Weaving a tapestry: United States ambassador James Warlick in a wide-ranging interview with the Sofia Echo.
That is how he sees the development of relations between the people of the United States and the people of Bulgaria.
"Tapestries take a long time to make. They're very difficult. Very time-consuming. But in the end, they're beautiful, and complex; that's the kind of relationship with Bulgaria I see, not just the relationship about high-level political and economic issues, but a real relationship that also includes history, art, music, culture and education and all the things that need to be part of our friendship."
Bulgaria, for him, is a fascinating country, a hidden jewel.
"I don't know of any Americans who have come here, as tourists or to live, who have not loved it here."
Part of those people-to-people contacts is through the youth of Bulgaria, with about 6500 students having travelled to the US this year through the Summer Work and Travel scheme.
He sees in this scheme an opportunity for Bulgaria's youth to experience an America other than the well-known icons of New York and Washington DC, to live among American communities: "To really get to see America, the advantages, the disadvantages, the problems, the prospects". From such experience arise real friendships, an enduring benefit beyond the opportunity to earn dollars.
Warlick recalls how before he knew that he was to be asked to be the US ambassador to Bulgaria, through his mother he had the acquaintance of the swimming pool lifeguard at her home, a young Bulgarian named Yulian. After Warlick's appointment, his mother told him that the first person in Bulgaria that he should visit was Yulian, and within two weeks of his arrival, Warlick made the trip to Petrich, finding the young man happily married with a young child, a good job, excellent English and with fond memories of his time in the US.
"These are the kind of people-to-people contacts, the kind of relationships that we need to see," Warlick says.
This year, Warlick and his Bulgarian counterpart Elena Poptodorova went on a roadshow to promote US-Bulgarian commercial ties, stopping in major cities such as Chicago, Houston, Phoenix and San Francisco to introduce Bulgaria to small and medium-sized businesses and also to make contact with larger companies that had not yet been to Bulgaria to see for themselves the country's potential opportunities.
Journey's end saw the two ambassadors agreeing to repeat the exercise at the same time next year.
"A lot of opportunities have come out of it, with people contacting our commercial office or me directly. It's good for Bulgaria and for the US, good for Bulgaria because it introduces the country to people in the US - exporters and investors - looking for new markets, particularly with the emergence from the crisis."
Warlick underlines the importance of the contacts made with the Bulgarian-American community, who are among the leaders in investment in Bulgaria and exports to the country from the US.
"Did you know that one of the largest plumbing companies in the US, with a reach from California to Florida, is owned and operated by Bulgarians? Delta, headed by a very successful Bulgarian-American businessman who clearly has an exceptional business model.
We discussed him bringing that business model to Bulgaria and he wants to do it - he speaks the language, knows the country, knows the culture, has family here and comes here regularly.
"He thinks it can be profitable. And this is the kind of investment that Bulgaria needs and deserves, a business model that could be very successful here. Ask Bulgarians - they have problems with their plumbing all the time, and who do you call? A reliable national company."
US investments in Bulgaria are diversifying, but among the best-known areas of industrial and investment co-operation are in the energy field.
Some weeks ago, energy giant AES completed its project at the Maritsa Iztok 1 plant, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and Warlick, with several other VIPs in attendance.
Warlick points too to the Maritsa Iztok 3 thermal power plant where a US company has come in with a significant investment in purchasing shares, meaning the entry of a well-capitalised American investor embarking on a project that, Warlick says, will mean state-of-the-art technology that will bring clean, safe, efficient and cost-effective power supply.
That brings us to the complex issue of energy supply diversity, and Warlick says that he was "very encouraged" that Borissov's message at the Maritsa Iztok 1 ceremony was about diversification, a recognition of the importance of Bulgaria having multiple sources of energy.
"We want there to be excellent co-operation with Russia on energy issues; Russia and Bulgaria are going to be important energy partners for decades to come, and Russia is a reliable partner. We want that relationship to be strong but it is also important to diversify".
Warlick sees steps towards diversification but cautions that this is a slow process, its pace dependent, among other things, on the pace of construction.
Energy diversity is an issue with which the US is familiar, having had the issue jump to the forefront during the energy crisis of the 1970s - and still not having resolved the issue. The US is trying to diversify but its reality is that supplies from the Middle East are a significant part of the picture. "So Bulgaria has its traditional energy relationships as well".
"I think there is increasing confidence in Bulgaria as an investment destination," Warlick says. "We see that America was the single largest country investor in Bulgaria in 2010 and my prediction is that we will be in 2011."
The reason, he says, is an increasing level of confidence in the business environment.
A few years ago, as noted, US investment in Bulgaria was concentrated in just a few sectors, significantly energy.
Today, Warlick says, US companies in a wide range of fields are coming to look at Bulgaria as a destination.
"A couple of weeks ago, Coca-Cola announced that it would have its regional headquarters in Bulgaria. That's a pretty good decision," he says, adding that the company had its choice of destinations but decided on Bulgaria.
A less high-profile investment but one of signal significance is that made by EnerSys, which produces batteries of large-scale size and capacity for specific industrial uses such as in power plants.
"They could have located that factory anywhere in the world, and here they are in Turgovishte, employing 600 people, growing by 20 per cent a year and what they produce is 100 per cent for export." the shell of a building that is the legacy of times past, Warlick was told by the president and CEO that "he couldn't be more pleased with his investment in Bulgaria".
Moreover, the investment is a long-term one, worth millions of dollars, in itself a departure from past practice of US money coming into the country only for short-term gain.
A long-standing saga in Bulgaria is the issue of acquiring fighter jets to replace Bulgaria's long-outmoded Soviet-era stock.
Competition to be the supplier comes from both sides of the Atlantic, with the US waging its own campaign to bring the deal in to land.
"Seeking to modernise your fighter capability is not like buying a car at a used-car dealer. It's very complicated. We are putting together not just one option but a range of options, along with a process of discussions."
For the buyer, it is not just a matter of buying fighter aircraft but about the whole package, including issues such as training and maintenance. "We know that Bulgaria does not have the luxury of simply buying. So we are co-operating with defence manufacturers to put together a range of options to see what can be done."
In the end, it will be Bulgaria's decision about whether a package works for it.
Since his arrival as ambassador in January 2010, and much like his predecessors, Warlick has been forthright in his public assessments of Bulgaria's progress against organised crime and corruption.
Today, he believes that there is no question that progress has been made, and that this has not been easy. The current Government, he says, was elected on the strength of its commitment to deal with organised crime and corruption and, according to Warlick, is taking the necessary steps.
"The streets of Bulgaria are safer today than they were two years ago. Does that mean that the problem is solved? Of course not. There is a great deal more to be done."
A solution, Warlick says, involves not just making arrests.
"The whole system needs to work well. Police need to collect the evidence for prosecutors who need to bring strong cases to courts where judges are well-qualified and honest."
The heart of the matter, he says, is the rule of law, and he applauds the fact that in Bulgaria there are currently discussions about various aspects of the system, from the Supreme Judicial Council through to the police, with the intention of strengthening the rule of law.
Warlick's forthright views, publicly expressed, and his name being in headlines involving local politicians - and one US one - have meant controversies.
How does he view the public verbal assaults on him by the likes of former interior minister Roumen Petkov and ultra-nationalist Ataka leader Volen Siderov, both of whom are on record as wanting Warlick withdrawn to Washington?
"Democracy is a wonderful thing" says Warlick, with a confident smile.
"I think it's great," he says, seriousness in his voice.
"A wide range of opinions, and people can speak freely. They can be critical of the American ambassador. That is part of a healthy democracy.
"We want responsible discussion; no one wants sensationalism."
On July 4, US Independence Day, the celebration includes a celebration of free speech; "and Bulgaria deserves the same".
Does he expect further such domestic controversies as Bulgaria heads for presidential and municipal elections in October?
"Elections are the same everywhere, as they tend to be in the US - colourful, and they will be here too."
Against the background of the Ataka incident at the Banya Bashi mosque in Sofia in late May, Warlick is asked his view of ethnic relations in Bulgaria.
This country, he says, has a long tradition of tolerance of which it justly can be proud. Recently, he says, it has been apparent that Bulgarians see no room in the country for the politics of hatred, "and that is very good to see".
Here and there
Warlick is confident that the day will come that Bulgaria will join the European Union's Schengen visa zone, and that when that day comes, it will send a message of confidence about the country: "It's not a question of if but when".
However, he says that there is no direct linkage between Bulgaria joining Schengen and the country getting access to the US visa waiver programme. The latter is a decision for the US congress, and is not one taken by the US ambassador, secretary of state or the US president.
Warlick emphasises that he is a strong supporter of Bulgaria getting into the US visa waiver list, noting that there is no significant problem of Bulgarians overstaying their visas under the current system. At the same time, he says, most applicants currently are issued 10-year multiple-entry visas, meaning just one visit to the embassy. This current situation, he says, means that there is no significant obstacle to Bulgarian business people and tourists who meet the visa requirements travelling to the US, and doing so as often as they like within the 10-year validity of their visas.
Fans of the bTV series Stuklen Dom had, in the past year, a glimpse of the character of US ambassador James Warlick, as played in a cameo by US ambassador James Warlick.
Asked (with the disclosure by the current author of having had a bit part in the same series as, of all things, a British doctor) how the reviews had been, Warlick grins, "let me put it this way, I won't be winning any Academy Awards this year."
He adds, still smiling, "it's been great for me, I got some good offers, but as much as I would love to do them, I do have a day job. One of the things I found out was how time-consuming it is, that a few minutes on screen mean a lot of investment of time - so before I sign up for a feature film, better make sure that there's room on the schedule".
Meanwhile, off-screen, Warlick has a passion as a cultural ambassador for the precious legacy bequeathed to Bulgaria by its many generations of history. Enchanted by what he has seen of the country's archaeological wealth, he says that one of the things that he would like to see in Bulgaria is a Field School, along the lines of such seen in places like Greece and Turkey, where Americans could work side-by-side with Bulgarians on uncovering and preserving this nation's precious heritage. In this wealth too, he sees the potential not just for preservation but also for building cultural tourism. Another bright thread in the tapestry, perhaps.
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|Title Annotation:||Special Feature: US Independence Day|
|Publication:||The Sofia Echo (Sofia, Bulgaria)|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2011|
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