USSR is long gone, but ties remain and develop. Now Bulgaria is a member of the Union, Ukraine is hoping to join soon. To learn about prospects of Ukrainian-Bulgarian relations, about what makes this country run, ForUm has had a talk with Bulgarian ambassador to Ukraine Krasimir Minchev.
- Mr. Minchev, what measures does Bulgaria take to neutralize the consequences of the world economic crisis in the country?
- Within the last two years, our government has been following the way of fiscal discipline, active investments and more effective absorption of European funds' means. Thanks to these measures, we can state that Bulgaria has coped with the crisis, keeping low taxes and not needing additional help from the EU.
Moreover, Bulgaria is not a member of the euro zone, which in a certain way has simplified the efforts to fight the crisis consequences. In the longer term, Bulgaria will accept the common European currency, but first we want to follow the course of events in the euro zone.
I am glad to note that despite the continuing crisis Bulgaria remains a stable country of the region. Our budget deficit is under control and makes less that 2.1% of GDP. As for the state debt (16.2% of GDP), it remains one of the lowest not only in Europe, but also in the world. According to various Bulgarian centers of economic development, our country is overcoming the crisis and its economy is growing.
- Can Ukraine apply similar practice? What do we need to meet the challenges effectively?
- I believe the budget policy of Bulgaria and small debt indeed can be an example to follow for other European countries. 15 years ago, a considerable part of Bulgarian financial institutions went bankrupt, and the state debt made 105% of GDP. Its reduction to the current level is a recipe we would be glad to share with Ukrainian partners.
As an EU member, we rely upon assistance of European funds. For the last five years, Bulgarian private and public institutions have received about eight billion euro. As of August 2012, EU means, allocated by structural, cohesion and agricultural funds, made 26% of the total means, allocated to Bulgaria for the current program period. I can declare that means of such operative programs have significant and positive influence on our economy.
Ukraine also receives financial assistance from the EU, both for separate projects and economic reforms. Continuation of reforms and synchronization of Ukrainian legislation with the European one would further strengthen the business climate and would increase the trust of investors to the country, which in turn would bring more foreign direct investment (FDI), especially from the EU. We all know that FDI is the key factor of economy.
- What is the current state of Ukrainian-Bulgarian relations?
- Ukraine for us is an important foreign policy priority. The relations develop in all spheres of cooperation - political, economic, cultural. I am happy to report that our authorities at all levels hold continuous dialogue and consultations. We have reached certain progress in science and education. Ukrainian and Bulgarian universities have signed tens of agreements.
I am happy that our regional ties keep developing. For the moment, we have 30 agreements signed between Ukrainian and Bulgarian cities and eight agreements on cooperation between regions of two countries.
Both countries declare the will to continue cooperation, and as the ambassador of Bulgaria to Ukraine, I will spare no effort to strengthen the political dialogue and contacts at all levels in various spheres in order to strengthen friendship between our peoples.
- There are many ethnic Bulgarians living in Ukraine. Does the embassy do something to improve their lives, including development of ties with historical homeland?
- As for Bulgarian community in Ukraine, I must say it is very active. Every year Bulgarian communities celebrate Bulgarian holidays, hold folk meetings, open monuments to prominent Bulgarians, promote Bulgarian language among young generation.
Bulgarian embassy in Ukraine maintains close contact with Association of Bulgarians of Ukraine and other organizations of ethnic Bulgarians. We render assistance in organization and holding of various cultural events of Bulgarian community in Ukraine, namely the festival "Bulgarian meetings", conference "Bulgaria in North Black Sea region" (Sudak), the Day of Bessarabian Bulgarians in Arciz (Odessa region) , opening of the monument to captain Petko Voevoda in Kyiv and others.
In the end of September 2012, Bulgarian community in Zaporizhya region celebrated 150th anniversary of Bulgarian population resettlement from Bessarabia to Tavria. Bulgarian delegation, including vice president of Bulgaria Margarita Popova, visited Zaporizhya to take part in the celebration and hold a number of talks with local authorities. During the visit, the vice president Popova opened a memorial stone to 150th anniversary of resettlement, a memorial complex "Friendship of nations" and held a number of meetings with activists of local Bulgarian communities.
The embassy also support the activity of the International charity fund "Han Kurbat", formed by the initiative of Bulgarian community in Ukraine and engaged into creation of a memorial complex near the tomb of the founder of Old Great Bulgaria Han Kurbat (village Malaya Pereshchepina, Poltava region). This year is the 100th anniversary of archeological discovery of the tomb of the first all-Bulgarian ruler Han Kurbat, and on September 17-18, the Poltava region held festivities of the jubilee. Deputy speaker Pavel Shopov and parliamentarians of Bulgaria came to take part in the celebration.
I want to underline that thanks to tolerant policy towards ethnic minorities in Ukraine, ethnic Bulgarians keep their culture, language and lifestyle. At the same time, they are well integrated in the Ukrainian society and have proved themselves as a fit. I am sure that in the future they will become a real bridge of development and deepening of relations between our countries.
- What are the key directions of economic cooperation with Ukraine?
- Ukraine is one of the main trade partners of Bulgaria. The most active spheres of cooperation are tourism, trade, energy, transport and investments. For the last years Bulgaria have attracted 21 million euro of Ukrainian investments, and the Bulgarian share of investments in Ukraine makes $23 million. We hope more and more Ukrainian companies will invest in our country. In turn, Bulgaria offers foreign investors financial, economic and political stability, free access to the European market with more than 500 million consumers and one of the lowest taxes in Europe.
- How do you estimate mutual trade turnover? What are the leading directions of its further development?
- For the last years the volume of mutual trade turnover has increased significantly (import from Ukraine to Bulgaria- by 23% and export from Bulgaria to Ukraine - by 50%). However, we have not reached the level of our full potential and the Bulgarian side hopes for further development and balancing of mutual trade turnover.
In Ukraine, we mostly export manufactured goods - chemical products, medicines, finished goods, machines and equipment. Import from Ukraine usually includes oil stock, fossil coal and black metals.
We have a potential to export to Ukraine machines and equipment for food industry, wine, electronics, lift-and-carry equipment, clothes and other goods. We'd also like to discuss propositions of local importers and distributors about possible sale of Bulgarian cheeses and other foodstuff.
I believe that during the coming meeting of the seventh Intergovernmental Bulgarian-Ukrainian commission, scheduled for the end of 2012 - beginning of 2013, the sides will define measures to strengthen and deepen economic cooperation in the spheres of interest.
- What about cooperation in tourism sphere? People say Bulgaria has become more expensive lately... What can your country offer tourists, including Ukrainian ones?
- We are glad that Bulgaria is an attractive touristic direction for Ukrainian citizens. Tourist inflow from Ukraine grows with every year. By the end of September, we granted about 170 thousand visas, and by the yearend, we expect to reach 200 thousand.
Apart from Black Sea shore, Bulgaria offers winter tourism, balneology and spa-tourism. We also develop cultural, historical and rural tourism. Bulgaria is a picturesque country with rich culture and 13-century history, and we would like Ukrainian tourists to meet these places. I would recommend Ukrainian citizens to visit several cities of Bulgarian Renaissance - Koprivshtica, Old Town of Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo and Bulgarian monuments, included into UNESCO list.
- What are, in your opinion, positive and negative aspects of Bulgarian (and European in general) business in our country?
Among positive factors, making Ukraine attractive for investors, I would point out strategic location and geographical proximity to the EU, large market with 46 million of population, qualified staff and others. As for Bulgarian business, Ukraine is attractive due to long-lasting friendly relations, historical and cultural kinship. Linguistic affinity makes communication even easier.
Of course, there are certain difficulties in the work of Bulgarian investors in Ukraine, but I believe Ukrainian authorities will keep improving business climate and working conditions for investors, including fair and unbiased legal system.
- Thus, Bulgaria is and EU member. What advantages has it brought to the country? What reforms did you carry out to fully integrate in the EU?
- First of all, the main reason of Bulgaria's striving for the EU membership was to have an opportunity to modernize the country and society. The negotiation process lasted for 13 years, and on April 25, 2005 in Luxemburg, the agreement on joining the EU was signed. Two years later Bulgaria became the full-ledged member. It marked the end of the long political, economical and social transformation and the beginning of new way.
To become the full-fledged member, Bulgaria carried out a number of reforms to meet all requirements of the EU regarding democracy, supremacy of law, observation of human rights, including respect and protection of national minorities, functional market economy and competitiveness. These fundamental changes could not be possible without consensus among all political parties and support of Bulgarian society.
It's been five years since Bulgaria joined the zone of peace, stability, safety and prosperity. The membership has strengthened democracy in the country its weight on the international arena. Bulgaria has become an active participant in the formation of EU policies.
Moreover, with EU membership our country has become a part of the common market with 500 million consumers, which allows carrying out free movement of goods, services, capital and laboring forces. EU membership has decreased unemployment and improved the living standards in the country. Stronger competition has removed monopoly in certain sectors, and as a result has increased the volumes of FDI. Cancellation of customs and quota limitations has allowed national companies to reduce expenses and speed up business cooperation with European partners.
Among macroeconomic effects of EU membership there is access to the European funds. In 2007-12, Bulgaria absorbed billions of euros for development of infrastructure, agriculture, environment, regional development, etc. Currently, half of the investment resources of the state consist of European means.
Besides, EU membership let Bulgarian citizens to travel freely within EU countries, to develop business and use systems of social provision within the Union. Bulgarian students can study in EU universities for the same price as local students, and EU countries recognize Bulgarian diplomas, qualification and experience.
EU membership also has important cultural aspect - it makes Bulgarian historical and cultural traditions an all-European heritage. After joining the EU, Cyrillic has become one of the three official alphabets.
- Ukraine also has intentions to come closer to Brussels. What can it give our country and Europe itself?
- We are glad that Ukraine has finished the negotiations with the European Union and ratified the Association agreement, including the creations of the free trade area. To integrate with Europe, the key word is reforms. Only by means of reforms, usually painful for the society, it is possible to finish social and economic transformation of the country in order to come closer to the European standards regarding supremacy of law, democratic rights and freedoms.
Wide cooperation between Ukraine and the EU, including free trade, will result in prosperity and progress of the country and its people.
As for Europe, the Association agreement with Ukraine will expand the zone of peace, stability and prosperity in Europe. EU country-members will have wider possibilities for export and investments. Moreover, such cooperation will create new jobs in both EU and Ukraine. I also think that it will strengthen the role of the Union on the international arena, including security sphere, trade and other sectors of global management. The EU will become stronger, faster and culturally richer.
- Some words about regional projects of cooperation. Thus, the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) constituted in 1999, but nothing has been heard about its activity. How is it going in this structure?
- Originally, BSEC was formed on 25 June 1992, when the Heads of State and Government of eleven countries: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine signed in Istanbul the Summit Declaration and the Bosphorus Statement giving birth to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC). For any years this organization has worked as a unique and promising model of multilateral political and economic initiative aimed at fostering interaction and harmony among the Member States, as well as to ensure peace, stability and prosperity encouraging friendly and good-neighbourly relations in the Black Sea region.
As you probably know, this July BSEC meeting at the highest level was held in Istanbul on the occasion of 20th anniversary of the organization formation. 12 country-members signed a strategic document about economic agenda, defining directions of cooperation development for the next 10 years.
I believe that the Black Sea region has a considerable potential to be used for improvement of the well-being of all our peoples. Bulgaria realizes the importance of multilateral cooperation in the region, and cooperation between BSEC and the EU can give a new impetus to the development of Black Sea region countries. As an EU member, Bulgaria will keep putting issues important for the Black Sea region on EU agenda.
- What are other formats, which can be (or already are) common for Sofia and Kyiv? What is their role in the Black Sea region?
- Black Sea Synergy, for example, is a part of the European policy of neighborhood. It was initiated by the European Commission in 2007. The aim of this project is to create such frames of cooperation, which would not require new institutions and would simplify the coordination between the current policy and program of the EU and cooperation with regional organizations.
Black Sea Synergy enables to consider a number of sectors of interest for countries-participants, namely energy, transport, environment, fight against organized crime and others. Secondly, Synergy strengthens the relations between the European Union and regional organizations, namely BSEC.
Despite the criticism towards Black Sea Synergy, I believe it has power to strengthen regional partnership and will bring concrete results for the good of all countries of the region.
- Some words about personal issues: how is it to live and work in Ukraine for you?
- Ukraine is a close and familiar country for me. I graduated here in Kyiv. Then, I became the first military attaché in Bulgarian embassy to Ukraine. During my studentship and work in the embassy, I managed to visit many corners of your beautiful homeland. I have many friends here, this I feel like home here.
After the post of military attaché I held various managing positions in Defense Ministry, then was elected to the Bulgarian parliament. At the beginning of 2012, the President of Bulgaria nominated me for the post of ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Bulgaria to Ukraine. I used the opportunity to present my country in Ukraine and to contribute to the deepening of friendly relations between our countries.
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