Vidin District Governor Plamen Stefanov: Being Poorest EU Region Is Good for Northwestern Bulgaria
Interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with Vidin District Governor Plamen Stefanov on the situations of Bulgaria's Northwestern (Severozapaden) Region – the poorest region in the EU.
The District of Vidin is the northwestern-most of Bulgaria's 28 administrative districts. It borders Serbia and Romania/the Danube River. With an area of 3 000 square km and a population of 99 000 (according to the 2011 census), the Vidin District is the smallest in Bulgaria. It is one of the five districts in Bulgaria's Northwestern (Severozapaden) Region, which is one of the country's 6 NUTS 2 planning regions.
Bulgaria's Northwestern (Severozapaden) Region (including the Districts of Vidin, Montana, Vratsa, Pleven, and Lovech) is the poorest within the EU, according to Eurostat data. In 2008, the per capita GDP in Bulgaria's Severozapaden was barely 28% of the EU 27 average, compared with 343% of the average in Inner London in the United Kingdom.
A recently completed project entitled InvestNorthWest has brought attention to Northwestern Bulgaria to boost local authorities' capacities and help attract badly needed investors.
InvestNorthWest has been administered by the Bulgarian Economic Forum, and has been developed with the financial support of Iceland, Lichtenstein, and Norway under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area (EEA). In December 2010, as part of the InvestNorthWest project, a delegation of Bulgarian local authorities visited Norway's Bergen.
The recently completed EEA-sponsored project InvestNorthWest sought to draw attention to EU's poorest region – Bulgaria's Northwestern (Severozapaden) Region. How have the local and district authorities in Bulgaria's Northwest benefited from it, has it strengthened their capacities?
You probably know that Bulgarian district governors and – I dare say – mayors and a great deal of the municipalities – at least in the Northwestern (Severozapaden) Region where the municipalities are small - don't have much of an administrative capacity. It is even fair to say that many of them almost completely lack it. This makes the participation in such internationally sponsored projects crucial.
As far as the initiative of the Bulgarian Economic Forum is concerned – including the program for increasing the administrative capacity of the Bulgarian local authorities funded by the Norwegian government – it has been structured in a way that allows us to grasp how the EU funding programs work, while also allowing us to establish contacts with local authorities in Norway. And especially in Bergen, Norway's second largest city, which is also the birthplace of Norway's Ambassador to Bulgaria Mrs. Tove Skarstein. She visited Vidin in January, attributing lots of attention to our cultural heritage.
The InvestNorthWest project got us acquainted with the way local authorities work in Norway, a country that is not formally an EU member state but abides by all EU directives and has synchronized its legislation with that of the EU; this is also a country that allocates substantial amounts of money for development aid, backing initiatives funded by the EU.
Bulgaria's Northwest has received a bit of media attention because of its status as EU's most underdeveloped region – as classified by Eurostat. What does it mean to be the poorest region in the EU, is that a curse?
Being the poorest EU region means a lot. However strange this may sound, first of all, this is actually a good thing – simply because this way Bulgaria's Northwest has caught public attention in Bulgaria and even across Europe at least to some extent! I am really happy that Bulgarian and European media have started to talk about the fact that Northwestern Bulgaria, or the Severozapaden Region, is the poorest in the EU because this gives publicity to our problems.
I am personally of the belief that we should really stop complaining and sit down together, and figure out what we can do to help ourselves to overcome the dire situation that we are in.
I had the chance to tell the forum of the InvestNorthWest project about my view that it is harder to work in a rich and developed region, while an underdeveloped and poor region presents a lot of challenges but it also harbors a great potential and many undiscovered opportunities.
Would you care to elaborate on what these opportunities might be?
I can back my view with an example from the cooperation of the Vidin District Administration with the district authorities in Ortenau (Ortenaukreis), in the Baden-Wuerttemberg Province in Southern Germany. We exchanged visits and the Vidin District was visited by a business delegation led by their district authorities.
The German businesspeople and officials who came to Vidin indicated that our region can be of great interest for people dealing with investments – all the way from industrial manufacturing, to horticulture, logistics, trade, agriculture, wine-making, and tourism companies.
I was actually pretty shy, to put it this way, before welcoming their delegation in my capacity of being the District Governor of the poorest and smallest Bulgarian district. However, they talked to us with great interest and much attention. I explicitly asked the potential German investors what is it that Bulgaria's Northwestern Region can be of interest to them.
First of all, they said, Bulgaria has a very attractive taxation policy – they commented with a lot of interest the fact that it has the lowest tax burden in the EU, and especially the flat corporate tax rate of 10%.
Second, they said, Bulgaria has excess labor. I have got to stress here that our excess labor often lacks sufficient qualifications and, to some extent, proper work discipline. But I think these are flaws that are not insurmountable.
Third, the German businessmen have pointed to the availability of fallow, uncultivated agricultural land in Bulgaria's Northwestern (Severozapaden) Region, and of buildings that are not used or have been abandoned. All of that harbors a development potential that can be utilized.
With assistance from the InvestBulgaria Agency and the Ministry of Economy, Energy, and Tourism, we are able to present Bulgaria's government policies on development and attracting investments. I hope that these policies will have a focus on the District of Vidin and the Northwestern (Severozapaden) Region – as I have already pointed out to ways in which this underdeveloped part of Bulgaria and the European Union can turn into a place that is interesting for investors.
What do you think would be the best approach of the local and state authorities to develop Bulgaria's Northwest?
Finding and implementing the right development policies in our case faces certain problems. Not so long ago I invited the mayors of the municipalities in the Vidin District, asking them to sit down and think about what we can do to generate interest with the German business delegation.
The mayors immediately gave me 10-12 reasons why there can be no foreign investments in our district, and why it is not attractive, but I didn't hear from them a single reason why it can be attractive for FDI.
At one of our meetings, I went as far as suggesting, jokingly, that I should probably tell their voters about their pessimism just as the Bulgarian local elections are coming up when many of them will seek reelection, and "attracting foreign investments" will one of the phrases that will invariably figure prominently in their platforms.
We have indeed managed to work together, we also had a meeting with the local businesses, and put together a business profile guide and a program from the visits by the German delegation and other foreign delegations.
One interesting fact is that when we started collecting this business information about the district, a number of people showed up with offers to sell properties such as logistics plots. This means that there is some potential with us that hasn't been tapped, and this is one area where opportunities can be explored.
We are now seeking the support of the Bulgarian Ministries of Environment and Regional Development because a foreign investor is interested in building a waste-processing plant. I have really started to wonder why we in Bulgaria are building waste depots such as landfills, while the communities in the developed world have been building waste processing and recycling plants for many years.
Can you go in detail about the specific problems that hinder the development of Northwestern Bulgaria?
I would really like to emphasize in this interview for Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency), which I know will reach a number of people around the world that a great problem for Bulgaria's Northwestern (Severozapaden) Region and the Vidin District in particular is the infrastructure – both transport infrastructure and energy infrastructure, and gasification in particular.
Vidin is one of the few of Bulgaria's 28 administrative districts that has not been included in Bulgaria's natural gas distribution network. While we do have some road infrastructure – in spite of its deficiencies – the situation with the construction natural gas pipelines to our district is not even in a starting phase as of yet.
Clearly, without easy access to energy such as natural gas, no major investor would demonstrate much interest. The industrial producers that we have operating in Vidin, for example, receive natural gas supplies through truck and railway tanks.
I am really going to insist before the Ministry of Economy, Energy, and Tourism to consider this problem because it is the state that's in charge of the gas distribution pipelines in the country.
We have also agreed with the mayors from our district to set up an association in order to seek project funding to solve the gasification problem.
Are the roads the major problem as far as the region's transport infrastructure is concerned?
As far as transport infrastructure is concerned, there is one opportunity that I would really like to use this interview and your media in order to bring to international attention.
I am talking about the currently defunct Vidin Airport, or rather, or an airport site, if you wish. This is the former civilian airport of the city of Vidin which was served by small airplanes in the 1980s. Back then, the flights from Vidin to Sofia lasted about 40 minutes, and were rather popular.
The Vidin Airport was shut just like that in 1998-1999 because of a dispute between the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Agriculture about which one of them is supposed to pay compensations to the former owners of the land where the Vidin Airport is located. (The land was nationalized during Bulgaria's communist period when almost all agricultural land was state-owned; it was restituted to owners after 1989 either in full or through compensations – editor's note).
Because of this dispute, the Vidin Airport has simply been abandoned, and has been left to the mercy of Mother Nature.
We have a wonderful runway there, and all experts say it can be used. The airport also has all the respective infrastructure even though its buildings are now defunct. But it can very well be served by small planes. I am not talking about some grand airport project.
In Germany's Baden-Wuerttemberg province, we visited a similar small airport that was turned over to the authorities for civilian use by the NATO forces, and whose developmed has spurred a number of logistics centers nearby. The runway is state-owned, as in our case, and has been granted on a concession.
We would be happy if Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) can help us spread this information that we are looking for a concessionaire for the Vidin Airport; this would really help our region.
We are only seeking to grant the airport on concession, not to sell it, because even with the available post-privatization control we would not to be able to control what a potential private owner would do with the site. And we do need an airport. More detailed information is available on the website of the Vidin District Administration.
The Vidin Mayor and I as well as the other mayors are ready to provide any cooperation needed to a potential investor that is interested in the concession of the Vidin Airport.
I can also point to another example of a development opportunity. Very few people know that Vidin has mineral water springs that can be used for balneotherapy treatments. There is even talk that it is comparable to the water in Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic even though it needs to be tested further for such statements to be proven. But That potential has not been utilized as well.
So, to sum it up, we really need to get down to business. We lack the so called community leaders that can lead people and stand their ground. We also lack expert capacity in the municipalities that could allow them to evaluate investment opportunities and to create projects and seek EU funding.
Do you believe that Bulgaria's current administrative divisions in 28 administrative districts and six planning regions of the EU NUTS 2 category (on top of the 264 municipalities) gives the regional authorities enough powers?
This topic is currently under discussion by Bulgaria's Decentralization Council. In my view, the current administrative division of Bulgaria allows for proper administrative services to the entire population – because besides everything else, one of the major functions of the district and local authorities is to provide administrative services to the people.
It is a well-known trend in Bulgaria that the large urban centers to attract population from the periphery, which is getting depopulated quickly. This is especially evident in Bulgaria's Northwestern (Severozapaden) Region – the 2011 census has indicated that in the past 10 years the population of the city of Vidin declined by 10-12 000 people, and of the district – by 30 000 people.
But Bulgaria's administrative districts do serve well their purpose for providing administrative services to the people. It is another matter that they don't meet the EU NUTS 2 requirements for statistical regions – which is why Bulgaria's 6 planning regions were created in the past few years – including the Northwestern (Severozapaden) Region.
What we do need now with respect to the regional authorities is a complete change in the way the councils of the planning regions work. Because I dare say that at present their work is purely ceremonial. And it is them who should be empowered to administer EU development projects on the territory of their regions.
So in order to counter the depopulation threat for the Bulgarian provinces – such as the Northwestern (Severozapaden) Region – I would implement as a chief measure the empowering of the regional councils with proper governance functions.
As far as the governors of the Bulgarian administrative districts are concerned, there are many ideas for reforming their positions. At present, the Bulgarian district governors have symbolic powers. To some extent, this does not correspond with their supposed function to conduct the policies of the central government on the district and regional level.
There are various suggestions on how to reform their role but I think that probably the best way would be to empower the district governors to become direct representatives of the government – which means that they must represent every single government ministry and agency in their district – in order to coordinate the work of all regional government institutions.
At present, the administrative district offices of the Bulgarian state institutions are not under the auspices of the districts governors; their placement on the district level is chaotic, and their work can be coordinated by the district governors only if these institutions demonstrate good will.
Each of these district representations is subordinated to the respective ministry or state agency in Sofia, rather than to the district governor on the local level appointed by the central government, and they are not obliged to be accountable or to cooperate with the district governors in any way.
If a district governor is empowered to be in charge of the work of these local offices, this will bring a substantial balance to their operations. If this doesn't become the case, the district governors will remain somewhat of "decorative figures" with ceremonial roles.
Studying these issues myself, I found that the Bulgarian district governors are liable under 111 pieces of legislation, which is a lot of responsibility given that these obligations have not been backed by the respective powers so that they can actually do their job.
A major issue here is empowering the district administrations in Bulgaria to dispose of district finances and to manage state property in their districts. This is very important because at present there are considerable state properties in each district which are not being utilized, and are simply left to decay, while they can actually generate development.
What about the idea to make the positions of the 28 Bulgarian district governors an elected office? Is it a good idea to elect the district governors like yourself, rather than have the central government appoint them?
As far as the idea to elect district governors is concerned, I don't think that it makes enough sense.
First of all, the district governor is supposed to conduct the policy of the government on the local level, and it is well known that the government is politically dependent. It is dominated by a party or a coalition. If it so happens that the government is formed by one party, the district governor is elected from another party, and, God forbid, the municipal mayor comes from a third party, you can image that this is a recipe for discordance.
We have been witnessing the lack of balanced non-partisan policies in Bulgaria where partisanship is still very strong and therefore affects substantially the development policies of a certain region. On top of that, one more election will be too much for a small Bulgaria because we know how elections are held.
But a major thing as far as the second (regional) level of self-government in Bulgaria is concerned is that the district development councils need to have a new function. At present, the district development strategies have been developed, they are formally in place, but, as Bulgaria's EU Funds Minister Tomislav Donchev says, they have remained good wishes on paper.
Maybe a new way of defining their priorities should be implemented. They should stem from the municipalities, and should then be incorporated into the district strategies and the national strategy with the respective financial framework. In this sense, there should be some radical changes here.
What is going to change for Vidin and the Northwestern (Severozapaden) Region when the second Danube bridge between Bulgaria and Romania – the so called Danube Bridge 2 at Vidin-Calafat – is completed, hopefully in 2012?
That question has been posed very often. Let me put it this way – there have been too many high hopes for this bridge.
Danube Bridge 2 is certainly going to be a facility that will contribute to the development of a trans-border transport corridor; the only existing Bulgarian-Romanian Danube bridge is 400 km away, and we in the Northwest only have a ferry boat connection with Romania now.
But as far as the Vidin region is concerned, I dare say that, other than a small number of jobs that it will create with its adjacent infrastructure, I don't think it will have the tremendous development effect that other development and investment projects could have in terms of creating an added value.
I don't want to disparage the effects of the Vidin-Calafat bridge, not at all. But we shouldn't rely on it too much.
Why do you think that Bulgarians don't really associate their nation and country with the Danube the way neighboring countries do? You yourself hardly mentioned the Danube in this interview.
The Danube is my life. I was born in Novo Selo, which is on the Danube near Vidin. Every time I come back from Sofia and see the Danube, I feel so calm and peaceful.
The Danube is a great treasure, and with the right strategy it harbors a great development potential in terms of transport, tourism, fishing, you name it.
As we are talking about Vidin in particular – I think that the potential combination of a revived Vidin Airport with Vidin's Danube ports – which are very good – and the railway transport – by 2020 the high-speed railway line from Vidin to Sofia should be ready – would be a very interesting spot for the development of inter-modal transport – with Central Europe and the former Yugoslavia states which are now seeking to join the EU.
When Bulgaria joins Schengen, the lack of barriers and customs will make it very convenient for businesses to expand in the direction of Greece's Thessaloniki and the Middle East.
The city of Vidin has a large Roma population estimated at about 10 000. What is the situation with its integration?
Integration is a matter of national policies. It is also a two-sided process. For it to work, we need both the society to provide opportunities, and the respective minority community to wish to get integrated and make use of them.
It is another story that so many problems have accumulated with the urban development of the Roma-populated quarters, let's say it, because of their use for political purposes.
We have reached the point where these urban planning problems are irresolvable. Most of the places where the Roma live today lack the proper sewage and water supply, gasification and electricity. In spite of all that, there must be political will to resolve these issues.
In Vidin's case, the territorial organization plan for the Roma quarter is ready. The question about its implementation is a whole other story since a lot of homes will have to be torn down. These people and kids there will need a place to stay in the mean time, and for the time being the municipality has no capacity to host them.
The education problem is also severe. It is clear that the Roma kids are not entirely included in the education process.
We are actually know conducting talks with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church – because this is an institution which has the potential to help the Roma community in some unsuspected ways.
The integration won't work in just 1-2 years since no work has been done for the past 20 years in that respect. Another 20 years will probably be needed.
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