One Small Step To Bulgaria

By July 27, 2009Atlantic Eye

PRAGUE, Czech Republic, July 27 (UPI) — It might be true. I take Bulgarians seriously.

It could just as well be my Andy Warhol moment.

On Friday, I opened my e-mail to Bulgarian press reports that I will be the next U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria.

I was touched.

Capitalizing on my 15 minutes of fame, I responded earnestly to interview requests and e-mails — though not as ambassador-in-waiting.

The newspaper Standart, quoting “diplomatic sources,” wrote that “Barack Obama sends to Bulgaria Mr. Big.” It described me as a “universal expert in politics and economy” and that outgoing Ambassador Nancy McEldowney — who has been nominated to the post of principal deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs — “will hand the baton to Marc S. Ellenbogen.” McEldowney has a superb reputation. The folks I interviewed in and out of Bulgaria think very highly of her.

The Standart continued that I am a “well-known investor, entrepreneur and philanthropist. And a top journalist too. … He has become famous for his geopolitical commentaries for UPI agency.” It described Global Panel as an institution that has “brought under control more than one conflict around the world.” Trud, the largest Bulgarian daily, Sofia Echo and the Bulgarian News Network also had commentaries.

I am proud of Global Panel. I had been involved with her since 1995. When I became chair in 2000 — taking over from Bas Spuybroek — one of her founders — I knew we were moving in many new directions.

From North Korea to the Black Sea; from corporate governance to fighting corruption; from the Morocco Strategic Initiative to Central European monitoring, Global Panel has been proud to take the lead. Global Panel is not the only one in these areas of work. But Global Panel, along with the Prague Society that fought communism, has developed a reputation as trusted and honest broker — successful, off-the-record and behind the scenes.

The Sofia News Agency — — brought the headline, “Tough Negotiator Ellenbogen to become U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria.” “A while ago, in an article about him, the German ‘die Welt’ wrote Ellenbogen was known for travelling over half million kilometers per year all over the world.” Quoting “die Welt” further it stated, “People close to him say his work begins where diplomacy ends. His guests usually don’t smile during business meetings and no one talks about the discussions afterwards.” I agree Global Panel-led negotiations are tough — and certainly unconventional — but at some point smiles are let — though some are certainly pained because of the usually serious matters at hand.

“The long list of distinguished guests of Global Panel … include Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr., former British P.M. Margaret Thatcher, former U.S. Secretaries of State Kissinger, Albright, Powel; former Czech President Vaclav Havel and former Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov and many, many others.”

“Ellenbogen is said to maintain close relationships with some Bulgarian politicians such as former President Zhelio Zhelev and former Foreign Minister Solomon Passy,” the Sofia News Agency continued.

Bulgarians are a proud people with a grand history. They are friendly, but cautious. Bulgaria is bordered by Romania to the north (mostly along the River Danube); Serbia and the Republic of Macedonia to the west; and Greece and Turkey to the south; the Black Sea to the east. The capital is Sofia and the population numbers some 8 million — with a large expat community living outside her borders. Bulgarians are roughly 84 percent Orthodox and 12 percent Muslim. The rest is Roman Catholic 1.7 percent, Jewish 0.8 percent, Protestant, Gregorian-Armenian, and other 1.6 percent. Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007.

The European Union has warned Bulgaria’s government and frozen millions in funds because of corruption. Solomon Passy’s dark horse candidacy for secretary-general of NATO — and he is an honest man — was massively and negatively influenced by Bulgaria’s reputation. It is shameful that honest people are written off because of this.

There are many issues where Bulgaria can be a partner for the United States. They include security, energy and infrastructure for the Balkan Region and the Black Sea Area. The Bulgarians seek a leading role in these issues.

If I were to become ambassador, I would tackle the issue of corruption head on. Corruption is bad for any economy. It is especially detrimental for new economies. It saps the best and the brightest — who leave. It prevents small and medium-sized enterprises from being successful. It makes politics suspect and ineffective. It is a cancer that sucks the lifeblood out of all that is good about a society and culture.

I do not seek to condescend to Bulgarians. They know their country and they know her problems. Most Bulgarians are prepared to have help from outside. But as is common in the Balkans, they expect respect. A kind of macho-ness notwithstanding, Bulgarians dislike arrogance. But they respect toughness. They also insist on fairness — despite the corruption present.

As for me, I never count my chickens before they hatch.

But for now I can paraphrase Al Gore, “I was once the next ambassador to Bulgaria.”

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A supporter of the anti-communist underground, he has advised political candidates and is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)