Irit Lillian: History Should Not Be Most Important Element in Israel-Bulgara Relations
Bulgaria and Israel should concentrate on those domains of cooperation they need for the twenty-first century, Israel's Ambassador to Bulgaria, H.E. Irit Lillian, has told Novinite.
Ms Lillian is among the nominees in our annual Personality in the News poll where voting will continue until February 20.
Ms Lillian has served as Ambassador to Bulgaria since the autumn of 2015. The posting to Sofia is her first ambassadorial term. Her previous appointments were in Israel's diplomatic missions to France, Singapore, alongside several positions at the Foreign Ministry, where her career began in 1986. Prior to that, she was a journalist at the Israel Army Radio.
Your Excellency, there was a recent nomination of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for saving the Bulgarian Jews. This indicates good relations between peoples, but on a state level, do you think the potential to build upon these historic bonds has been used to the maximum?
I think we should separate between dwelling on the past and planning for the future. At this point of time, the issue of presenting the memory of the Holocaust as well as the memory of the salvation of the Jews in Bulgaria and the deportation of the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia is a very essential element in the bilateral relations. Israel feels very much obliged to Bulgaria and to keeping the memory. The highest symbol of that is the inauguration of the new monument in the heat of Sofia by two presidents [Bulgaria's President (2012-2017) Rosen Plevneliev and Israel's serving head of state, Reuven Rivlin] last July.
Nevertheless, it should not be the most important element of the relations between the two countries. It is one of the mutual tasks the two countries should take upon themselves, but it should be one of the tasks. We could see it in the broader context of education - educating the generation for the challenges of the future. Preserving memory is part of the challenges, as well as having a new generation that is more innovative, a generation of entrepreneurs ready to face the changes in the European society today - and everything is somehow interwoven into this bigger frame of education. But we also have other domains of cooperation on which we should concentrate - these are the real cooperations we need for the twenty-first century. It can be in science, it can be in economy, it can be in social entrepreneurship, social initiatives - the sky is the limit. In each and every field that I describe today, there is much to be done.
And at the end of the day - not to mention common political challenges in the region, Israel vis-à-vis Europe and Bulgaria as an interlocutor. So we're taking all this very wide picture and see that of course there is a space for history. But we have to translate history into something new that will take both peoples and both countries into a new horizon.
Fast forward to the not-so-distant past. Within a few months it will be 5 years since the tragic event in Burgas. Are you satisfied with how the case has been handled by Bulgarian authorities as of the moment?
Basically yes. I think the treatment of this very tragic event was a very thorough one. Sometimes I hear people saying: Israelis are used to terror and Europe is not. It was not used to it in the same extent five years ago. Unfortunately, the challenge of counter-terrorism is a challenge that is not only on our doorstep - it is already in the room. Therefore I would say the fact that Bulgaria decided to be one of the leaders in the designation of the military branch of Hezbollah [as a terrorist organization] in Europe and the fact that it decided to take a very courageous decision to start a trial against the perpetrators in absentia. Bulgaria could have said: "What can we do? The people ran away and we have no-one to prosecute." But what Bulgaria did means it really gives a special attention to the symbolic aspect of the trial - and I am not alleging it is a symbolic trial. This is a very serious one that is done in the best professional way by people who are professionals, who have gotten even more professionalized in this five years of investigating, in adapting while the government adapted new rules and laws concerning terrorism.
In a way the fact that such a long time passed between the event itself and the trial was something we found a little disturbing in the beginning. But the fact of how serious it is being treated and that is being treated by a specialized court means that Bulgaria is serious in sending a message to the world: we would not stand terrorism. We are a member of the family of nations combating terrorism. In this aspect there is huge partnership between the two countries that grew bigger and much more profound in these five years. This is also a message for the future. Nobody is so naïve to think we will not see more terror attacks in Europe. We are all in the same boat and therefore efforts should be joined for counter-terrorism. The trial gives a very important message to Europe, as well as to terrorists: that this kind of acts are not forgotten, even if 5 years have passed.
The site of the attack is actually in an area frequented by Israeli tourists. Is there a trend of Israeli tourists returning to the Black Sea?
The only time we saw a small decline in the number of tourists to the Black Sea was immediately after the attack. Ever since then, even the season that followed we already started to see a small rise and I can gladly say that according to our figures we can speak of a 20% rise of tourists last year, not only to the Black Sea, but everywhere. Something that makes me much happier is to see there is a new sort of diversification of tourists to Bulgaria. If in the past we would see more youngsters coming to the Black Sea, this year we see more families, more hikers, more people coming for ski. I don't remember the numbers by heart, but Israel is in the top five in numbers coming to Bulgaria and is first in the percentage of increase in numbers. So, the Israeli answer to terrorism is to continue life.
You said we should look to the future and if there is a word with a ring to the future it is "startup". Israel is known as a startup nation, whereas Bulgaria is making some steps in the sector. How could the two countries cooperate in the startup field?
First of all, cooperation is here already. There is a difference of level in entrepreneurship, this is for sure. Not in the level of innovation. We see innovation there, we see many young people with bright ideas, Bulgarians living abroad who are selling their applications in this global ecosystem of startups. We also see major events like DigitalK or Webit that are taking place here in Bulgaria. Israel is already here. Nobody waits for countries to sign agreements. Things are done in a very natural way. If there is interest in something, it is applied immediately. And what we see in the past year is a very present growth of Israeli companies who are starting offices and branches here. Not only in Sofia, by the way, but also in Plovdiv and even elsewhere. A growing number of companies are taking advantage of skilled personnel in all kinds of fields of IT. More and more companies are also bringing Israeli technology in different fields, be it in agriculture, be it in medicine or education, and are already working with Bulgarian companies, with the Bulgarian community. The number of Israeli clinics that is presenting new technologies of advanced medical innovations is growing in a very significant way. So, this cooperation in the private sector is happening all the time.
At the same time we feel there is a lot of work to be done at an academic level - that is, to bring over specialists experts from Israel, to expose the methods and the systems that in a way brought Israel to be a startup nation and adapt them to Bulgarian cultural behaviour and business mentality. This is something we are about to do. I can already say the good news is that we are going to have as part of science week this year a noble prize laureate, Prof Dan Shechtman, who is going to come to Bulgaria. He is a Nobel Prize laureate for chemistry, but he is also very well known in the field of innovations. He is going to give two lectures, one about innovation, which will be open to the public, as part of the science week, and the other one more about chemistry.
The message is that there is a lot to be learned, but I would go beyond that saying there is a lot to learn from each other. We are now going through some kind of a phase of adaptation of both mentalities which will lead us to even more thorough cooperation.
I would give you another example - the field of cyber. Israel is one of the leading countries in it. The different governmental institutions that need these skills are already in touch with the different companies in Israel, be it defense institutes, be it the academia, be it the fintech sector, private sector, energy sector - everybody needs cybersecurity. In Israel there are at least 4-5 major events about it each year. In previous years there were very important and interesting Bulgarian teams and representatives that came to all events. That led to B2B encounters and later on to cooperation. I believe "startup nation" is a very nice title. But this title embraces a world of content and we are already in this world, both countries.
You have previously mentioned agriculture as a field in which Israeli investors are also interested. Could you mention some specific projects?
Even today I don't think the potential has fully materialized. Nevertheless, we already see some very interesting initiatives. The first one would be dairy farming. One would tell me this is the natural habit of Bulgaria: in each and every village there is somebody who has a cow and can produce the best yogurt in the world. I would say of course, it is the best yogurt in the world. At the same time, nowadays it is not enough to have a few cows that produce the best yogurt in the world. You need to make sure that at the end of the day you have a very good industry. There is an enormous know-how in this field in Israel and there are at least two very big initiatives embracing a large no of dairy farmers here working in cooperation with Israeli companies. They became computerized dairy farms and when I'm talking about a computerized dairy farm consulted by Israel that meas the cow in one village in Bulgaria can be looked upon very carefully on the screens in the computer of Israel. The consultant will say that the cow has to get more supplements into its food, it has to go out more often, it has to be cured for certain diseases, the quality in the milk and so on. But this is because the Israeli chip is already in the Bulgarian cow. So we have already two very big companies and initiatives that started working here.
We have Israeli investors in meat farming, raising calves and cows for meat, there are several investors in the field of fruits and vegetables and in this aspect we have already some interesting things on the way. One is using Bulgaria as a space for greenhouses and nurseries for vegetable plants. Again, in very sophisticated methods, and these would be all for export to Europe. I already have some initiatives that have not yet flourished, but are in the making. One of them is in the beekeeping industry - for honey - and others would be for medical herbs and plants. So, it is growing because this place has huge potential in agriculture. Israel on the other hand is a much smaller land. We have the know-how, we have the technology, but we don't have the space to have this know-how translated into deeds. And this is exactly where our two countries meet.
Many investors have pointed to issues such as corruption and lack of skilled enough labour pool as the main hindrances to investment into Bulgaria. What's the Israeli investors' perspective?
These two elements are of course very important ones. I know about several Israeli companies that call us saying they suffer from lack of good experienced personnel. These are two obstacles that are found also by Israeli investors. But I would say that the Israeli investor is usually more worried about a problematic rule of law and law enforcement. People who already invested and found themselves in trouble and went to the court - they don't really find the right answer within the court. You can say it is related to corruption, but it goes much deeper into this vast term of problematic rule of law and law enforcement. I would say these are barriers that can be broken. Also, I believe Bulgaria is really on the right direction and we all know the problematic parts are here, the EU has pointed on them - but on the other hand I believe those looking into investing in Bulgaria would also pay attention to the fact there is at least a tendency to try and change this reality. Whether it is a barrier or not - for the time being it is. People are making their own calculations. If in this country I am afraid that my money is going to go and I would never see it again, then I'd rather invest somewhere else. Bulgaria should try harder to make sure its PR as a country good for investment should be much better. And this will be through improving the current status in these particular elements. It is a process, it's going to take time. But you don't have much time to waste. The competition is growing higher. Neighbouring countries are offering in some cases more or less the same conditions.
You have previously said that Israeli culture is very vibrant but Bulgarians are little aware of that. In the past year-and-a-half since you are here, has this changed and what interesting cultural events related to Israel should we expect this year.
It has changed a little bit because last year we had a marvelous concert of one of Israel's greatest musicians, Idan Raichel, and I'm also very glad to announce that in the new album of Idan Raichel there is already one song that started to roll in the different radio stations in Israel, a new song that is sung by Idan Raichel with Bulgarian musicians. The concert was so good that after the concert he decided to keep on working with the Bulgarian musicians in this new album. This was one very major event. It was a huge exposure to contemporary Israeli culture. What we are planning this year is to take the same tactic and change it a bit. First, to make sure there is a major Israeli presence in all cultural festivals in Bulgaria in each and every field, be it cinema music dance, theater, puppet theater. We already have some interested halls, festivals, institutions. The most important thing - it is a matter of education to consume a different culture. We plan to have events in contemporary dance and jazz to make sure it is not only a date, but a long-lasting love life. That is, to have more mutual workshop, to have Bulgarian artists coming to Israel to work with their colleagues and the other way around. We already know one group will come for the kids' dance festival in the Rhodope mountains, but it is going to stay for a few weeks and to give workshops in dances and performances as well. We are planning something in the field of jazz and a very major presence in the Sofia Film Festival. It is only the beginning of the year and we already have 10-12 events planned. It is a process of education, but I tend to believe already the spirit is there.
How would you describe Bulgaria in three words if you had to?
I was thinking about it very thoroughly and I would say one thing: the best is yet to come. This is one possibility and I would say the future is already here. I really feel that Bulgaria has a huge potential. I meet people in Bulgaria, I meet young people who have ideas, who are entrepreneurs, who care about their society. I know people here tend to complain about others leaving. But I feel that underneath there is also a current of people that care, that really want the future to be here and to be here quickly.
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