Former US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gelbard: Bulgaria's Borisov Govt Is Trying Hard to Do the Right Things
Interview with former US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gelbard for the Bulgaria-US Survey of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency).
Robert S. Gelbard is a former US Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration.
He served as US Ambassador to Bolivia in 1988-1991, and Indonesia in 1999-2001. He is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
In the Clinton Administration, he held the office of Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
He has been actively involved with Barack Obama's Presidential campaign, and has served on Obama's Transitional Team. He is currently a member of the Board of the US Atlantic Council.
After the midterm elections in the USA, what is the situation of the Obama Administration? Do you think the outcome has affected President Obama's chances for a second term?
I think any President who has been elected in 2008 was going to be in a seriously difficult situation. The legacy that Barack Obama inherited – that any other President would have inherited, too – has been an extremely difficult one. If John McCain had been elected, he would have had the same problems.
The economy was in an extraordinarily bad situation. We were faced with the worst recession and worst economic situation in the United States since the Great Depression in 1929. The Bush Administration had already started to take measures regarding recovery through the TARB, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the Recovery Plan as well as the bailouts for some of the financial institutions and the automobile industry.
A major problem has been that the significant part of the American electorate doesn't even recognize that the situation was started by the Bush Administration, that the Bush Administration inherited a budget surplus and turned it into a massive deficit financing two major wars without any increasing taxes, in fact, lowering taxes.
Furthermore, there is an extraordinary lack of recognition by 50% of the American people that the TARP program was started under Bush. They blame Obama for it. They blame Obama for the bank system, and the blame Obama for the automobile industry, when it was the Bush Administration which started it – and, I believe, correctly. So there has been a tremendous amount of frustration building on part of a significant proportion of the American people, and they have lashed out against whoever is in power, and in this case it turned out to be Obama.
I do believe that race has something to do with it, too. I don't think the reaction would have been nearly as violent, nor as disrespectful if the President has been white. That is a personal opinion.
The big question here is – do you think President Obama will manage to come around for a new nomination and a second term?
There are two issues here – one is getting the nomination, and the other is winning an election. And I think the answer to both is yes and yes. He will be nominated again to be the democratic candidate, and I think he will win again.
I think there are several factors – one is – the economy is recovery. Maybe not as dynamic a recovery as we all would like – in two years from now, it will be in a much better shape. Second, Obama's accomplishments need to be explained better. This has been one of the problems over the past two years.
Obama's administration has accomplished a great deal but I think they need to explain it better to the American people, and I think they will be doing a better job of that. Third, I at least really think that the potential Republican candidates are not very strong, and that Obama will look very good against whoever it is that the Republicans pick. I think their candidates are all quite flawed in terms of the way the American people see them. So I think Obama will be reelected.
With the NATO Summit in Lisbon focusing on the new Strategic Concept of the Alliance and the missile defense system in Europe, how do you view the trans-Atlantic connection? Do you think the Old (Western) Europe vs. New (Eastern) Europe division is still in place, and the US has been relations with the latter?
First, I think the Obama Administration has been very successful in its reset of the relations with Russia. This has been a move in a positive direction. What is of concert is that because of the economic situation, many of the key Western European nations have continued the trend that started at the end of the Cold War of decreasing their defense budget. This is incredibly dangerous.
There are still threats out there that need to be focused on, and while the issues of economic recovery and fiscal prudence are very, very important, the immediate look on the part of many Western European countries to cutting defense budgets is tremendously dangerous. Furthermore, some Western European countries appear to think that there are no more threats in the world. They tend to look in on themselves, and look in on the EU in a kind of increasing group isolation, which is also very dangerous.
The world continues to be a very dangerous place but threats have shifted over the course of the last couple of decades in terms of what they are. There is still a serious need for the NATO alliance, and there needs to be a real consensus about the shifting nature of why the Alliance exists, and what it is there for, and therefore the need to have a robust Alliance.
What is Turkey's role as an American ally in the region? American policymakers appear to have been a little worried by the sort-of going alone approach in the last couple of years. Do you think the US-Turkey alliance will weaken over time?
There are several parts of the answer to that question. First, I think it is important to welcome wholeheartedly what has happened in Turkey in terms of fortifying Turkey's democracy and democratic system.
Over the past 50 years, as you know well, there have been ups and downs in terms of Turkey's democracy. The military has stepped in on too many occasions. But now there is a very robust democracy in Turkey. I think what the Turkish people and the Turkish government now need to look at is fortifying their democratic institutions. This means all the institutions. Not just the central government, the national government, but also the judiciary, the rule of law overall needs to be strengthened.
Freedom of the press needs to be protected and fortified. And of course, there are always issues about human rights that still need to be worked on.
I think one reason Turkey on occasion seems to be going on its own is that they feel a bit rejected, particularly by the EU. The German government in terms of its kind of neo-isolation has taken a really unfortunate position in terms of understanding Turkish aspirations for membership in the EU. The same goes for the French government.
What's really important is to embrace Turkey. The EU really, really needs to do that, and to concentrate on doing that, and to think through its policy regarding that. But it is not terribly surprising after Turkey has fought really hard to fortify its democracy that it feels continually rejected by the EU.
Turkey's relationship with the United States has indeed suffered, particularly during the advent of the war in Iraq, during the Bush Administration, and that bilateral relationship has to be fortified. Turkey's emergence as a foreign policy and international security player is a very positive development. But they also need to work with others instead of going it alone.
What would you say about the developments in the Western Balkans? The EC recently published progress reports on these countries, and all of them noted serious flaws with democracy, rule of law, judiciary. Where do you see the challenges there – are the Western Balkans going to be on the road to stability and prosperity any time soon?
It is mixed. What's happened in Croatia has been extremely positive. Croatia has moved in an extraordinarily positive direction, even faster than I would have thought.
The picture in Serbia has been positive but, I think, mixed. Again, there needs to be a much greater emphasis on the rule of law. The riot by people against the gay pride parade in Serbia in the fall was outrageous. And I don't think it was just gay pride, it think it was related to efforts to try to damage the government.
I don't know if you know that incident of a Serbian citizen who was attending an American university in New York who beat up a fellow college student to the point of almost killing him, and then escaped back to Serbia with the help of Serbia's Vice Consul in New York. Serbia, first, has refused to extradite him back to the United States, and then, second, gave him a ridiculously small sentence in jail for attempted murder.
I think they gave him something like 2 years in jail, when they should have given him 15 or 20. I think that in Serbia nationalism often overwhelms reason. We also saw that in the football game in Italy recently. I think the Serbian government has been moving in a very good direction, or at least trying to, but there are very serious issues still left about ultranationalism and the rule of law.
Bosnia worries me enormously. My old friend Dodik is making statements which I find incomprehensible and dramatically dangerous. There needs to be much, much, much greater support by Serbia to try to work with the EU and the US in developing much more serious policies for integrating the country and for developing the right kinds of constitutional reforms that are necessary.
And I continue to worry about Kosovo – again, rule of law and corruption remain very serious problems.
But overall if I look back 10 years ago the change in the Western Balkans has been, with the exception of Bosnia, quite positive, and even though the countries have been moving at different speeds, the overall results are quite positive. Boris Tadic, I think, is doing a very good job under very difficult circumstances.
Ukraine and Georgia are two countries that were slated for NATO accession in 2008, and then there was the war in South Ossetia, and the change of the president in Ukraine. Do you think it still makes sense for the West to try to integrate at least Georgia in NATO?
Prospects for membership in NATO and in the EU move at different rates. Georgia still has a way to go. The truly tragic and unfortunate events of the war between Georgia and Russia were a major setback but Georgia also needs to work to bolster its own democratic institutions and system. I am on the Board of Directors of the US Atlantic Council, and right now we have a bipartisan task force in the USA on Georgia that I am a member of. So we are looking very hard at the circumstances and the situation in Georgia on what needs to be done to try to move everything ahead.
What would you say is the major characteristic of the American relations with Bulgaria? Do you think it is fair to criticize Bulgaria for being subservient to the USA?
No, I think it is insulting. Bulgaria has made tremendous progress over the last 20 years. I think the current government is doing extremely well under the circumstances it inherited. The relationship with the United States is an extremely positive one. It's building on what happened in the previous governments, and now going even further, but to compare it with the relationship that Communist Bulgaria had with the Soviet Union is really insulting.
What we have now is a relationship of really mutual respect. It is a very honest relationship. The two governments have a very, very fluent dialogue on all kinds of issues. I think the Bulgarian government is trying very, very hard to do things that are the right things to do. They are faced with extremely difficult circumstances.
I think that Prime Minister Borisov inherited a tremendous set of problems with organized crime, and, again, weak institutions. They have focused enormously on fighting organized crime but they are faced with worst imaginable problem with the judiciary.
I know that the Prime Minister and Interior Minister are out there really trying to develop strong cases against criminals. It is really bad that they are then faced with a judiciary that frees these people. So the United States is trying to help Bulgaria in some of these areas. But to say that Bulgaria is subservient is, first of all, completely wrong, and, second, insulting. When I see these statements by some people, I just shake my head.
One other thing is that I think it was a very wise move on part of Prime Minsiter Borisov to reappoint Elena Poptodorova as the Bulgarian Ambassador to the USA.
She has great connections and relationships, understands Washington, and is really smart. And Jim Warlick, I think, is a terrific ambassador, too. I know Jim from the State Department.
What do you think of the observation that the US Democrats are traditionally closer with the right-wing political forces in Bulgaria, while the Republicans appear to be closer with the Socialists in Bulgaria? Do you think this is a fair description of the political connections?
No, I think what happened is that when the Republicans were in power, Socialists were in power in Bulgaria. And now the Democrats are in power while GERB is in power in Bulgaria, and they have good relations.
In terms of foreign policy and relationships, you deal with the government that's in power. I know President Parvanov well, I knew former Prime Minister Stanishev well, other members of the government.
They worked very, very hard at having a strong bilateral relationship with the United States, and I think this has produced very positive results. Similarly, though, this government under Prime Minister Borisov is working very hard and has good relations with the Obama Administration. You work with who's in power because they are the government, so that's what's happening.
In the recent months the Borisov government has had close contacts with the Chinese government with respect to several potentially large economic projects. China has indicated it wants to increase its presence in Eastern Europe. Do you think this should be a matter of concern for the United States?
No, not at all, but I think that governments in Eastern Europe should look at offers by the Chinese government very carefully. They should not fall into the same trap that many governments elsewhere in the world did.
I think if they are making deals with China they need to think about what their people and countries get out of this over the long term. Not just in terms of short-term benefits. There are too many deals offered by the Chinese government, which look good on the surface but are not.
In what way?
In terms of what the Chinese government is looking for out of it – usually natural resources. But I think they need to see more examination by the countries and companies about what benefits such deals provide over the medium and long-term not just the short term.
Apparently, Bulgaria-US diplomatic and defense ties are on a very high level – but the economic ties – not so much. Why do you think that is?
First of all, it is the private sector that is determining the foreign investments, not the government. But I think if you look around in the current economic situation both globally and in the USA, a lot of American companies are looking at foreign investments but they are looking very selectively.
When I talk to American companies, often they have a written checklist or a mental checklist. Rule of law is really important. One area of concern continues to be legal certainty and rule of law in a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The effectiveness of the judiciary, for example. So that's one question. Another question is really looking at areas where there is rapid growth. I do a lot of work in Asia, in Indonesia. Growth in Indonesia is expected to be 6.5% this year, and I see a lot of American companies going over to Indonesia right now. In fact, I am joining the board of an Indonesian company.
I see a lot of US companies going to Latin America, looking at Asia. But I think the somewhat diminished interest in Bulgaria might have to do with the current economic situation. But it is also in the region – diminished interest in Serbia, too. I think this is temporary.
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