In a recent interview with Diplomacy & Trade, the Bulgarian Ambassador Bisserka Benisheva talks about the rrecent preidential visit, common history, cooperation in the energy sector or the appearance and legacy of Bulgarian gardeners in Hungary.
“The visit of President Rosen Plevneliev to Budapest early April this year was part of the regular political dialog between Hungary and Bulgaria,” Ambassador Bisserka Benisheva explains to Diplomacy & Trade. President Plevneliev was received by several Hungarian dignitaries, including his host, Hungarian President János Áder. The two presidents also attended a concert performed by the Bulgarian National Folklore Ensemble. In Budapest’s Holocaust Museum, Rosen Plevneliev opened a photo exhibition about the fate of the Bulgarian Jews, marking the 70th anniversary of Bulgarian civil society preventing the deportation of the entire Jewish community.
The Ambassador points out that agenda of talks during the high-level visit included bilateral economic issues, as well, and two agreements were signed in the presence of the two presidents: one on education and science and the other on cultural cooperation. European Union issues, like enlargement, cohesion topics, were also discussed as both countries are EU members.
“It is a kind of a mantra that we say ‘we have traditional, friendly relations’. It seems that Bulgarians and Hungarians have a lot in common in their style, in their love for national traditions and that brings us so close to each other. Historically, you can find a lot of events binding the two nations in the past centuries. For instance, following the Hungarian revolution and war of independence of 1848-49, one of the leaders of this Hungarian movement, Lajos Kossuth and compatriots found refuge in the territory of present Bulgaria. If you go back further in time, following the occupation of Bulgaria by the Ottoman Turks in 1444 when a Hungarian army led by János Hunyadi – together with the Polish troops of W³adys³aw III of Poland (also King of Hungary) – lost a decisive battle against the Turks near the Bulgarian city of Varna. Of course, when talking about historic relations, one should not forget about the Bulgarian gardeners who transferred a new agrarian technology to Hungary in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a method of vegetable production that is still used extensively in Hungary. All these show that it is not just phrase that ‘we have traditional, friendly relations’. It is also a base for mutual support and understanding,” Ambassador Benisheva says.
She attributes it to the ‘meeting of two small languages’ that many Bulgarians speak Hungarian. The universities of the two countries have helped a lot in this process. Universities in Budapest and Szeged teach Bulgarian philology as did the one in Debrecen until recently. In Bulgaria, one can conduct Hungarian studies in Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo and until recently in Shumen. There is a mutual commitment to learn the language of the other partner. Many Bulgarian businessmen talking to Diplomacy & Trade speak excellent Hungarian that learned during their university studies in Hungary. Some of them are actually descendants of Bulgarian gardeners who had moved to this country.
As regards economic relations, the Ambassador stresses that “both countries are members of the same single market, which means the same rules apply in the same territory. This does not only facilitate but also encourages bilateral trade. The volume of exchange of goods and services on the bilateral basis has reached EUR 1 billion, a psychological barrier that further stimulates business relations. I must also mention that Hungary ranks among the top ten foreign investors in Bulgaria. In the financial services sector, Hungary’s OTP is 100% owner of the Bulgarian DSK Bank, there is strong presence in telecommunications and the presidential visit chartered new avenues for further cooperation in the energy sector. Regarding the latter one, both countries are interested in the diversification of sources and routes of energy supply with the Nabucco, Southern Stream or other pipelines. There is huge potential for cooperation in establishing the required infrastructure, the energy networks, the interconnectors, the different electricity and gas links.”
There is important cooperation on the level of non-governmental organizations, as well. “It would be a long to list all the twin cities, districts and regions between the two countries. These relations are triggered by the people themselves. Of course, both states are encouraging this process but the most important is that these are the initiatives of the people, themselves, who want to communicate more closely, have joint projects. Let me just mention the ‘Danube strategy’, adopted during the Hungarian EU presidency, a regional cooperation along the river. That means further projects and partnerships between the two peoples,” the Ambassador states.
The two countries also encourage direct contacts in all areas of culture: music, theater, opera and also in cultural heritage and the protection of intellectual property rights. There is a Bulgarian cultural institute in Budapest as well as a Hungarian one is Sofia. The countries regularly exchange information about festivals.
According to the recently appearing official statistics of the 2011 census in Hungary, 6.272 declared themselves ethnic Bulgarians. “We appreciate the respect for the Bulgarian national minority in Hungary. Next year, 2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of this minority officially forming a group. On this occasion, Bulgaria will issue a commemorative post stamp at the initiative of our president,” Ambassador Benisheva says. “I’m impressed by the manner in which they maintain Bulgarian traditions: the folklore ensembles, the theater, the newspapers and the magazines they issue, keeping the Bulgarian traditions for the 3rd-4th generation here in Hungary. This is what transfers to the next generations the Bulgarian identity in this country.”
She also mentions that Bulgaria has proven a good tourism destination for Hungarians. Over a hundred thousand of them choose to spend their holiday in Bulgaria every year. In general, the annual number of tourists visiting Bulgaria is 6-7 million. “It is still the beaches of the Black Sea that present the No. 1 tourist destination for Hungarians but I think the two countries can also develop projects for spa tourism, for cultural routes. Bulgaria is now also making its best to position itself as a destination for ski tourism.”
Prior to being appointed to the position of Ambassador to Hungary, Bisserka Benisheva was Director General for European Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria (from September 2007 to May 2012). As an expert on European issues, she is of the opinion that the European Union must overcome the divisions it has in different aspects: geographical divisions, historical divisions or prosperity divisions. “Continuing to simply discuss these issues will not be in favor of the integrity of the Union. I think we should take a breath and think constructively instead of discussing the reasons for the crisis and who the victim is. Shaming and blaming is not the right way forward, the right way is to sit together and figure out how to continue the unification of the continent. This is because it is a union of common values, even though, the new members are not as prosperous – and not that experienced in European matters – as the older ones,” she concludes.