American Foundation for Bulgaria Program Director Alexey Hristov: Working with the Best Youth of Bulgaria Is a Blessing
Exclusive interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with Alexey Hristov, Program Director and Project Manager of the Bulgarian branch of the American Foundation for Bulgaria (AFB)
Alexey Hristov graduated from the English language high school in his native city of Vratsa. In 1990, he enrolled at the Ecclesiastic Academy St. Kliment Ohridski and in 1997 received a Master's Degree in Theology from Sofia University. Hristov has worked for Darik radio, the Democratic Review magazine, and the "Citizen" Association. In 2001, he won a stipend from the Georgetown University where he spent one year as an academic scholar and researcher. At Georgetown he studied the non-profit sector in the US, the civic society and public administration.
How was the American Foundation for Bulgaria created?
Тhe American Foundation for Bulgaria (AFB) was established by three people – Teodor Vasilev, Diko Mihov and Alexey Hristov in 2004 as an extension of their interest in charitable work. The Foundation was first registered in New York State, and then re-registered in Massachusetts. It was there, in Boston, where Alexey met in 1995 Diko Mihov, founder and first President of AFB, who was at the time working on his PhD at MIT.
Who are you main sponsors?
Diko Mihov and Teodor Vasilev are the main sponsors. AFB is also in partnership with the private family foundation of Bob and Nellie Gipson, one of our major donors. It finances a number of joint programs in Bulgaria in the sectors of education, cultural and historical heritage; they give stipends for students enrolled in Bulgarian universities and fund archeological excavations. Many Bulgarians, who live and work in the US also donate to AFB.
What is the difference between your foundation and the America for Bulgaria Foundation (FAB)? Even people who are interested in charities, are often confused...
The difference between AFB and FAB is significant. FAB is an individual and personal endeavor, and its main idea is assistance to the Bulgarian people offered by Americans. The funding comes from the US federal government; these are public funds, invested in Bulgarian economy for the development of the civic society, culture, business, and arts in Bulgaria. FAB was established with a fund of USD 400 M, making it the biggest sponsor in Bulgaria.
Our funds are significantly lower – we spent for our programs and projects an average of USD 500 000 a year while FAB makes one time donations in the amount of USD 1 M, for example to the American University in Blagoevgrad.
Other than that, as far as programs, the two foundations have almost identical goals and intentions. This is evident from our partnership in the project to present in Sofia the drama production of American playwright Edward Albee "The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?" directed by Yavor Gardev at the National "Ivan Vazov" Theater. Both foundations sponsored the project.
We hope and believe the similarity in the names would be of benefit and we would continue to work together. The recent FAB decision to offer financial support for the participation of the International Law Team from the Sofia University in the most prestigious contest to be held in March in Washington DC, is a confirmation of these partnership intentions. Otherwise, AFB had financed on its own the law team since 2006.
How is the American Foundation for Bulgaria different from all other foundations? And is it?
Let's start backwards. Yes, AFB is different from other foundations in Bulgaria because in the first place it is an American Foundation. There are a number of other differences – the Foundation works in Bulgaria as a registered branch according to the Non-profit Legal Entities Act. I am not sure how many other branches of American Foundations are registered in Bulgaria, if there are any.
AFB is in its essence an organization of the Bulgarian community in the US. It is a foundation of our Diaspora in America, and it is financed mainly with donations of Bulgarians, living and working in the US. It is also different from many other foundations in Bulgaria because it has real, own capital, which is managed and the profit from this management is used for its programs.
Most Bulgarian foundations have very little own capital or do not have one and finance their activities by applying with projects with other organizations and/or institutions. Precisely this financial independence allows AFB to choose and realize its own priorities. We finance and invest mostly in the human capital of Bulgaria because we believe it is the most valuable.
Twenty years after the fall of Communism, is there a civic society in Bulgaria?
My personal opinion, as a direct participant in the events, is yes, we do have it. The so-called informal groups, human rights and environmental organizations became more visible in the mid-80s and laid the foundation of the future free and democratic society. Political change at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s of the 20th century was a stark demonstration of the tumultuous and, regretfully, chaotic birth of civic society in Bulgaria.
The strongest push came from foreign organizations, financing the process, such as "Open Society" of George Soros, the programs of the American government, of the Agency for International Development, European financing – from the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK, also entered Bulgaria and contributed significantly to the development of the civic society in the last 20 years.
To be honest, I must say – civic society in Bulgaria is of the quality of the country's citizens. It is up to you to interpret this statement. There are both good and well functioning civic organizations and others who are not that good or are already extinct.
Charities and NGOs – do we have traditions in Bulgaria? And did they become extinct during the 45 years of Communist rule?
Several years ago, after working in the civic sector for almost a decade, and after returning from my specialization at Georgetown University, I stumbled upon an encyclopedic and almost apocryphal publication, a profound, academic work of the History Institute at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences titled "Encyclopedia of Charity. Charitable Funds and Foundations in Bulgaria from 1878 and 1951."
From the two volumes, published until now, I discovered I knew very little about the Bulgarian charitable tradition. I realized that many dignified Bulgarians have made donations regardless of their wealth – businessmen, factory owners, bankers, teachers, clerks, and clergy. I was really astonished by the variety and the stability of the Bulgarian charitable tradition, which was halted by the totalitarian regime. And now, I use every occasion to tell about it. Even more, after becoming so excited, I managed to get in touch with the authors, who are almost ready with the third volume and next year, AFB along with the Bulgarian Charities Forum will publish this volume and will republish the first two volumes because they are no longer available. We will give the Bulgarian public the opportunity to rediscover the grandeur and the strength of the Bulgarian charitable tradition.
As far as the 45 years of the Communist regime – there is a paradox regarding charities. When at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, the megalomania overcame the propaganda machine of Communist Bulgaria, surrounding the well-planned hysteria for the celebration of the 1 300th anniversary of the establishment of the Bulgarian State, the charitable tradition was reborn. The fund "13 Centuries of Bulgaria" was created then with donations from many Bulgarians. It still exists.
The "Lyudmila Zhivkova" Foundation was also established with propaganda goals. It was named after the then already deceased daughter of the totalitarian Communist party and State leader. These structures generated significant financial, property and administrative resource. Ironically, along with the huge resources, which State institutions, factories, and banks poured in these two organizations, they also received donations from many Bulgarian patriots – local and from abroad – they donated cash, properties, valuable objects.
The Communist government has even listed part of these donations in the so-called "Golden Book of Donors," published in 1989, where Communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, is among the most generous ones for donating to the State his hunting trophies collection. These peculiarities of the Bulgarian charitable tradition are still a subject of future studies.
It is a shame that this tradition was not fully restored at the beginning of the new century, and is even distorted by charitable campaigns, organized by our top Statesmen, whose task, I think, is to manage the economy, the politics, the spending of public funding in such way that the necessity for them to organize so many campaigns becomes extinct. Another such form is the so-called charitable TV programs of private channels, whose role should be completely different. But this is also a discussion belonging to the future.
What are the main differences between the NGOs in Bulgaria and the US; between the ways US and Bulgarian business look at charities?
There are differences and similarities. The differences stem from the American government model – in the US, for example, over 50% of the hospitals and health care facilities are non-profit. In Bulgaria they were turned into business associations; no one thought of making them non-profit. Universities are a similar example – the oldest and, until recently, the wealthiest non-profit organization in the US is the Harvard University, established in 1636.
In Bulgaria, the model is different, mostly aligned with the continental European tradition. The legislation, regulating the non-profit sector was not passed until 2001. This happened long after the boom of the establishment and development of civic organizations, which were financed mainly from abroad.
The law provided for a formal distinction between foundations and associations for private and public benefit, but failed to give this distinction a sense. In the US, if an organization, such as AFB, declares itself a public beneficent, it becomes subject of extreme control on the part of the authorities. We must prove and defend our statute there each year. But it pays back because it offers huge tax deductions to private and corporate donors – up to USD half million, which when donated can be used for our programs and projects, instead of entering the State treasury.
In Bulgaria, tax deductions are minuscule – in the best case scenario – up to 10% and people and businesses here donate not to save on taxes, but just out of sheer goodness. In Bulgaria one cannot register a non-profit foundation with a capital of BGN 100. In the US, foundations separate their capital in a special fund, which is managed and brings profits, according to the law; even if there are no profits from this capital, 5% of the value of the fund is distributed each year for the foundation's goals.
From BGN 100, 5% is BGN 5 while in Massachusetts, where AFB is registered – 5% from USD 500 000 is USD 25 000. And this is the minimum the federal government, which first allows you the tax deduction, requires to be used for non-profit. I hope, these examples explain the differences.
As far as business in Bulgaria, in the last several years, many of them, owned by foreign investors, are restoring the charitable spirit here. Through my work with the Bulgarian Charity Form, where AFB is a member, I know some of the largest telecoms, banks, industrial enterprises, already traditionally donate solid amounts. The Charity Fund organizes annual awards for the corporate donor of the year. The ceremony will be held on December 15.
And between the governments?
This is too complex, but I can offer just one example of what the US government did for the Bulgarian society – when President George W. Bush visited Bulgaria, together with his Bulgarian counterpart, Georgi Parvanov, they announced the establishment of FAB. Currently this Foundation is the biggest donor in Bulgaria's non-profit sector and it would remain the same for a long time, for sure.
What did the US government do? Let me go back in time, to the beginning of the 90s of the 20th century, when the story, actually, began. Then, with USD 51 M, American Congress established the Bulgarian-American Investment Fund. Over the years it helped the development of thousands of Bulgarian companies; it also established the Bulgarian-American Credit Bank. After Bush's visit, the fund sold with profit part of the Bank, and the profit from American taxpayers' money helped the development of Bulgaria's market economy for all those years – USD 400 M establishes FAB.
It is sad and painful to say that not even one Bulgarian government in the last 20 years of democracy thought of repairing the injustice caused by the totalitarian regime through the nationalization and the expropriation of the assets of civic organizations on 1944 – 1945.
The comparison speaks volumes.
What are the main problems the Bulgarian NGOs face today?
Financing has always been the main problem. As I said, after the arrival of Communism in 1944, the totalitarian regime nationalized and the expropriated the assets of civic organizations. After 1989, the new civic organizations and foundation counted on foreign financing.
Today, the situation is somewhat different. Over the experience we now have and over the ability of some NGOs to collect funds on their own from the business and other charitable activities.
The State, however, continues to offer close to nothing. There were even attempts to eliminate the already insignificant tax deductions. We must also note the flawed practices which spread during the terms of previous cabinets, when "NGOs" were established based on political party affiliations to "absorb" EU funds for the financing of the non-profit sector. Corruption was replicated in the distribution of the NGO funding.
Has the American Foundation for Bulgaria ever applied for a project to be financed with EU funds?
Yes, regretfully, I must say. We applied much effort to prepare a project to apply for EU funding for one of our priorities – education. After investing over USD 5 M in the last five years in education programs in mathematics and informatics in Bulgarian high schools, after gaining experience and having working systems in these subjects, we were na?ve enough to try to add European funds to those from our American donors.
We were almost certain of our success, because the project was sound, proven by years of practical experience, and because we had the assurance of a Deputy Education Minister from the Three-Way Coalition government, with whom we worked before he became a member of the cabinet, and who was perfectly aware of our work. But, obviously, we were not part of the "scheme" and we did not win.
I watched this same person with disgust when, along with his Minister, he was officially opening the National Center for the Preparation of Olympic Teams, established with EU financing won by the Ministry. Great, the only problem is that all teams, whose preparation we finance since 2004, had no idea about this Center. The Ministry had repaired in a hurry half of a high school building in Sofia and constructed an addition for BGN 3.6 M.
The opening was aired on TV a week before the elections where the Minister and his Deputy were on the ballot to become Members of the Parliament from a party from the Three-Way Coalition. They failed. But the amount, spent secretly for repairs and construction is times higher than all funding the State has given to Olympic teams in the last 20 years. And knowing the practice of the previous cabinet to artificially increase the sums for construction projects and the related suspicions of corruption, we must seriously think about this case. We can certainly be doubtful about the good intentions, carried out by public figures in secret and with the use of public funding.
Do you hope the GERB cabinet will bring any positive change to charities and NGOs? Have you seen any changes already?
No, not yet. It is sad so many golden opportunities were missed in the last 7-8 years when the cabinets distributed billions in surpluses from the State budget, and, seems, we still don't' know where they went.
Three years ago, with colleagues from the Bulgarian Center for Non-profit Law (an organization, which like the AFB branch, is connected with the International Center for Non-profit Law in Washington DC), we prepared a concept for the establishment of a national public fund for the development of the civic society in Bulgaria. The idea was the result of long discussions and thorough analysis of the possibility to reinstate the assets of NGOs stolen in 1944 by the totalitarian State.
Our proposal was submitted with the President's Administration, the Head of the Cabinet of then Prime Minister, Sergey Stanishev; I personally presented it to then Finance Minister, Plamen Oresharski, to different parliamentary groups and MPs. We further prepared a text for this Bill. It was already known that the US government gives USD 400 M for FAB, and we insisted the Bulgarian one must donate something comparable. It was possible then, because the budget had a surplus of BGN 4 B. The laconic comment of Minister Oresharski was "we Bulgarians are not mature enough for such thing."
So, no, no change yet. The will and the attempt of the GERB cabinet to put some order in State matters, limit corruption, and enforce Bulgarian and EU law are commendable, and I wish them success and hope they will achieve maximum result. Then, after the end of the crisis, maybe they could think about creating conditions for more effective and active charitable work.
What is the future of the American Foundation for Bulgaria?
I wish I knew the answer. I hope and believe it will be a good one. I try to work daily for this. I believe God responds with goodness to the good deeds one does in real life. Since the very beginning of our work here, we have been blessed to deal with the best young people of Bulgaria and their teachers. These are amazing people. Poised, tactful, earning for knowledge, or just talented youth, dedicated to science.
It is a huge pleasure to get to know kids who solve problems all day long after school and do it for fun. They write informatics tasks, programs, study the stars, play their favorite instrument for hours, draw for exercise or the chase away boredom. I recently talked to a colleague from the Charity Forum, who is a member of the Board of the American University in Blagoevgrad, about the future of our stipend-holders. Some are about to graduate, others are enrolled in the most prestigious American universities.
Let me take you back to our founder and main sponsor Diko Mihov – he had been part of the Bulgarian Mathematics Olympic Team on 1983 and 1984 and winner of a gold and silver medal. Later he was able to study at MIT, then have a career in the financial sector, and donate to AFB at least half a million of US dollars a year. Several millions so far. And I am sure I will be able to tell this story about at least ten other medal winners, whom we financed. Let's see this will develop. I really anticipate it; hope and believe these young Bulgarians will be successful in life, would not forget their homeland and teachers. I would like to see them often; with some of them we became great friends.
Do you receive any form of support from the US Embassy in Sofia?
I can say with satisfaction that since we began work in Bulgaria, we have excellent and friendly relations with the administrations and the US Ambassadors to Sofia.
Our contacts with John Byerly, now US Ambassador to Moscow, were more than just protocol. I remember how he came once to one of the AFB celebrations with almost the entire leadership of the Embassy, without doubt a demonstration of his attitude towards us.
We also had excellent relations with his successor Nancy McEldowney, despite her short stay in Bulgaria. She bestowed us with the honor to have her open the exhibit about our project "The Gipson Archive."
ABF President, Teodor Vasilev and I met this year, in person, with His Excellency, James Warlick, the current Ambassador. During the meeting he, himself, offered his support and stated his readiness to take part in our events and projects.
I am glad that people from his Administration such as Ken Moskowitz, Counselor for Public Affairs, the Press Attach?, Vincent Campos, and the Head of the Cultural Affairs Office, Sherry Kenneson-Hall are our friends and we meet almost weekly at different events. Just this past Sunday, Vince was kind enough to respond to our invitation and hand out awards during the closing ceremony of the "Early Bird" Student Film festival.
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