Monday, February 28

Three heady days in Sofia


In the eyes of most managers in global companies, Bulgaria is definitely not in "Central Europe", and nobody paid it much attention as it languished outside the EU while the Central Europeans rapidly left communism behind. But I had Bulgarian friends, made before the revolution, and so when the chance came up to help Nestle and Publicis with a relationship workshop, I was delighted to seize the chance to return to Sofia for the first time since 1992.

But I wondered what I was letting myself in for. Some of my friends considered the "revolution" of 1989 in Bulgaria to be fake, and left, never to return. Others had visited me in 1996 to examine whether they could run their business in Bulgaria from the 'safe haven' of Prague. Since the accession to the EU in 2007, there have been comments that it was a mistake to let Bulgaria in without much tougher conditions. The week before I left, a bomb exploded outside the office of a small "Respekt" style magazine. Was this really a country where sophisticated client-agency relationships could exist at all?

Yet here we were in the impeccably managed Sofia Hilton, and you could tell straight away from appearance who were the agency people, and especially their CEO, and who were the client team; and their aspirations, motivations, challenges and issues were much the same as I had witnessed in Oslo a year previously. It was evidence that Bulgaria is becoming a normal country where smart young people can pursue normal careers.

However it was also a chance to put our Czech situation in some context. In virtually every respect, Bulgaria is behind the Czech Republic. Corruption and organised crime is endemic, reaching into the heart of government. One friend told me that the police routinely wire-tap whomsoever they choose; and since she is a lawyer, (and looks unnervingly like Renata Vesecka) I have no reason to think she's exaggerating. Bulgarians  are perplexed to learn about Czech Euro-scepticism. They envy the fact that Czechs are so close to Germany. The currency is pegged to the euro, so the infamous black market, which taught most of my male friends the basics of capitalism, is a thing of fond memory. They look forward to the adoption of the euro as soon as possible.

Some of them actually agree that the EU should have been tougher on Bulgaria before accession. Too much EU money goes missing. Even more than here, Bulgarians despair of finding politicians they can trust, but are reluctant to get involved because to do so seems to require a relationship with organised crime. They actually want European laws, because they are superior to Bulgarian laws, but they would also like the EU to enforce them. This requires a pan-European approach of the type that gets Klaus into such a tizzy.

The university educated friends and new clients I met show the same strains that I saw in Czechs in the 90s. Too many of them work too hard and don't know how to regain work-life balance. Bulgarians are sociable people and they regret that the days when they just dropped in on friends and family without prior warning seem to have gone. But now, like Czechs, they turn up when they say they will, often with advance notification by text. Just like in Oslo!  Some might argue that this is a sign they are losing their national identity; but there's no chance of that. In 1992 Sofia had no restaurant scene nor night-life whatsoever.  Now it beats with a Balkan exuberance that frankly leaves Prague far behind. My friends were happy to hear this because they look in vain for things to feel good about as Bulgarians. Yet I am proud of them. They have prospered through working hard; my oldest friend - who timidly exchanged currency with me in 1987 - is now considerably richer than me, and has visited more than 80 countries, mainly on holiday. Now they just want a safer, more secure society for their kids to grow up in. A European one, as they see it, and one they think Czechs already enjoy.

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