Bulgarian bulwark

Konstantin Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s new Ambassador to the UK, always wanted to be a diplomat. But trapped behind the Iron Curtain in Cold War Bulgaria – the most sovietised of Eastern Bloc countries – the pro-Western academic had to bide his time.

“I knew the Soviet system was built on clay feet and that one day it would collapse, either gradually or by imploding. Happily there was a smooth transition.”

That is not to underestimate Bulgaria’s long and painful political and economic transition. Even the foreign ministry has taken until 2012 to phase out ambassadors who served the communist security and intelligence services and worked against the UK and the US.

By contrast Dimitrov joined the foreign ministry in 1992 with an overtly Euro-Atlantic aim: “I wanted to contribute towards the integration of my country firstly into NATO and subsequently into the EU,” he says.

Five years later Dimitrov had shot up the ranks to head the NATO, WEU and Security Issues department. Appointed Deputy Foreign Minister in 1998, he faced one of the biggest challenges of his career when neighbouring Yugoslavia descended into war over Kosovo.

It was at a critical juncture in Bulgaria’s accession negotiations with NATO and it was a chance for the country to earn its stripes, explains Dimitrov.

“We offered the alliance both logistical and political support in mobilising regional countries to support the efforts of the international community to put a stop to the ethnic cleansing. That indirectly precipitated the removal from power of Mr Milosevic, making it possible for Serbia (and Montenegro) to begin the difficult road towards European integration.”

But it was a risky strategy and Bulgaria wanted something in return: “We negotiated, for the first time, Article Five protection even though we were not yet a NATO member,” recalls Dimitrov. “We argued that supporting NATO we may invite an attack from Serbia. After very serious deliberations the alliance agreed and gave us a guarantee in writing. It was a major breakthrough.”

Following this success, Dimitrov went on to head Bulgaria’s mission to NATO and the WEU in Brussels (2000-02). A term as Director of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Security (2002-2009) followed, during which time he also became a founding member and foreign policy expert for a new political party, the Democrats for Strong Bulgaria.

Dimitrov won a seat in Parliament (2005-09) and served as Deputy Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee at a key phase in Bulgaria’s tough accession negotiations with the EU. He also sat in the European Parliament in 2007, serving on the Committee for Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, which were challenging areas for Bulgaria.

In 2007 Bulgaria achieved its long-held goal of joining the EU, but there was unfinished business, he explains. “Bulgaria and Romania entered the EU with two conditionalities that are not very dignified – one is the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) through which the EU Commission monitors our progress in the areas of justice and home affairs, in particular the way we manage the security sector and our fight against organised crime and corruption. The other is our postponed accession to the Schengen area.”

Dimitrov was appointed Deputy Foreign Minister for a second time in 2009, where he concentrated his efforts on the termination of CVM and Bulgaria’s accession to the passport-free zone. So far 26 EU member states have agreed that Bulgaria is ready to enter Schengen but the Dutch government remains to be convinced.

Dimitrov claims concerns over corruption in Bulgaria’s border force are unfounded and that Bulgaria’s accession talks are being muddied by other political fears such as illegal immigration from outside the EU and the concurrent rise of anti-immigration parties across Europe, compounded by economic woes in the Eurozone.

But in the UK, a non-Schengen state, the Ambassador can concentrate on bilateral issues. On the political front that includes the “upgrading of trust” between the UK and Bulgaria, while on the economic front the Ambassador wants to introduce British businesses to investment opportunities in Bulgaria, from water, energy and infrastructure management, to banking, tourism and the creative industries.

On security cooperation, the Ambassador describes Bulgaria as a “linchpin” with links to Turkey, the Middle East, the Black Sea states, Russia and the Western Balkans, all regions with the potential for instability.

Currently, Bulgaria is an honest broker between Pristina and Belgrade and it is patiently lobbying for Macedonia’s membership of NATO, “once it resolves its name dispute with Athens,” adds the Ambassador.

When it comes to soft power, Dimitrov, a connoisseur of cinema, theatre and classical music, is looking forward to promoting Bulgarian culture in the UK. Already a Bulgarian Spring festival has been staged in Hyde Park to mark the unveiling of a Bulgarian fountain by football icon Dimitar Berbatov.

Academic exchange is personally important to the Ambassador, who has fond memories of his all too brief student exchange beyond the Iron Curtain at Durham University. “It was a formative experience. My only regret was that the rules prevented me from experiencing London – now I have a chance to catch up!”