The Sofia neighbourhood of Boyana can hardly be compared to any other place in the world as it amalgamates, in a quirky way, the brutalism of the former Communist regime and the extravagance of Bulgaria's new rich, but as I drove up a dead-end road on a crisp early-spring morning I never imagined I would end up in a piece of... Denmark, of all places. Christian Kønigsfeldt, the Danish ambassador to Sofia, opened up the gate and let me through onto what looked like a perfectly mowed Danish lawn in the midst of which, on a high pole, the Danish flag, or Dannebrog, fluttered in the wind. Am I in the northern quarters of Copenhagen, I asked myself, rather than in southern Sofia? The feeling for a piece of Denmark away from Denmark got only enhanced with the excellent coffee (only Danes can make black coffee actually taste of proper coffee). As we sat for a chat Christian, who has been a career diplomat with many years of experience in Portugal, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Slovakia, reiterated the impression with his informal manners. Yes – Danes can be startlingly relaxed to foreigners. Uptightness is not a Danish quality, and nor is beating about the bush.
I am looking forward to serving the interest of Denmark. This means that I am also serving the interests of Bulgaria which is now a NATO and an EU member state. Being on the same side now means that we have a lot of shared values. I am also looking forward to experiencing how Bulgaria is coping with the challenges it faces as a new democracy, as a country which only recently opened up to market economy. Like other countries in Europe we are both facing similar problems: economic difficulties, events in our region for example Ukraine, and recently the migration crisis generated by the unfortunate plight of the asylum-seekers.
And how is Bulgaria coping with all of those?
Let's start with democracy. There is no doubt that it takes a long time to learn how to cope with democracy. You cannot change to democracy overnight and then expect that on the following morning it will work and function. It takes a long time, maybe hundreds of years, to take that in. Bulgaria is on the right path. I especially appreciate the fact that now Bulgaria has a minority coalition government which in Denmark we've had for many years. In my assessment this is good for democracy because parties have to learn how to negotiate, how to find a consensus. Bulgaria is in a healthy learning process.
The Danish example of minority coalition rule is well known in Western Europe, but not so popular in Bulgaria. Obviously, it has advantages and disadvantages. Can you name a few of them?
Let me start with the disadvantages. It takes a long time to reach any kind of consensus. At the moment in Denmark the governing party consists of just 34 out of 175 MPs. This really requires a lot of negotiations by the prime minister to get a sufficient number of mandates to push through with any kind of decision. It is time consuming. It may also lead to situations where the government has to extensively listen to positions that it does not consider its own. However, on the positive side, the government has to take in the positions of all parties of the political spectrum, which leads to a much greater consensus in society at large. I think this is extremely good, especially for newly democratised countries.
From what you've seen in Bulgarian politics, do you think dialogue is at all possible at the moment?
Dialogue, mutual respect and understanding is fundamental for all societies and all human relations. It is absolutely necessary to have dialogue.
Is there anything that you are cautious about in Bulgaria?
There are issues that I try to focus on. These include issues that are important for Danish businesses wanting to invest in Bulgaria. They are being written about in the Bulgarian media as well, but let me mention them again: the rule of law, organised crime and corruption. These are issues that have to be faced by the Bulgarian authorities because they are crucial for foreign investors and also for visitors planning to travel to Bulgaria.
You come from a country where corruption does not exist and you now live in a country where it is rampant. How come corruption does not exist in Denmark but is a way of life in Bulgaria? Is it religion, upbringing, or is it morality, or work ethics, or the system?
I think it is a combination of all of those, but I believe the most important factor is education. Denmark has been a democracy for many years. It has a well-functioning welfare system, ensuring everybody gets free schooling. The education system is quite efficient. The government pays even for university education. And I think this has been crucial for the development of work ethics. People realise from an early age that you cannot function based on corruption and nepotism. Essentially, corruption means that the wrong decisions are made for the wrong motives.
The independent media that have the ability to investigate are also very important.
Denmark is also top of the list of the various world surveys measuring "happiness." Bulgaria is rock bottom in Europe and very low in the world. Why are Danes so happy and Bulgarians so sullen? The climate?
Certainly not the climate. As we talked about before, we have a very well functioning welfare system for which we pay very high taxes. The general perception is that you get what you pay for, and it is good value for money. People are happy because things function from cradle to grave.
What about Bulgaria?
Bulgaria has many prerequisites to make its people happy. Nature is fantastic. Bulgaria has mountains, plains, lakes and rivers. You have the Black Sea. It has natural resources and farming opportunities. When you travel through the country you see how fertile everything is, but you also see that large chunks of the land are not being taken care of. The same goes for industry. You see so many of these huge industrial buildings standing in ruins. It is very depressing. There are so many abandoned villages. You may see a dog lying around in the square, but you don't see any other life. They would have been beautiful villages if they had been taken care of. The situation does not bring to the country the wealth it could have. Consequently, people are unhappy because they do not enjoy safety and security.
Back in Denmark, what is Bulgaria famous for?
Bulgaria is for many Danes a synonym for Sunny Beach, unfortunately. There has been a long-running TV show focusing on life at Sunny Beach, especially at a disco called The Happy Viking. There are 50-70,000 Danes coming to Bulgaria every year. You wouldn't see many in Sofia, but the overwhelming majority end up at The Happy Viking. These are young people, coming over on charter flights, to have what they consider fun.
Bulgaria is not well known. It has an image problem. It should work very hard to change that image, and show that Bulgaria has other things to offer to visitors.