Interview by Von Konrad Putzier, Die Welt
Bulgarian liberal President Rosen Plevneliev wants Bulgaria to join the euro area, despite the crisis. He sees Bulgaria, which has almost no debts, as a good example for other countries, such as debt-stricken Greece.
In the 1990ties Bulgaria was fighting its high debt. However, the country backed its budget and not it has one of the smallest debts in the European Union (EU).
A conservative party assumed the power in Bulgaria three years ago. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov constantly stressed on the priorities and namely – the fight against corruption and the EU integration, but the success is still late.
President Rosen Plevneliev, who is also with the ruling party, took office in 2012.
Die Welt: I am surprised that we will make this interview in German. How did you learn to speak German so well, Mr Plevneliev?
Rosen Plevneliev: I was a construction engineer in the Federal Republic for eight years and I helped for the building of Germany. I am very proud of this. For instance, my partners and I were hired for the reconstruction of the building of the Reichstag, for instance.
Angela Merkel asked me where I learned to speak German so well, too. And I said – at a construction site. When she asked me where this construction site was, I said – the construction site of your office. We were in charge of the installation of special walls and handing ceilings. We did some things in Germany.
Die Welt: Did Germany become your second motherland over these eight years?
Rosen Plevneliev: Yes, it did. In Germany I got a chance for development, for getting to know the world, and, of course, I learned many things. I came here as a young Bulgaria, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. I received great support.
Die Welt: The other East European leader, who has impressive knowledge in German, was Vladimir Putin. Do you have anything else in common with your Russian counterpart?
Rosen Plevneliev: (laugh) I am not very sure. Speaking German, however, is a good investment. I am convinced that Germany is not only an engine of the European integration but it will also play an important role in the future, too. We keep friendly relations with Russia and Bulgaria sticks firm to its national interests.
When I was elected President of Bulgaria, I said that I will work for establishing a good name for my country as a member of the EU and to be integrated in strong Europe.
Die Welt: The euro crisis worsened since you took office. Do you really want to adopt the single currency now?
Rosen Plevneliev: Of course, it is clear. The euro is one of the two biggest projects launched in Europe over the last 20 years. The other one is the spreading of democracy in the Eastern part of the continent. These two things should not be put at risk, just on contrary – they should be speeded up.
Bulgaria, of course, will join the euro area. We are not 100% ready but the country is one of the three countries in Europe, which fully meet the Maastricht criteria.
We will also support continuing the process of democratisation of East Europe.
Die Welt: Is the ousting of your Romanian counterpart Traian Basescu another step in this direction?
Rosen Plevneliev: As president of a democratic European country I keep a close eye on the political development in neighbouring Romania. I am convinced that the Romanian national will manage to preserve one of the major principles of the democratic society and namely – the division of the powers.
Die Welt: You describe Germany as the engine of the European unity. However, the economic future of the Union is unclear, while Sofia and Bucharest’s accession to the Schengen area is hampered due to the resistance of the Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders. Do you expect bigger support from the German government?
Rosen Plevneliev: Everyone sees that the Bulgarian European borders are protected professionally and successfully. Of course, when one does one’s homework and sticks to the rules, one expects some solidarity. Thus we expect Germany’s support. We have problems with the Netherlands. We believe that the populist parties should not have such a great influence on the European policy, which is the case with the Netherlands.
Anyway, we will continue doing our job and eventually the European solidarity will come.
Die Welt: Despite the high unemployment Bulgaria sticks to the edge of the deficit set under the Maastricht Treaty. Doesn’t this hamper the growth, which according to latest data runs to only 1.7%?
Rosen Plevneliev: The right recipe for Europe includes fiscal discipline, structural reforms for better competitiveness and growth policy. The governments should spend as much as they can afford, not as much as they wish.
Bulgaria is a good example of this. Our deficit is under control. It is below 2.1% of the GDP. This year it will probably drop to less than 1.6%. Our state debts, being 16.2% of the GDP, are not only the lowest in Europe but also in the world.
Some 15 years ago Bulgaria was insolvent. One-third of the financial institutions had gone bankrupt and people went out on the streets. Back then country’s debt were estimated at 105% of the GDP. Their reduction is the recipe we would be happy to give to other European countries.
Die Welt: I guess you speak about Greece. Do you show understanding towards countries, where the wealth is much bigger but the Maastricht criteria are not observed?
Rosen Plevneliev: We have understanding. But, you know, Greece, Spain and other countries wait for the growth to come from Brussels. The growth is build at home and everyone should work hard to achieve it. This is what we do in Bulgaria. We should first provide growth potential, for which we have to make structural reforms in order to boost the competitive power and the production.
Growth does not come handed on a plate or on credit.
We back our friends in Greece. They will receive help. However, they will have to do their homework, too. One may build a beautiful house only when the groundwork is stable.
Die Welt: Bulgaria still finds it hard to carry out the reform in the judicial system and gain victory over corruption. Why is that?
Rosen Plevneliev: Many previous governments did not put an accent on this. Over the last three years we have been trying to work out new laws and carry out the structural reforms. We manage the EU funds much more efficiently. There are only three countries where not a single EU operational programme has been terminated. Bulgaria is one of these countries.
Of course, I do not say that we are perfect or deny the fact that we have still much work to do. The justice system should become more efficient and pass sentences faster.
The Bulgarian parliament adopted an act about the confiscation of property acquired through illegal activities. This act will bear strong preventive effect on both the criminals and the politicians.
Die Welt: There is often criticism about the lack of media freedom in Bulgaria. The latest complaint came from a Bulgarian association of the publishers, which said that the government indirectly finances media, which are well-disposed towards the government. Isn’t this one of the problems hampering country’s development?
Rosen Plevneliev: Indeed. If a country wishes to develop as a stable partner in the democratic European family, it should stick to the democratic principles. We have problems, but Bulgaria’s development continues, it is not finalised.
20 years ago we had a totalitarian socialist system, which lacked civil society and freedom of the media. We realise the problem and we seek solutions, as well as good partnerships.
We will be very happy if Germany and Europe come and invest in Bulgaria’s media market.
Die Welt: When a government exerts influence on the media intentionally, it is not a matter of development but simply an attempt to affect the public opinion in its own favour.
Rosen Plevneliev: If there really are any proofs that the government does it, I will personally interfere in my capacity of a president. I was elected by the people and I am responsible before the Bulgarian society. However, there should be evidence.
Sometimes, we, the Bulgarians, are too critical of ourselves.
Because of the lack of effectiveness of certain institutions, the information is spread by the media. To me, as president, I consider the functionality of the institutions a supreme priority. I mean the judicial system and the media supervision. When we achieve this, the media environment will be much different.
I would like to stress that Bulgaria has a great variety of media, both on regional and national level, and especially the online media.
Die Welt: The minorities, such as the Roma and the homosexuals, often become victims of violence exerted by rightist groups. Recently some 1,500 homosexuals staged a demonstration in Sofia asking for equal rights, while representatives of the Church called the people to stone those with different sexuality to death. Does your country do enough to protect these people?
Rosen Plevneliev: The matter in point concerns few representatives of the Church, it is not an official position of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
I will say it again – in just 20 years we cannot achieve the same results as other countries, which have been working on these things for 100 years.
We have proved how tolerant we are.
Bulgaria cooperates perfectly with all its neighbours.
The Bulgarian society is development really well, too. We have populist and right-centirst parties, but the Bulgarians are tolerant.
The pride parades become bigger with every passing year and we are happy to see the tolerance shown by the Bulgarians.
Die Welt: Are the businessmen better politicians?
Rosen Plevneliev: In times of crisis, being a businessman helps a lot, especially when one has to make fast decisions. My past experience as an entrepreneur helps me achieve fast results and win people’s trust.
After 20 years of false promises the Bulgarians got disciplined due to the politics. To change this tendency, Bulgaria needs politicians, who keep their word.
Part of my success comes because I set priorities. I make few promises but I keep them.
Die Welt: Are the politicians, who have earned their money thanks to private business, less accessible to corruption?
Rosen Plevneliev: Definitely. When one is rich, money is not the most important thing. It is the reputation. When you lose your reputation, you lose everything.
The interview has been abridged.