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A Bulgarian highlander

Author: Petar Kostadinov Date: Mon, Feb 20 2006 1194 Views
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THERE have been many criticisms among Bulgarians that when abroad they do not support each other and most of all tend to leave Bulgaria behind them to adapt to their new environment. But every rule has its exception and Professor Nikolai Zhelev is proof of completely the opposite.

Professor Zhelev is the honorary Bulgarian consul to Dundee, Scotland, and also professor of biotechnology at the School of Contemporary Science at the University of Abertay Dundee. The eight years spent in Scotland has made Zhelev fall in love with its people, countryside and culture. So far so good, one might say, Zhelev has just shown that he has adapted perfectly to his new country. In his case, however, this love for Scotland has extended Zhelev's love for his motherland Bulgaria. A love so strong that he has become the founder and head of the Bulgarian Consulate in Dundee.

Nikolai Zhelev's journey started in 1985, four years before the fall of communism in Bulgaria, when as a PhD student at Sofia University, he was expelled for political reasons. "It was nothing serious, just a small student demonstration for democracy, but at that time these kind of things were looked at differently by the authorities," Zhelev says with a smile. After the changes, Zhelev became a travelling scientist in his field of biotechnology and medicine. He has lived in Germany, Denmark and England. In 1997, together with his wife - also a scientist - and two children, he discovered Scotland. "I liked Scotland from the very beginning, everything - the folk dances, singing, the drinking of strong alcohol - the beautiful mountains and countryside reminded me of Bulgaria." The same year, Zhelev received Scottish citizenship and now possesses dual Scottish and Bulgarian citizenship. Besides a beautiful view, Scotland offered Zhelev many opportunities for his research. He is proud that he has the chance to work in a country that has so many Nobel Prize winners and discoverers.

At present, Zhelev is a professor at Dundee University in medical and biotechnology and also works with various pharmaceutical companies for his research. This is one of the differences between Bulgaria and Scotland, according to him, "In Scotland, the government helps scientists to set up their own companies. In Bulgaria, we just do not have the legislation to do that". Zhelev regrets that Bulgaria used to have good traditions in the biotechnology sector, but that after the fall of communism in 1989, most of the leading scientists went to western countries.

Adapting well in Scotland, however, was not enough for Zhelev. Despite the fact that he was a travelling scientist, Zhelev has always carried Bulgaria in his heart, as he says. After settling down in Dundee, Zhelev started looking around. His explanation for setting up the consulate in Dundee is simple: "In Scotland there are close to 500 Bulgarians who live permanently in the country and roughly 1500 Bulgarians who visit Scotland for study or work. We just needed consulate services".

In 1999, Zhelev and a few friends decided to set up Bulgarian consulate on voluntary basis. Why Dundee and not Edinburgh or Glasgow? Zhelev's answer is simple, "because a consulate must be where people are, and close to 500 Bulgarians live in Dundee".

Zhelev had a meeting with then Bulgarian minister of foreign affairs Nadezhda Mihailova, who promised to consider helping him to establish the consulate. "The only problem was that she kept considering that for two years," laughs Zhelev.

However, he remained persistent and kept writing letters to Bulgarian authorities, pointing out the need for such a consulate in Scotland. This proved to be the right way, and in 2003 Simeon Saxe-Coburg's government gave a green light to the idea after some pressure from the press, and the consulate was officially opened. It had two main purposes. First, to serve Bulgarians in Scotland, and second to promote cultural and scientific relations between Bulgaria and Scotland. "We have developed really well since then. I managed to attract several professionals to work for the consulate as volunteers in the areas of culture and science and we managed to establish very good links with local authorities and cultural circles," Zhelev says proudly.

"In Dundee we have a Bulgarian church, and links with all official institutions. Many Scottish scientists have joined the Bulgarian-Scottish Association, that was also established together with the consulate, and have visited Bulgaria." 

Among the leading activities of the consulate was to organise Bulgarian exhibitions in Scotland. The most recent event was the photo exhibition by the young Bulgarian photographer Vera Raycheva. The exhibition was called Crossworlds and it was a comparison of Scotland and Bulgaria. This Scottish-Bulgarian photography project was first officially unveiled in the Scottish parliament on November 30 (St Andrews Day). The presiding officer of the parliament, The Rt Hon George Reid gave a speech. Deputy presiding officer Murray Tosha and members of the parliament and consuls, among others, attended the opening. The exhibition was also shown in Dundee and Dalgety bay. In Bulgaria, the exhibition was opened on February 13 and people can enjoy it at the British Council building in Sofia.

Zhelev is really proud of the scientific exchange that has developed between the University of Abertay Dundee and the Technical University of Varna, as well as with the medical universities in Sofia and Plovdiv. "I am an honorary professor in all of these universities," he says. 

One might think that a consulate is a boring and monotonous place but it is not, says Nikolai Zhelev. "Being an honorary consul of Bulgaria to Scotland is a very rewarding job. With a little effort you can do a lot."  The reason for that, according to him, is because people in Bulgaria and Scotland are very close to each other in their way of thinking and it is easy to work for their co-operation. Zhelev is ready with an example of that: "Scottish people adapt really easily in Bulgaria. I have taken some Scottish friends to Bulgaria. Only last month, I know that at least 20 people from Dundee bought properties in Bulgaria and most of them are planning to live here. For some reason they adapt very well here, maybe because they find the way of life very similar to the Scottish".

Bulgarians have also adapted very well in Scotland. "I am the living proof. I have travelled a lot, but Scotland was the first place where I felt at home."

When asked about how Bulgaria is viewed in Scotland, Zhelev changes his tone. "I hate to say it, but Bulgaria does not have such a good image in Europe, and in Scotland in particular. Mostly because the press chooses to publicise negative events happening in Bulgaria to attract readers. Very rarely do they write positive materials about Bulgaria."  Among the activities of the consulate and the Bulgarian-Scottish Association, is to present Bulgaria in Scotland "as it is, which is both positive and negative". He is certain that this would soon change.  "Scottish who have not been to Bulgaria have a negative perception about it partly because of the communist times 16 years ago. Those that have visited Bulgaria have changed their perception."

Zhelev outlines a problem in his work as being that the communication between Bulgarians living in Scotland and Bulgaria on government level has not been very good. "Many Bulgarian officials and civil servants have not been very responsive to what we had to offer them. That's why we try to work directly with institutions like universities rather then the Ministry of Education."  However, Zhelev remains optimistic and says that lately there has been a change. "They even started to answer our letters, which is big progress," he laughs.

He can be trusted about Bulgaria's development over the past 16 years because he visits the country at least five times a year. "Yes, I find difference now in comparison with the communist times, but it is not only a positive one." The level of corruption, the poor quality of education and science and the fact that civil servants were inefficient and most of the time unapproachable were among the main problems for Bulgaria, according to Zhelev.

"Bulgaria can learn a lot from Scotland because it is the same size. We should not try to compare ourselves with the big countries such as the US and Russia, we must follow the experiences of countries the same size as Bulgaria, because size indeed matters," Zhelev affirms.

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