have appeared in all of these.

It was good and useful. People have odd ideas about Bulgaria but I was able explain a bit. My own website provides a lot of transparency, on my work for Bulgaria, my family, the NGOs I assist. As PM the interviews tended to be intrusive, sometimes too pushy, but after that they are more relaxed, so that means I am too.

Wikileaks: have they enhanced transparency or been an evil force as seen by the US  Administration?

Time will tell. We’ll see.

Middle East madness: Israel/ Palestine, Syria, Iran.Syria- very difficult.Iran – very threatening. What’s your take on these?

A very tough question. At prima vista, there is a lack of understanding in many different ways. It starts with ill feelings to the Muslim presence in general. The West over-reacted, and that encouraged fundamentalism. Muslims are a religious community – not something that should be so accentuated. There are tricky issues of different groups and orientations within the Middle East. If there is some kind of arrangement, tolerance, compromise, there would not be such turmoil (eg Palestine). The Palestinian issue not being in any way settled, means that the rest is very volatile. To us in Bulgaria it’s a touchy issue. Muslims are following it very carefully: here they are integrated in our community. We are ideally placed to have trade relations with the Middle East.

Dilma Rousseff: How can Bulgaria benefit from this unique relationship? Can Brazil become a more serious trading and investment partner of Bulgaria?

Brazi lis an enormous country and a huge economy. This “excuse” will be beneficial for us. There used to be a community of Bulgarians inBrazil. Let’s use that door that is standing open!

Euro zone meltdown: what is your take? And when would be the right time for Bulgaria to join?

I am politically biased and a staunchly enthusiastic Europeist. Europe is the only solution. Any sacrifice is worth it. There are problems: who is not interested in the prosperity of Europe? We cannot have a military coup. We cannot have an invasion on behalf of one of the member countries. We have seen so much hardship but we belong to something economically, civilization-wise prestigious. Where would Bulgaria be today, had it not been in the EU? We would feel less secure. There would have been a lot of questions. Now we know what our priorities are. Now we can go around different countries without changing money. The other day at the airport a Bulgarian told me “PM, do you realise how nice it for us to be in this queue?” We achieved this with lots of effort and sacrifices but it is very encouraging.

Spain and Italy: prospects for recovery – and Germany as guarantor. What next for Greece? Turkey as a new economic tiger.

We have very strong geographic, cultural, historical, business relationships with all our southern European neighbours includingTurkey. There are great strengths and we must have belief that the current difficulties, with support from all and not just Germany, can be surmounted. I and my family have deep roots, especially in  Bulgaria, Spain, Italy and further back in Germany. With Greece we also of course have abundant neighbourly ties and business relationships. I wish them well in their determination to stay with the euro, despite the very real tensions that are not yet resolved.

Rapid advances in technology: are you into smartphones, tablets, Kindles (how about your grandchildren?) . The world is changing very rapidly.

I am consulting my grandchildren. They can explain things in less than five minutes. They can help a lot. It is a very important support. All the social networks looking at the Arab spring – technology is key in some of these situations. In Egypt it was not the poor peasant people, but people with a mobile phone who started the revolution. An interesting instrument, which is not controllable. A serious political weapon. It can backfire in other areas. The speed with which you can give or receive an answer, for example. And news travels alarmingly fast. 20 minutes after the Diamond Jubilee picture with the Queen, over lunch, the phone in my pocket vibrated, with a message from a friend in the Far East congratulating me on the historic photo he just saw on Reuters!

Bulgarian heritage: rich history, Boyana Church, Thracian Gold, Perperikon and so much more. Good work was done on both discoveries and restoration work while you were in Government.

These are priceless treasures butBulgariais slow to present them as fully as it should do in its global promotion campaigns as indicative of a civilisation that still, today, has a very marketable leading edge.

How do you see Bulgaria in 2037 (your 100th birthday): What will be better, what real surprises, what big challenges will remain?

There is no reason not to seeBulgariain 2037 as a normal integrated European country, working with the advanced democratic world. Middle-class liberation combined with technology and highly-qualified people. You must think ahead and have goals. You should not be disrupted or distracted by fashions. Keep changing course occasionally, not just what is in vogue or agreeable. We have a well-set series of priorities. We have to work together to achieve them. A tremendous challenge for the immediate future, but with the prospect of results. We had a big challenge: the EU above all and it was achieved.

Your last word to this evening’s gathering

Get out of local bickering. We should not take our mind off our priorities.

Following the BBCC’s wide ranging and insightful conversation with King Simeon, Ambassador Allen joined the platform and shared with His Majesty in the Q&A and discussion session with questions both from His Excellency and the audience.

Ambassador Allen: What would you wish you had known back in the 2001? What is the biggest lesson? What would you have done in a different way?

It is a very philosophical question. I tried to be pragmatic and look at the positive side. It is past, done. I learned an enormous lot. I came from the private sector and it was a very tough experience. Whenever I had a different idea, I would suggest it – the answer was: “Не може”. I would start explaining, and it would be maybe “Yes”.  Very often it was “Не може”. A fact of having been used to a certain way of thinking. Not being too creative, not to get yourself in trouble. The current PM might have a more energetic approach!

I would like to bring another feature: that of the visionary. Looking abroad and setting the big goal. Our life turned out to be mainly survival, which is not inspiring. With the parliamentary elections now on the horizon, what should be the political priority, the national goal?

To have something which motivates the society and follow these goals through party programmes. Generalising is a mistake. What is best at this stage? My own belief: a centre thinking (I will not say liberal) would be very helpful for the democratic development. In general, a good experience. It is normal that the next day people realise who they had voted for.

A great number of people are leaving Bulgaria. What policies should we adopt to bring them back?

Through many, many years in exile, I visited innumerable communities. Bulgarians are not good emigrants. In the Cold War days I had no hope of seeing Bulgaria. Nowhere is better than home. A lot of our very talented students go abroad: if they see things improving here, they will come back. We have a tremendous potential of people who would like to succeed. We have possibilities to advance.Bulgariawill be open to do things in a different way. Talented technocratic Bulgarians have come back to serve their government. The strong family links. No one does tomatoes like their grandmother!

It is not easy to ask questions after Bill, who made sure to cover all angles. Still, which was the most difficult decision as PM?  If you could turn the clock back, which is the one decision you would not have taken again?Is our current PM (your former apprentice!) consulting with you these days and do you have advice for him (we’ll make sure to pass it on)?

What questions! I had such a good team. There was not anything key or dramatic. It was always boiled down to logics and necessity. There were unpleasant moments: I was put under some very serious pressure. I was trained for an entirely different job, not the executive one: a PM who deals with day-to-day problems. Prime Ministers inBulgariahave a large amount of responsibilities but no power. The one decision I would not take again if I could reverse time is to have become Prime Minister! I was going to look for the right person to become PM. But I was told by my young team (glancing at Nikolay Vassilev) that I could not back out of it; that people believed in me. How difficult and laborious it was. I was self-critical. But it happened, it was real, and it is on the historical record.

PM Borissov worked for me before he became Secretary General of the Interior Ministry. He, being a very professional man, insisted on being with Margarita and me himself and taking personal care of our security. Later he told me: “I have been watching you for four years” and I replied: “Don’t you think I haven’t  been watching you either?” It is important to keep a good relationship. Far more positive than sulking, but discretion is important too. But yes, we do talk to one another over a broad agenda from time to time. There is a difference between being discreet and being secretive. No name-dropping.

What do you think the UK can offer?

Historic experience through the importance of theUK.  Being advanced in so many things. Being an example of democracy and tolerance. Economically, there is plenty of bilateral interest, after 50 years of isolation, two world wars andBulgariabeing on the other side.

Possibilities and business. On the whole, the initiative of having the BBCC is a market link, a source of dialogue and exchange of economic views. We have always looked upon Britain, and the rest of Western Europe, as something very stable, as being an inspiration.

Brits take things with a pinch of salt and humour. I like the story of the young MP who says to an old one: “Remember, what you are sitting in front of is the Opposition. The Enemy is behind you!”

Drysdale closed the discussions by drawing attention to some of the United Kingdom’s successful exports to Bulgaria, among which are engineering and technological products, financial services, many areas of energy and infrastructure expertise,  and not least some iconic food and drinks.   Scotch whisky, the third largest of all British exports comes solely from his home country of Scotland, and he took great pleasure in presenting Their Majesties, as a thank you from the BBCC, with a bottle of 15-year-old Dimple Haig which is already well known in Bulgaria.

Ambassador Allen closed the business part of the evening with a few final words: “When I arrived at the Embassy, I was a historian. I would like to understand where we are going. Where are we now? I asked lots of questions about the history of Bulgaria. As part of understanding modern Bulgaria, we have to understand your time as PM and look through your eyes. There are many grounds for optimism, and we are working to help create a bright future for Bulgaria.

On behalf of the Embassy as partner of the BBCC, I thank you both for a delightful evening as our very special guests”.

(Photos: British Bulgarian Business Council)



The Sofia Globe staff

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