Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev addressed students at the American University in Bulgaria on November 13, on the theme of “A better future: Who needs to take the initiative?” This is the text of his speech, which was delivered in English, as posted on the Presidency’s website.
It is more than a pleasure to be here. I really envy all professors and teachers for having such a great job – to teach and shape the next generation, to give them strong fundamental knowledge and bright horizon, so they could be free to choose and change.
You all know that the American University in Bulgaria is a very special institution. We all know why. But there is one more reason that makes it so special – AUBG was the first to brake all the boundaries, to bring down all the walls in the region. We will discuss today who needs to take the initiative, but let us remember that in a time of bombings, wars, ethnic conflicts and crimes against humanity executed in the Balkans, AUBG was there to bring people and cultures together, to spread universal knowledge and change the political and business landscape in the region.
As a president I travel around the world and other presidents often ask me: How did the miracle on the Balkans happen? What is the recipe for success? How did SEE become an example for the rest of the world? The Balkans stood as a symbol of wars, conflicts, terrorist attacks, of battles between neighbors, and now we give an example of peaceful development to the whole world. Just look at Bulgaria. We were in constant conflict with Byzantium for more than a thousand years. 25 years ago in the Military doctrine of the Bulgarian totalitarian regime Greece and Turkey were considered the biggest threat. Today after centuries of wars, from worst enemies we became best friends, just 24 years after the collapse of communism. With Turkey we had conflicts and territorial disputes for centuries, and now we are best neighbors. With Serbia, in the words of their president, who visited me recently: “We have fight a lot”, he said, but today we are good neighbors and friends and for next year we plan to celebrate together the hundred anniversary of the First World War.
So how did it happen? Who took the initiative for this remarkable historic transformation on the Balkans in the past 15 years? Was it because of one or two visionaries and super heroes? Who were they? Or was it because of people?
Let me give you another example: This year from New York, to Boston, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Tal Aviv and Sofia we celebrate 70 years of the salvation of the Bulgarian Jews during the Second World War.
In the darkest years of the human history Bulgaria was faced with a difficult decision. It chose to do what no other nation in Europe did and saved the lives of all its citizens of Jewish origin. Our Jewish community was the only one which not only survived, but even grew. Unfortunately, Bulgaria was in a situation where it could not do the same for the Jewish people from Northern Greece and parts of Yugoslavia who did not hold Bulgarian citizenship. We deeply mourn their loss as well as the loss of all the victims of the Holocaust whom we will always remember.
Today, we all are proud of this incredible story of saving all Bulgarian Jews and we will always remember this valuable lesson.
Here comes again the question: Who took the initiative in that historic moment? Was it the king? Or the prime minister? The government? History gives us the answer: representatives of the Bulgarian church, intellectuals, political and social leaders all played a big role in rescuing the Bulgarian Jews. For example Bulgarian consuls, going against official orders, saved thousands of European Jews by issuing them Bulgarian transit visas. But, the most important role was that of the ordinary Bulgarian citizens. They made it their cause to peacefully but firmly resist and offered their support to their Jewish classmates, friends and neighbors. They proved that every single person can make a difference and has the power to change history.
I often recall the famous quotation of the great English politician and philosopher Edmond Burke. He said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Good men do nothing. By saving its entire Jewish community 70 years ago the Bulgarian civil society also saved itself and gave a historic example for courage and human values. The good men stood for their cause for tolerance and humanity. They did what they believed was right and they made history.
In 2013 Bulgarian civil society returned back on the stage by organizing a wave of spontaneous protest and demanding a change. People pointed on problems how our economy and democracy works.
Today we have an institutional crisis due to structural problems of the democratic system that were never fully overcome in the 24 years of transition such as the governmental dependencies on oligarchic structures that actively influence the political agenda via concentration of media and behind-curtain policy making, lack of transparency for large governmental projects, justice system that is not effective and independent enough, media which are dependent and often doesn’t tell the truth.
While in the beginning, we saw this issues as a national problem, looking across Central and Eastern Europe, we realize that this is a regional phenomenon. In our still young democracies, one can observe that if left unsupported the whole region has the tendency to reverse their democratic gains and lose some of the great democratic and civil milestones that were achieved. A new, second phase of democratic consolidation needs to be aided by building stronger civil society organizations such as watchdogs, think tanks and other organizations that can consolidate the representations of the civil society. During the 24 years of transition, it became clear that simply having democratic party-system, putting all the laws and institutions in place, is not enough to create long-term democratic stability. Only investment in longer term pillars of democracy can really bring maturity to the democracies of the region. The rule of law, independent and objective media, real market economy and independent and effective public institutions represent the very foundations of democracy and should be strengthened.
Being part of NATO and the EU, one should not get a false sense of security since the above dynamics could quickly change the democratic landscape of Central and Eastern Europe – and we already see clear signs across the region. Only through active Euro Atlantic partnership can the region defend against the threat of democratic reversal and the instruments for that are both through civil society institutional building and active economic and political Euro Atlantic engagement in the region.
2013 was marked by unprecedented protests, political confrontation and historically low levels of trust in the institutions and politicians in Bulgaria, but also worldwide. Today civil society sets a different agenda, the question is are politicians ready to change. Therefore, I have organized recently a number of public debates talking about a historic chance – that civil society lends a helping hand to the politicians for change – and a historic shame – if the politicians leave the public energy to go down the drain and further discourage and push young and intelligent towards leaving the country.
There are, of course, a lot of pessimists in Bulgaria. However, we should not be passive. It is our unconcern that brought us where we are today. Doing nothing drove us to the situation that it is more likely that an arrogant lie repeated 100 times could become true, rather than the truth even repeated 100 times to be justified as a truth.
We live in an uneasy and turbulent time. Pessimism in the nation outweighs optimism, show all studies. The political confrontation is the strongest since the beginning of the transition and there is a tendency towards increase of the tension this fall. We are in a severe political crisis with a high level of revanchism and a lack of dialogue and constructive approach.
The economy is underperforming 5 years now. People pointed clearly at the problems – low income, unemployment, corruption, problems with the rule of law, poor health care, dependent media, young people leaving the country. Citizens do not care much about the rating of politicians, they care about the above mentioned main problems of the nation. Solving those problems takes time but is not so difficult. For example – the solution for low income is reforms for a competitiveness and a better business environment to attract more investments. The solution for unemployment is support the small and middle size enterprises. The solution for corruption is e-Government. The solution for healthcare is reform and introduce e-Healthcare.
It is already clear to all of us that the prosperity, the rule of law and the democracy are not automatically received with an EU membership. We have to work for them. Bulgaria has made its way from 45 years of communism, through an emerging democracy to today’s democracy in which all institutions, as well as the laws, have the form and façade of the European ones but in content and results do not meet peoples’ expectations. And I consider the civil society’s active position today as a very positive sign that people care, people act and people change.
I remember the time when I was a student and when I was performing my military service. Those were the last years of communism, totalitarian state, iron curtain and isolation. But you do not have the marks and the syndrome of those years, you are open-minded towards a region of security, integration and friendship.
You, the young people, look forwards, not backwards. You already know each other, you stay connected on Internet and social media, you study together in this strategically important university for SEE. Young people like you look at the world in a different way. You know what regional cooperation means and how it works. You can learn from the examples for positive development and you can be proud that the societies in the region underwent successfully a huge social and political change. It was tough, and the price was high. In this 24 years of democratic transformation the countries on the Balkans went through wars, economic crises, and social despair. They did a lot of mistakes, but they are on the right track. And the region is on the right track too.
Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Croatia already belong to the EU family of shared values and common interests aimed at building an integrated, solidarity-driven and prosperous Europe that would play a leading role in a global context. The success of these countries is an accomplishment for the entire region, an inspiring example for the countries of the western Balkans on their way to European integration. The Republic of Bulgaria has always supported the European perspective of the countries in this region and will continue to do so in the future. Today it is our obligation to share the responsible task of helping our neighbours take their place in the European family by sharing with them the lessons learned and the valuable experience gained on our own way to integrate within the EU.
Bulgaria is a valuable partner to the countries of the Western Balkans and the countries of the eastern Partnership in their efforts to build modern, democratic State. We are all well aware of the difficulties along the way, and we are determined to support other countries in addressing the challenges they face. Only integrated we are stronger and attractive for investments. Isolated everyone of us is weak and stays underdeveloped.
The economic crisis in Europe and the world, which has been going on for six consecutive years, is the deepest one and the most testing since The Big Depression of the 1930’s. It shows how mutually dependent our economies are today. When resources are limited, the need for regional cooperation becomes even more evident and imperative. The construction of a modern regional transport and energy infrastructure must be our common priority. Only connected we can be competitive in the rapidly developing globalized world. The Structural Funds of the EU provide us with genuine opportunities to invest into the development of the region, in order to make it a more attractive place for foreign investments. More than 50 billion euro EU money will be available for the region until 2020 to improve connectivity and build links and transport corridors.
One of the lessons that we have learned is that the change of game would come if we start to work as a region. I believe that with a similar strategy the economic prospects for our region would be quite more optimistic. This strategy would mean removing all the misunderstandings and virtual boundaries that separate our countries. On their place we should put: new roads to connect and help us make business, new style of partnership based on mutual trust, and creativity coming as a result of our diversity.
A Croatian politician Joseph Strossmayer once said, spreading peace and understanding among the Balkan nations would always be a great benefit not only to us but to the world. Let us all remember those wise words from a visionary whose ideas are at the very heart of the European integration!
So dear friends,
The future is bright, direction is clear, but who needs to take the initiative? The right answer is: we all! This is what we learn from the past, I gave you some examples. This is what we learn also from our recent history. We do not trust so much super heroes and populists any more, we better trust strong democratic institutions and active civil society that safeguard our rules and our values.
It really depends on each one of us. Like the example of the Bulgarian consul who 70 years ago, against the order of his minister, issued transit visas and saved the life of thousands of Jewish people. Like the example of the Bulgarian civil society protesting on the streets in 1943 against the deportation of the Jews. That example wrote a bright page in Europe’s darkest history times. It depends on each and every one of us to stop at a pedestrian crossing, to pay taxes, not bribes. And the results come fast, when you believe in what you do. For example, the statistics of road deaths shows in 2008 they are 1160, five years later this number is two times lower. Hundreds of lives per year have been saved, because millions of Bulgarians drive more safely and follow the rules.
It depends on each of us to insist that the institutions and the governments show the true history of the Balkans as it was. Political leaders should find the strength and courage to open the archives of the secret services until 1989 and send them to the State Archives. A quarter of a century has already passed. After 25 years they should not be a secret anymore. These documents belong to people and State Archives. Let everyone have access to them. After 25 years there is nothing to hide anymore. We do not need someone who reads the archives and the truth for us. We do not need a mediator between us and the truth! This should be the whole truth, not just a half or a piece of it. This is what strengthens or destroys peoples trust. Everybody talks about communist secret services, KGB, STASI, ??, ????. We should send all of them to the archives, to the museums and get rid of them in the real life. Let’s look forwards in the 21st century, not backwards in the dependencies from the totalitarian state.
There are many problems to be solved, but we should not miss the big picture:
Fifteen years ago in the Balkans there was a cruel war and ethnic cleansing, today there is a good perspective for peace and prosperity. Fifteen years ago Bulgaria went bankrupt, government debts was 120% of the GDP, today is just 18% of GDP. Fifteen years ago there was no Euro as a common currency, there were only 15 states in the European Union, today we are 28. Fifteen years ago there were no mobile phones, no internet, no social networks.
The big picture is that positive change is happening and in a very short time from historic point of view. Our democracy is a young democracy, which is only 24 years old. We already changed a lot, but we are still not there where we want to be. Democracy should not be taken for granted, we should fight every day for it. And it depends on everyone.
Shared destiny and good prospects – that’s our future. A better future is ahead of us in a long term. The recipe seems clear and brings results – the Balkan countries are already interconnected and interdependent. We should turn this dependencies into opportunities by further strengthening our democratic institutions and civil society, respect our common history and the European values, including good neighborly relations, stimulate connectivity, safeguard democracy. Every politics based on clear objectives, richer content, legitimate priorities and transparency on the work done, brings good results. And we already know the answer of the question: Who needs to take the initiative? We all. Everyone of us matters in our common journey to European democracy and prosperity.