King Simeon for Novinite: Bulgaria Shouldn't Turn Its Back on Russia Just Because of NATO

Interview |Author: Branimir Kondov | March 16, 2015, Monday // 15:37|  views

Photos by Linda Alexandriyska

As already reported, Bulgarian intellectuals, politicians and public figures have launched an initiative with the stated aim of making full use of the international authority of the country’s last King and former Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to its benefit.

Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha received our editor Branimir Kondov at his Vrana residence on the outskirts of Sofia last week for an exclusive interview for, in which he said he was deeply moved by the initiative but warned against frivolous interpretations of its meaning.

He also commented on a number of other issues, including the art of coalition government, geopolitical tensions in Europe, challenges standing before Bulgaria and the benefits of new technologies.

Looking at the current political climate in Europe, do you see any parallels to events that had happened on the continent 70 or 100 years ago? Is Bulgaria under threat? Is peace in Europe under threat?

Look, I’m a great admirer of history, I’ve read much, I’m already well on years and I’ve always learnt lessons from the past, from history. I really believe many mistakes can be avoided, if we take into account the lessons of history. That’s why I think we shouldn’t make analogies between or draw parallels to whatever had happened before WWI – God forbid!

I strongly believe in the communication advantages we have today because many events can be prevented or explained in a blink of an eye before they turn into a crisis. While 100 years ago someone could say something that could ignite a fire before information was adequately exchanged, today a statement can either be refuted at a lightning speed or sides involved in a dispute can meet and talk.

In short, dialogue can be achieved much more easily today than it had been back then, which for me acts as prevention to irreparable crises.

Do you have the feeling that the historically determined political labels of ‘-philes’ and ‘-phobes’ in Bulgaria keep dragging the country to its past, hampering its efforts to benefit in full from today’s opportunities offered by EU  membership? 

I think you are completely right that such ‘-philes’ and ‘-phobes’ do exist in every country, on all sorts of issues. Here, you must be either a ‘-phile’ or a ‘-phobe’, which is completely ridiculous. You can be a normal citizen and have your own opinion but don’t need to veer to one side or the other, or rule out any of them.

Bulgaria is already placed within the framework of the European Union, which is not a small gain or opportunity. In this context, why should one necessarily be a Russophobe just because Bulgaria is a EU member, or a Russophile because of events from the past?

I think it’s in the interest of the country and its citizens to see where our interests lie. I believe it is unnecessary and beyond all measure to reject Russia just because we are in NATO.

What do Bulgarians need to overcome, particularly those belonging to young generations?

They are the first who are not interested in such stories. They are interested in seeing their country progressing as fast as possible so that they can find their place, too.  Young people aren’t particularly concerned whether we are anti-Moscow, or pro-Berlin, or pro-Washington, or pro-Brussels. I think they are more interested in the creation of a beneficial environment in which they could work.

Joining NATO and the EU had united Bulgarians over the past decade. With those membership objectives already met, what idea can unite Bulgarians today?

For me, if we could emphasize on education and culture, I mean enlightenment, we’ll have a guarantee that new generations with different views will come.

As I told you, I put great hopes on having computers, laptops that give people a window to the rest of the world but we need something more that would direct energy into constructive ideas, not into confrontation.

What about the role of religion and religious education?

Yes, religious in the best meaning of the word as a set of principles, a code ensuring peaceful life and respect for others. Hypersensitivity about things religious does exist everywhere, people get nervous, in every Muslim they see a potential terrorist or at least someone professing unacceptable principles, which is completely preposterous. 

There is a billion or so of Muslims in the world but how many of them are the dangerous ones, the Jihadists?

This can become an objective – to show that we are having a tolerant society which can progress without harmful confrontation. If everyone tries to put this into practice, I think the objective can be achieved.

Negative energy is widespread, and it’s a pity it is hampering the progress of a nation that has the capacity, the opportunities and quality people to develop well. There is room for everyone.

Stabilisation has returned to Bulgaria following two years of political instability. After having been directly involved in coalition government, where do the boundaries of this type of government lie?

There are so many variants. There are various coalition models. A direct coalition between two political forces, for example. There are others, conditional ones, in which a party will support me on three issues of national importance and then will return into opposition. This has been the practice in many countries.

In Belgium, for example, they have six or seven parties in a coalition with each of them split into Flemish and French halves along the language divide. This is something huge, yet it’s functioning. What matters in the end is whether things run smoothly, whether there are tensions inside.

I have first-hand experience from having been a member of a coalition. I think it’s healthy to have the culture of governing in a coalition because, as I say, no one should have the feeling of having direct link to God. One should take into account the opinion of other political parties and other people.

Currently, in most countries in Europe there are multi-party governments. For me, the idea behind [Bulgaria’s] so-called sinister Tripartite Coalition was to show wider representation to Europe. […] I believe that no matter how complex a coalition in a certain country is, in fact it’s a test of tolerance, an attempt to try to understand the other side and find points of consent.

How can the current Bulgarian coalition government successfully manoeuver between the need to maintain political stability and the need to implement long delayed and often unpopular reforms, for example in the healthcare sector and pension insurance?

I don’t think it’s a matter of manoeuvering. It’s rather about finding a solution and implementing those reforms and convincing the other partners in the coalition of the need to push reforms through no matter how difficult and unpopular they might be sometimes.

I think the term “maneuvering” has a negative connotation. I’d rather say one should be flexible and listen to others and engage in a dialogue. This is doable, I think.

What illusions have you lost since 1996?

I must say I had no hyper expectations. I’m not a man who is day-dreaming. I had a very clear idea about what was lying ahead.

Of course, I would have been glad if we had achieved much more during my term of of government but I wouldn’t say I’d lost something. Everything has a lesson in it, everything has a challenge in it and I think one should look for the positive side.

Which word or words will you like to be associated with by Bulgarians?

There are much more interesting things to think about than the way people remember me. They should decide for themselves, it’s a matter of their judgement. I can’t presume or suggest what I should be remembered for, this depends on the other side.

Former lawmakers from the NDSV party [founded by Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha] have launched a petition aimed at gathering public recognition of your contribution to Bulgaria. Many have seen in this the beginning of a new political project. What is your interpretation?

Well, it’s good to avoid interpretations in this case. Read it and from there on let’s have a realistic attitude towards it without looking for phenomenal interpretations. […]

The initiative has made me happy, it has touched me to see how many people have called to ask why they weren’t contacted to join. Ever so many people of various professions and descent. It really impressed me.

There are people I don’t know, I know them from the media but I haven’t seen them in person and this was really touching. I feel they have understood what it’s all about

Can the initiative turn into a new political project? Does it suggest that you become a goodwill ambassador of Bulgaria?

That’s what I’ve been doing all my life. Now, making it formal or considering it... Sometimes - and this proved right while I was premier – there were many doors open in front of me. But if one doesn’t have, let’s say, the consent…

I simply can’t start visiting certain institutions and places and “plead” in favour of Bulgaria as neither has anyone asked me to do so, nor have I the details what exactly it’s all about. But I can do it.

There is always something someone can do to help […]


With the initiative already launched, do you see a role for you in assisting dialogue amidst the current geopolitical tensions in Europe?

One  must have a formula, a mandate to do that. It’s not a matter of my personal views. I just mention this as a possibility. But if it is considered to be useful or necessary, then this is something we could do – discreetly.

In addition, many times circumstances can combine by chance in a way that will make it easier to do the job.

The interpretations that immediately followed the unveiling of the initiative were that something is in the making. Your opinion hasn’t been sought, which is strange.

May be this is because they know I’m reticent and not keen on being talked about and therefore they had decided to agree on that initiative among themselves. Just floating ideas to see who will respond… But this isn’t such great piece of news to immediately prompt comments about a conflict or who’s in favour and who’s against.

Everything can be said tete-a-tete. There is no need to make it public, or speak through the media because then things become much more serious, long-lasting and even harmful. Unfortunately, we always rush to speak in front of microphones and then, perhaps the same evening, we are feeling sorry but it’s late already.

You remember what an outpour of ironic comments followed when I said I’m a master of silence. And another of my allegedly famous phrases, when I said a man must count to 10 before saying these things. This helps.

What about the famous phrase about the 800 days?

Believe me, I’ve received an explanation from a sort of a clairvoyant who claimed to have discovered – in what way I don’t know – that the phrase referred to the date of the death of my father. But I told him it’s impossible to have such a fantasy.

However, it all referred to [turning around] a company, according to a textbook of economics. As a matter of fact, speaking 15 years later, if everyone had got down to work as I had expected they would…

I think that in about 1000 days we managed to achieve 60 or 80 percent – no exaggeration there – of what we planned to achieve. But the ironic attitude during all that time turned everything into a tragicomedy play or whatever you like, but it wasn’t serious. And what was the point?

Are you disappointed?

No, but I’m just wondering at such developments. But the achievement was made and that’s what I do care about.

The day before there was an article in Pressa daily saying we wouldn’t need the King now if we had changed our chip back then. They were laughing so much at this phrase about the chip at the time, but there was something in what I tried to say then.

The phrase was clearly making sense.

Indeed, but it was interpreted back then as “What a gambler, speaking about chips even while at work!”, which also is part of that mythology.

Looking at the current political situation in Europe, where does Bulgaria’s interest lie?

Let’s use our potential. We have excellent links with Russia and at the same time we are part of the EU. And this is something which can become our contribution. We have excellent relationships with other countries. This means Bulgaria can contribute, it can help and show it has its capabilities, objectives and principles.

Generally speaking, I don’t see what we can gain by defining ourselves as being for or against something. I think we have a lot more capabilities. I don’t say we should mediate but we can show, for example in Brussels, that we have certain factual capabilities and disposition and see whether we can use them to make a contribution.

I think this is far more useful than claiming apriori we are in this camp or the other one, or that we are ‘for’ of ‘against’ something. May be this is in my nature but I’ve always been afraid of swaying in one direction or the other and excessive enthusiasm, because the ebb comes very fast.

Looking at the Balkans…

Southeastern Europe. I always avoid the term ‘Balkans’ because of the name given to us by the Western powers at the time.

 … Southeastern Europe... Can Bulgaria, a multicultural nation with two major religions peacefully co-existing, become a bridge here?

That ‘s exactly where my experience is a plus. This is something that a man can highlight in certain quarters as an example of dialogue or living together. Speaking theoretically is one thing, practice is something different. And we have the practice, the country has existed for centuries during which those things had been reality rather than experiments.

What’s your comment on Bulgaria’s bid to join the EU’s Schengen borderless area?

After a certain period of time we’ll be part of Schengen and then we’ll look at this fact as something so ordinary that we’ll forget we had dreamt about Schengen or had tried to speed up accession.

It’s also a matter of those in charge in Brussels to be convinced that in fact we meet the requirements. On the one hand, maybe our process of preparation has been slow but on the other, putting more effort into it may be something positive because we’ll be better prepared to join or won’t be criticized - once we are in - that we are unaware of what had been expected of us to do.

The conflict in Ukraine, the Islamic State threat… and Bulgaria in between?

Look at the Mediterranean: Spain, France and Italy are located just 300 km away from the terrible conflict in Libya but those countries keep doing their business as usual.

I mean, we shouldn’t make a drama out of that unfortunate conflict in Ukraine affecting us directly. It will affect us emotionally because there are Bulgarians there but we don’t need to be preoccupied with the most dramatic scenarios.

To the south of us, in Syria and Iraq, we see those awful massacres and acts of madness destroying cultural heritage (but) we are here, we have our own agenda.

We must be vigilant, we must be careful, we must be prepared but this shouldn’t directly affect our everyday life, because conflicts, dangerous moments have always existed. What’s more, we are not among the determinant forces or nations. We must be pragmatic and look realistically. Then, there are other nations with greater experience in this field. Acting jointly with them, we can learn a lot and avoid unnecessary efforts, concerns or spending.


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Tags: Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Russophile, Russophobe, Bulgaria, EU, NATO, Schengen, coalition


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