Life is very short, so you should see the good things in life and be optimistic. This is the motto of Swedish Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter who has been in Hungary since the fall of 2011. Her interview appeared in a recent issue of Diplomacy & Trade.
Comparing this assignment to her previous position as Deputy Chief of Mission (2008-2011) at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C., “it is big shift in my work. I focus very much on the European Union and Hungary as a member of the European Union, a country with the same size population as Sweden. The other important pillar of my work here is the promotion of Swedish culture and business,” she tells Diplomacy & Trade.
“The centennial Raoul Wallenberg Year has been very special in the sense that it is tremendous for Swedish-Hungarian relations. There has been a lot of work done in Hungary and abroad to commemorate this Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II. It’s been fantastic for me to see how a fellow countryman of mine is celebrated and is more known here than in Sweden. In connection with this commemorative year, we also focused on the human rights issues of today. Wallenberg’s legacy, his deeds are not done as long as the world looks as horrific as it does when it comes to human rights. I’m glad we have managed to reach out to schoolchildren who learn about human rights through Wallenberg’s deeds,” Ambassador Olofsdotter points out.
Gripen deal extended
She says an enormously important development in bilateral relations is the “conclusion of a new Gripen contract that brings us to 2026. Originally, Hungary had a lease-to-buy agreement on the acquisition of Gripen fighter planes from Sweden until 2015. With this recent prolongation of the contract, the payments to be made regularly by Hungary will be lower, leaving a zero balance due at the end. It means a strategic partnership between the two countries, which holds importance for Sweden as we are in discussion with other countries regarding the sale or lease of fighter aircraft.” The more of these planes in use in the region, the more beneficial it is for all in sharing the costs of development and maintenance, she adds.
Swedish companies and the Swedish economy are doing comparatively well among the countries of Europe but Sweden is a member of the EU and is interested in seeing fellow member countries of the ‘European House’ do better. “It’s a joint market, we’re all in this club together; we have joint responsibility. That’s why we are so keen on looking at the policies of Hungary to see if we can be of any assistance,” she stresses. “As both countries are preparing their respective innovation strategies, an innovation seminar was held in the fall in Budapest with our foreign minister taking part, we had an exchange of views on the role of small and medium size enterprises, the finance of start-ups, and how to assist education to stimulate innovative thinking.”
The Ambassador points out that “basically, all the Swedish multinationals are present in Hungary: Ericsson, Electrolux, ABB, Atlas Copco, SCA and others. For them, it is vital that Hungary has a healthy innovative culture and that there are innovative, employable people. Ericsson’s R&D center is one of the best and most important in the world to the company. Swedish firms are here for the long term, they are very happy with their presence here, with the highly skilled workforce that can be employed at a reasonable fee, but there still are complaints about the unpredictability of government policies including the legislative process, taxes and other issues.” She is of the view that all this makes it very difficult for investors to make plans and poses a serious problem if Hungary wishes to attract more foreign investments or even expand investments, at all. “I think this really has to change,” she says, adding that there needs to be more of a governmental planning horizon and consultation. “These companies are very important to Hungary’s export-driven economy, providing jobs creation and revenues to the state. They are desperately needed here and they want to stay.”
Swedish firms support the ‘Symbio City, smart city solutions’ project on how to create eco-friendly neighborhoods with emphasis on energy efficiency. “We’re continuing the innovation project we started in the fall. Support from Swedish companies helped create a ‘green’ playground on Margaret Island in Budapest and I’m extremely happy with the project at the foot of the Chain Bridge on the Buda side where a nice eco-friendly park has been established. It is a great example of bilateral cooperation,” the Ambassador says.
The Embassy is also aware of the great interest of Hungarian wine producers to get into the Swedish alcohol monopoly of Systembolaget, which is perhaps the world's largest buyer of wine and spirits from producers around the world.
As she says, “for a long time now, Swedish people have had a very positive view of Hungary. It was the ‘happiest barrack’ of the Eastern bloc in the 1960s-‘80s. Today it is a beautiful country and Budapest is a beautiful city. We have 500-600 students studying here mainly in medicine and veterinary sciences, attracted, of course, not only by the beauty of the country and the kindness of the people, but primarily by the level of education here.” The size of the Swedish community in Budapest is estimated between 1,000 and 1,500. In 1956, some 15,000 Hungarian refugees arrived in Sweden. Their number has multiplied, they have easily integrated, they have contributed significantly to Swedish society and many of them retired in Hungary after working in Sweden.
New approach to culture
Culturally, the Embassy targets people under 40 years of age Ambassador Olofsdotter says. “We would like to emphasize that Sweden is different from what it was decades ago. We are a most competitive country now with music and literature exports. We notice a curiosity of young people regarding Sweden. With the limited resources we have at the Embassy for cultural promotion, we have decided that attracting the youth of Hungary is the best approach. We have invited Swedish artists to Boat A38 on the Danube with José Gonzalez, who is very popular among the youth, coming soon. We are part of the Titanic film festival and we’re going to launch cooperation in gastronomy, as well. We were also guests among the Nordic countries at the Budapest Book Festival last year and we take part in a Nordic mid-summer event in the open-air museum of Szentendre, north of Budapest in the summer.”
Another area of cooperation is healthcare where Hungary is considering a reform similar to what has been done in Sweden. “You have a problem of doctors leaving. Sweden has a lack of doctors, especially pathologists and radiologists. We have a small but mutually beneficial program in which Hungarian doctors come to the Karolinska Institut to work for six months before coming back to Hungary for two years. Then, again, six months in Sweden, followed by two years in Hungary.
Karin Olofsdotter has a BA in psychology, economics and Russian, having studied in Sweden as well as in Moscow and Los Angeles. In the eighties, after graduating secondary school, she worked as a bartender in New Zealand. After finishing her university education in 1994, during a recession in Sweden, she applied for most jobs available – including the Foreign Service’s Diplomatic Program. “To my surprise I was admitted – I thought you would have to have a degree in political science or law for that,” she says.
During her career, she has been posted in Moscow and Washington D.C. as well as Brussels where she worked at the Swedish EU-representation and the Swedish delegation to NATO. She was Chief of Staff to Foreign Minister Carl Bildt between 2006 and 2008 in Stockholm, and before that, Chief of Staff and Director of the Ministers Office for Foreign Ministers Laila Freivalds and Jan Eliasson. She speaks Swedish, English, French and Russian.
She and her family really enjoy life in Hungary. She appreciates the high level of service in Hungary and is amazed about the courtesy of people in traffic “when it comes to letting you in before them.” She misses a couple of things from Sweden but she also has local favorites here like Gundel pancake and red wine, so that she can find even more enjoyment ‘on the bright side of life’.