Sofia Echo


Registering IS the point

Author: Gabriel Hershman Date: Fri, Mar 30 2012 3050 Views
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You start to realise you're getting on a bit when you find out that the UK's top diplomat in Bulgaria – formally in charge since January 30 – is seven years younger than yourself. Not that ambassador Allen's youth is an encumbrance. Optimistic by nature, he points out that people's perceptions are usually positive.

"I'm 38, about the same age as Bulgaria's Foreign Minister (Nikolai Mladenov) so if you can be a foreign minister you can be an ambassador," Allen tells me in his office in Moskovksa Street. "I did worry a bit before I came but most people seem to assume if you're young you must be good which is very nice of them. I'm also struck by the number of very young deputy ministers and ministers in Bulgaria."

Allen, in his first ambassadorial appointment, comes across as having the right mix of informality and enthusiasm to re-vitalise his role. The briefcase in the corner of his office is suitably battered – as though it has accompanied him since his schooldays – his hair is fashionably tussled and his manner relaxed and easygoing. He's also full of snippets of good advice for his staff, telling them to get out of the office rather than "drown" in emails. (He's right!).

Our new man in Sofia is just as happy talking about his seven-month-old daughter, Lucy, as he is discussing Bulgaria's "winter of discontent" in 1997. He's also remarkably fluent in Bulgarian. He may be self-deprecating about his level of proficiency but the proof is that he has already gone head-to-head with Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and Deputy Prime Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov as well as with many regional mayors – all without an interpreter.

So how come he mastered a language so many Brits find impenetrable? Allen calls it "immersion training", a euphemism for being thrown in at the deep end, living with a Bulgarian family in Plovdiv for a month following a six-month course in the UK.

"I had to say goodbye to my family. I never spoke English apart from phoning home. I was totally surrounded by the language – at the dinner table and on TV. That way, you also get an understanding of Bulgaria and Bulgarians in a way you'd never got no matter how many lessons you had from a teacher," Allen told me.

"We decided Plovdiv would be a sensible place. It couldn't be somewhere too far away" – for example he had to come to Sofia for the presidential inauguration and meet Nikolai Mladenov – "but I didn't want to be in Sofia because I didn't want to start work too early or succumb to the temptation to hang out with English people too often," he says. 

And how did he feel being thrust into Bulgaria's coldest winter for 60 years? The smile does not diminish. "I rather liked it although my wife found it difficult trying to push the pram out in the snow when we came to Sofia," he says.

Learning Bulgarian was important to him. He's a historian by education (at Cambridge) but I put it to him he must be a talented linguist as well. 
"I guess to some degree," he says modestly. "Some people learn a language easily. My facility is average or slightly above average. I had to work quite hard at it and I still have to. My biggest worry about going on live TV is understanding every question. I'm alright as long as I know the context or the issue concerned."

Does he believe it's important for British people to learn the language? 

"Everybody's different. But personally I don't like being in a country even for a short period of time without being able to communicate. Through language you learn about culture.

"When I go to a country, even on holiday, I tend to buy history books beforehand. I like to know what makes people tick. To do that here you probably need to have some Bulgarian. But I'm sure some people get on very well without it. It's a difficult language to learn for a Brit. It has an alphabet we're unaccustomed to, verbs that aren't based on Latin and a grammatical structure that's different from English – although some sentence structuring is pretty similar."

Allen last visited Bulgaria on a train ride in 1996, visiting Sofia as well as Sozopol and Veliko Turnovo.

Apart from a reconnoitre last year to inspect "the residence" with his then heavily pregnant wife, Liz, (they also took in a spring visit to Koprivstitsa) that was his sole first-hand experience of Bulgaria. But in London, as assistant director at the Home Office's International Directorate, he was responsible for setting up the co-operation and verification mechanism that handled Bulgarian and Romanian accession. (Brickbats to ambassador Allen at the embassy!) Before coming to Bulgaria he headed the East Africa and Great Lakes Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Bulgaria's entry into the EU in 2007 did not, of course, mean an instant level playing field. Fortunately, restrictions currently placed on Bulgarian workers will lift at the end of 2013.

Allen denies the bar was in any way particular to Bulgaria, or Romania for that matter. It was, he says, simply borne out of economic realities.

"The Accession treaty allows for EU member states to have restrictions if there's a risk of distortion to the labour market. We didn't put restrictions on the first wave of accession.

"We were quite open, probably the most open country in Europe. But we made an impact assessment and found that there was indeed an impact on our labour market. We are now in – unarguably – the worst economic situation in Europe since the 1930s. Nobody would now suggest that this is not true.

"So it's not therefore surprising we would continue to want to impose those restrictions. My hope is that by the end of 2013, when the restrictions are lifted, that the UK economy is in better shape. It will also be great if the Bulgarian economy is in better shape and nobody wants to leave and everyone wants to stay and make it into a great place!"

Learning from the experience of successive waves of migration, and anticipating the forthcoming lifting of restrictions, Allen believes that new arrivals to the UK should master English. "That's the biggest determination of success or failure. The first time round we found that those who were homeless, or who had been exploited, tended to be those who didn't speak English," he says.

Some feel that a certain "anti-Bulgarianism" has been a feature of the UK press over the years. Does he think that the tabloids in particular overdo the stories of vicious Balkan gangsters, pickpockets and scroungers?

"I've heard this before from a Bulgarian journalist. Genuinely, I really don't see very much discrimination. The British press is a fairly full on, no holds barred institution. They tend to have a go at pretty much everyone. You find that Brits get done over – different regions, different people and different social strata. Much of the British press is pretty firm and very clear when they go after a target. But there are also positive stories about some people from accession countries, for example its impact on labour costs, hence the famous story of the Polish plumber."

Migration is, of course, a two-way process. A question about the number of Brits in Bulgaria prompts the ambassador to pause for a minute to launch into what he calls – unashamedly – "a short broadcast on behalf of the embassy". Listen carefully because we will say this only once!

"I've seen quite a few British communities here now and there's a great reluctance to register with the embassy. This is a short sighted and misguided policy in my view. People seem to worry that if they register with us we'd be hooking up our list with the tax office or the child benefit office in the UK. That's just not possible," he says. (Doubtless there will be a deafening collective sigh of relief throughout Bulgaria's British community!).

"We simply don't have a clever enough system. I'd love the British government to have a sophisticated enough system but they don't. So if they (British expats) register with us, their details stay here. It's important because it means that if there's a problem we can find people. For example, there's been a problem this year with floods – the loss of life was awful but it could have been worse."

Allen notes the recent spate of earth tremors and the fact that Bulgaria lies on an earthquake zone.

"It's responsible to tell us your details so if anything goes wrong we can come to get you. We'd certainly be doing everything we could to look after our citizens in such circumstances. In Japan, for example, the UK embassy put on buses to collect British citizens to bring them back to Tokyo. So it's important to register and not worry that it's going to be used for other purposes."

In response to my question, Allen reckons that about 7000 Brits are based permanently in Bulgaria. A further 7000 have second homes and about 300 000 visitors come from the UK every year, a far higher number of Brits, he says, than to any other Balkan country, notwithstanding a slight dip during the worst of the crisis. Allen notes that first-hand (hopefully) positive impressions of a place always outweigh negative articles in the tabloids. "It's much more important that Mr and Mrs Jones have a good time and have a favourable view of Bulgaria," he says.

Talking of favourable impressions, Allen says he is impressed by the close-knit nature of families in Bulgaria. "Families will go to the wire for each other. They'll do anything, whatever it takes, to enable their children to get on and be looked after."

Is that something, I wonder, that Britain could do well to learn from?

"I think that Bulgaria and the UK are very different countries. What works in one country won't necessarily work in another or vice versa. You can't impose one country's social rules on another but there's a huge amount Bulgaria should be very proud of and pleased about."

So when ambassador Allen briefs the Queen at the end of March in London – she meets all new ambassadors either just before or after they take up their posts – we can safely assume he will be complimentary. April is a busy month for ambassador Allen in terms of engagements in the UK.

He will accompany Foreign Minister Mladenov to see British foreign secretary William Hague on April 16. Then he will fly to London again at the end of the month for the FCO annual leadership conference which is attended by all ambassadors. "I wouldn't normally expect to go back three times in a month but we are fortunate in having relatively inexpensive flights," he says. 

Allen agrees with me that Bulgaria's streets are comparatively safe for ordinary folk. He says that the embassy's warnings to British tourists are about pickpockets. But he notes that failings at the top trickle down.

"Bulgaria's reputation for criminal activity comes at the highest level. Organised crime, particularly in the past, and to some degree now, impacts on society and institutions and people's ability to live. High-level crime and corruption may not impinge on them physically every day but it affects them in other ways.

"Whether it's about accessing justice quickly, enforcing a contract or having to pay the town hall or government to get something that is rightfully yours, it affects ordinary people and has a pernicious impact. Ultimately, organised crime IS a problem here and it's a big priority of the government. We're also very keen to help the government with it because drugs, people trafficking, cigarette smuggling and other forms of organised crime have their impact on the UK."

On the economic front, Allen praises the growth agenda in Bulgaria but concedes that what may be good for outside entrepreneurs – low salaries – is not necessarily so favourable for the recipient of the salary in question. Nevertheless, he says, there are many opportunities for investors.

"Bulgaria, by common consent, has a worse set of roads and motorways than non-EU countries in its neighbourhood and that doesn't make a lot of sense given all the EU money that's been available for a long time. I was talking to Simeon Dyankov the other day. He says investors look for several things. The first is low tax rates – and many retired Brits over here would be pleased about the levels.

"The second is good infrastructure and that, in Bulgaria, is just about coming up to average levels. The third is the judicial system and that's a perennial problem for investors. The main problem is slow justice and, in some cases – not the majority perhaps – I think there are still overtones of nepotism or corruption whereby prosecutors or judges can have links to one of the parties in a case."

The tardiness, says Allen, affects Bulgarians and Brits – indeed everyone. "If it takes you 18 months or two years to enforce a simple open and shut case of a contracted debt and the other person won't pay in the hope that you'll go out of business. If there's no penalty to that person for doing that, then that's not a system that is as investor friendly as it could be."

Can the embassy help in such situations?

"We can't ask for a better service for Brits than is given to Bulgarians," he says. "If there's any suggestion it's just discrimination against British companies then we can do something. It affects Bulgarian firms as well, so these frustrations are shared.

"But we do, unashamedly, push British businesses. When it comes to problems with the licensing regime or winning new contracts or selling new products then I'll do everything I can to help. I'll have meetings with those who influence decisionmaking. My key role is improving trade between countries. We have a great ally in the revitalised British Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Bill Drysdale who's been a force of nature and energy in re-building the Chamber and bringing it back to Bulgaria from London where it had been based." (The ambassador is due to address the BBCC on April 3 following recent presentations by Dyankov, Konstantin Dimitrov, the new ambassador to London, and Minister of Regional Development and Public Works Lilyana Pavlova.)

Bulgaria is well placed to reap dividends from the crisis, believes Allen.

"British companies' trading markets used to be traditionally domestic or linked to those European countries with whom they'd been trading for a long time. Once the euro-zone crisis hit they looked elsewhere towards emerging markets."

He notes Bulgaria's healthy growth rate and good economic fundamentals but underlines that British firms still need help no matter how alluring the business environment.

"It is daunting for a British businessman if you don't know anybody. That's where the embassy and the UKTI and the BBCC can make a real difference." As for Bulgaria's own trading aspirations with other countries, Allen urges Bulgaria to "think very carefully about its big neighbour, Turkey."

Fortunately, he says, Bulgaria and the UK sing from the same hymn sheet on most issues.

"We both want foreign investors, we both want to focus on prosperity and trade and we're both against tax harmonisation. We both support investment in entrepreneurship and research and development and security."

Asset forfeiture is a particular area where he says that the UK government can offer some expertise. He says he'd like to see "nasty organised criminals" being separated from their ill-gotten gains.

"It would send a powerful signal to ordinary Bulgarians if they (criminals) had their palaces and cars taken away from them. We're working closely with Tsvetanov on law enforcement."

When disagreements arise between the UK and Bulgaria – and Allen does not cite any current disputes – he believes his role is to meet people halfway.

"To be a good ambassador you have to all the time understand the people you're talking to. If they can't accept it, you have to go back to your own people in London and explain the position."

He cites a recent seminar on economic growth as particularly important.

"I want to make sure that people in London are committed to fulfilling their side of the bargain," he says. He believes that British commercial companies, interested in winning contracts in Bulgaria, should come out well in advance of tender dates.

The main event this year in the UK is, of course, the Olympics. Have last year's riots and the rise of the seemingly ubiquitous urban hoodie – I wonder – triggered security fears?

"The riots were scary," says Allen. "We call them 'riots' which suggests a degree of social protest, when much of it was pretty clear criminality when they saw the streets weren't being controlled by the law enforcement authorities. Following the situation and subsequent convictions, it became clear that many people had previous convictions for theft or other offences. So it was a very strange experience."

People need not have security concerns about this year's Olympics in London, says Allen.

"An unbelievable number of law enforcement authorities have well laid plans to ensure everyone enjoys the games safely. There's also a security operation underway in case of other eventualities as well as a counter-terrorism operation. That's important. I'd be surprised if the Games were marred by violence or anything like that," he says.

Allen also emphasises the importance of the parallel Paralympic Games.

"It was invented in 1948 and since then it's grown from a bit of a side event into something equally important. There are very different attitudes to disability in the UK and Bulgaria. As someone who tries to push a pram round, I can tell you that Sofia is not a place to push a wheelchair around.

"The Paralympics give us an opportunity to talk about people who have, in all cases, overcome challenges to compete for their country and do some incredible things. It will feel like a celebration. We're conscious that the eyes of the world are on us; we're ahead of budget and schedule and we have met all our deadlines with time to spare which is not always the case.

"There's also the environmental legacy of turning round a formerly toxic site – the Olympic park – into a venue and taking advantage of the Olympics for the long-term benefit to the nation's health. This will also have the lowest carbon footprint of any Olympic Games ever."

Holding the Olympic Games is the most complicated peacetime operation any country can undertake, he says, noting that the UK's ability to stage (hopefully successfully) complicated infrastructural projects such as the Olympics to budget and on time can only enhance its reputation and help it win contracts.

Coming to Sofia in May – in association with the British Council and architects – is an exhibition of the Olympic Park. There will be a series of events around the green agenda and sustainable development.

"Bulgaria has the worst energy efficiency in the EU and also the highest energy bills. That's a no-brainer – get more energy efficient and have lower bills," he says.

Britain's reputation, he believes, still rides high.

"In Bulgaria, the UK still has a strong reputation for innovation, learning and the quality of its university education. We're still seen as a major power in the world. I've had no problems seeing ministers and getting access to the government. Even though our countries are geographically far apart, occupying the northwest and southeast of Europe, we have a similar vision and viewpoints about what the EU should be doing."

Ambassador Allen is still very new to Sofia. He's still finding his way round, mentioning that he's now been to Boyana and on the Free Sofia tour. He's also keen to get out of the capital.

"I've said to my colleagues that I'm determined not to be the ambassador to Sofia. I've done two trips so far outside Sofia and I want to get out at least once a month."

Like any new father, he's suffering a bit from sleepless nights and trying to get the balance between work and domesticity.

"After a heavy day I like to spend time with Lucy (his baby daughter). I get up at 6.30am, get to work at 8.30am and normally leave to get back for bath-time at 6pm. I have ended up rejecting quite a lot of invitations but, as for my staff, I very much believe – and I've told people this – that they should be out of the office 30 per cent of the time. I think you need to speak to people who aren't ministers, lobbyists, NGOs, companies or journalists. You need to speak to pensioners. I'm a great believer in getting under the skin of the country."

Allen met his wife, Liz, during a counter-terrorism meeting at the Home Office. He invited her out for a drink, ostensibly to discuss strategy. Now they are happily ensconced at the residence and looking forward to the challenges ahead.

"It's such a privilege to have my job in such a beautiful place," he says. He notes that foreigners he has encountered so far are either violently optimistic or violently pessimistic about Bulgaria.

"If you look back to what was happening 15 years ago, Bulgaria has bounced back remarkably," he says.  Although by no means unrealistic or naive, the new British ambassador is definitely a "half-full" person. He assures us that when we interview him again, perhaps in a year's time, he will be just as chirpy.


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