On an afternoon with sub-zero F temperatures, at Boyana church on the outskirts of Sofia in January 2010, I met the man who was to become the next ambassador of the United States to Bulgaria. It was only his second day in the country, yet James Warlick, on his ordinal ambassadorial posting abroad, already had a tight agenda. We admired the amazing ecclesiastical murals dating back to the Middle Ages, we visited Bozhidar Dimitrov's National Museum of History, and then we sat down for a coffee and a chat. That was probably Ambassador Warlick's most relaxed day in Bulgaria. From Day 3 he swooped into the media spotlight and will probably not leave it until he departs from Bulgaria for good, which will likely happen towards the end of the summer.
To a much larger extent than any of his predecessors in Bulgaria's short post-Communist history, Stanford-educated Washingtonian James Warlick "got involved" in every possible way. He wanted to be seen attending both charity and ballroom events, he hosted receptions for Californian wine producers and bluechip companies alike, and he never missed a chance to comment on domestic issues in Bulgaria, from controversial bills being debated in parliament to individuals arrested by the police on criminal charges.
In fact, his forthright outspokenness, especially when it came to defending in words as well as in deeds the policies of the current Bulgarian political establishment, has earned him both friends and critics. These fall roughly into two categories. The most prominent of the friendly group are Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his interior minister ‒ and for good reason. Bulgaria's top politicians at the moment will probably miss James Warlick because in him they will be losing a man who was ready to come to the rescue at any time, regardless of whether shale gas, nuclear power engineering or organised crime was at stake. The critical group includes many others, especially some of Bulgaria's intellectuals. These have persistently failed to understand why the American ambassador should be overstepping the thin line between championing what would be a good, worthy cause anywhere in the world, and so openly favouring one party over another.
The examples of this type of behaviour are many and varied, but to understand why the US State Department acted in this unusual way in Bulgaria one must seek the answers in Bulgaria, not in DC.
Simply put, Bulgaria was eager for this to happen.
Unlike the developed democracies in Western Europe, the Bulgarian political top brass and the general public have a peculiar attitude to Western, especially to American ambassadors. These are seen not so much as diplomats installed here to uphold the interests of the United States, but as umpires ‒ in cricket rather than baseball terms ‒ in domestic affairs where local politicians fail to agree and where citizens do not trust them. Unlike London, Berlin, Paris and Copenhagen, where hardly anyone knows the name of the American ambassador because very few citizens care, in Bulgaria they are treated as unofficial controllers, perhaps an echo of the days of Communism when the Soviet ambassador was the highest authority to grant or withdraw endorsements.
Now, on one of the hottest days of the year, we meet with James Warlick again in the comfort of his residence on Veliko Tarnovo Street in Central Sofia. His pup, Rudy, comes in to check things, and I cannot help but think that Bulgaria ‒ where the American ambassador is given the red-carpet treatment, as well as free air time any time he wishes ‒ must be a very easy country to be posted to.
"This is a beautiful country with wonderful people, Ambassador Warlick says at the beginning. As I have said so many times before, I just don't know an American who has come to Bulgaria either to live or to visit who hasn't loved it here. It's a great honour and a privilege to be the representative of the United States anywhere in the world, but I couldn't have asked for a better assignment."
You are leaving before the end of your term.
The media didn't get it right. Reading the articles one might get the impression that I was being recalled, which I am not.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers