An interview with King Simeon II of Bulgaria

King Simeon II of Bulgaria is one of the last three living heads of state from the Second World War, the last man in the world to hold the title of ‘Tsar’ and one of the only monarchs in history to be democratically elected as head of state. Simeon was a minor when he ruled as Tsar of Bulgaria between 1943 and 1946, before being deposed and exiled by the Soviets. In 2001, having returned to Bulgaria 5 years prior, Simeon was elected Prime Minister. His government –consisting primarily of technocrats and western-educated politicians- has been viewed as one of the more stable ones in Bulgaria’s recent history with the country acceding to NATO and Simeon receiving the Path to Peace award in 2002.

Ferdinand Goetzen: A high degree of corruption has been observed in some of the more recent, post-communist, members of the EU. Do you believe this to be a normal problem of transition that will resolve itself over time, or is there something that the government can specifically do?

Simeon II: All governments, I believe, try to fight corruption and various international law enforcement agencies do too. Personally I feel that NGOs are also a positive addition to fight this plight. Unfortunately corruption exists in different wakes of society and this is why it should be tackled at all levels, not only on a “major scandal” one. Every ordinary citizen should refrain from giving ‘extra gratification’ for a service. As to highlighting corruption only in post-communist EU countries, I must say that at this stage in life, having travelled extensively, I still have to see a place 100% free of corruption.

FG: How has Bulgaria benefited from joining the European Union in 2007?

SII: This question would take very long to answer if we were to point out single advantages. I strongly believe that Bulgaria’s membership is vital to our society and that belonging to and contributing to the construction of the EU is of utmost importance. This union has taken decades to become a reality and will require more time to be completed. The European Union is the one and only way for our continent to have a meaningful political and economic role. It is naïve and simplistic to expect the EU to collapse whenever a crisis comes along.

FG: Those members having joined in the 2000s have had a tendency to lag behind the rest of the Union economically. Do you believe that countries such as Bulgaria will be able to ‘catch up’ with Western Europe?

SII: We, together with Romania joined the EU in 2007, three years after the so-called ‘big bang’, when ten other countries became members. The goal to build a united Europe depends on all countries together and is in every country’s own interest. Bulgaria’s goal, as in most other societies, is to improve, to work for a more just distribution of wealth and to abide by EU rules and regulations. This will eventually help us raise our economic level. Let us not forget where we have started from, and with how many decades’ delay due to the previous communist economic system.

FG: As Prime Minister of Bulgaria, you worked closely in a coalition with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, often dubbed the ‘Turkish Party’. How do you view the European Union’s negotiations with Turkey? Should Turkey become a member of the EU?

SII: The movement for Rights and Freedoms is by no means a “Turkish party”. Our Constitution forbids ethnic or religious parties.

As for the EU-Turkey negotiations, I feel that the effort is more than worthwhile, for both sides. Let us bear in mind that the European territory of Turkey has more inhabitants than Bulgaria’s, Greece’s and Albania’s populations combined. Another point I would like to make is that back in 1949, when NATO was formed, and for decades on, the Turkish armed forces were of essential strategic importance to the West. Why then, all of a sudden when it comes to another kind of alliance or union, is Turkey not supposed to be part of our continent?

FG: With Croatia being the most recent addition to the European Union, what do you believe Serbia will have to do in order to follow?

SII: Croatia always looked to me as well prepared to join the EU, and it is one more step towards achieving a united Europe. As to our neighbour Serbia, we see constant progress in this same direction and its government’s policy proves it.

FG: Over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in euroscepticism and support for Far Right movements throughout Europe, especially in Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece. What do you think are the causes of this rise and how do you believe it can be tackled?

SII: Euroscepticism is a logical or even normal tendency in times of crisis. We have seen this kind of attitude in other times too. Far right or far left populist parties gain support in periods of crisis or turmoil, the phenomenon is nothing new. Do you know of a stable, well functioning society with numerous extremist voters? In my opinion we must be pragmatists and follow people’s long-term interests and priorities, and not give-into fashions, moods or media hype. Our citizens should carefully weigh the extremist parties’ programs, and draw lessons from the past.

FG: Historically, Bulgaria has been known to enjoy a ‘special relationship’ with Russia. Is this still the case? If so, has it brought Bulgaria any advantages?

SII: Personally I avoid generalisations and clichés. Bulgarians are quite similar to Russians; we share the same Orthodox faith and Russia played a crucial role in our liberation from centuries of Ottoman domination. Russia is a huge country with endless natural resources, where commercial affinities can be found. A practical example is the fast growing number of Russians visiting Bulgaria, despite the hard feelings that could be brought forward by some because of the Soviet period. Quite frankly, it would be foolish on our behalf not to be on good terms with Russia.

FG: The recent NSA scandal has seen reports of American spying of various European leaders. As a former European head of state, what are your views on the United States interfering with their European allies? Do you believe that there will be repercussions?

SII: This seems to be a very touchy subject and it takes an analytical approach, not a sensationalist one. Coming from a relatively small country I am allergic to hegemony of any kind. Still, we should accept that threats such as international terrorism can justify measures that might offend us, but then again…

FG: Where do you see Bulgaria in 20 years’ time?

SII: My sincere wish is for Bulgaria to be in a better position when presiding the EU in 2019 -when its rotating six month period will come- and a thriving state by 2024.