Ambassador Mustafa’s address at the conference “Rule of Law and Business Environment in Bulgaria”, January 20, 2023.

Ambassador Mustafa’s remarks

Conference “Rule of law and business environment in Bulgaria”.

January 20, 2023

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, Minister Zarkov, my friends, Ambassadors from Italy, France, Envoys from Germany, Ambassadors Meyer and Zarra, Deputy Head of Mission Röken, Mr. Matthew Murray and Olivier Marquette.

It is an honor to have you here with us today.

I’d like to start by thanking the American Chamber for hosting today’s event and I’d like you all to take a minute to absorb what you see today. Which is a gathering of British, French, German, Swiss, Greek, Swedish, Italian business organizations. The fact that you are all here – this has never happened before – to come together to talk about the rule of law. Just take a minute to absorb it. In addition to having these entities, we are here with our partners, Bulgarian organizations, who are also very involved in the fight for this issue – we are here with members of the NGO community, we are here with members of the business community and other diplomats. I want to thank you for continuing to make this issue a priority.

The rule of law, as you have already heard, remains one of the most important challenges here today. We all know that. That’s why we’re here. When we talk about the rule of law, I think it is the principle that all people and institutions are accountable to the laws. This is a topic that is very close to me. And as I end my three and a half years here in Bulgaria and look back, I first think about all these successes that Bulgaria has achieved in this period. With the COVID-19 crisis, the fact that you successfully emerged from that pandemic, you started the process of joining the OECD, set relations with North Macedonia on a constructive path and some things that, frankly, I once thought were impossible, with diversification from Russia energy, happened at an incredible speed. So, as we, the United States, mark our 120th anniversary with Bulgaria this year, I leave proud of the fact that our relationship has never been stronger. And I am convinced that Bulgaria is better positioned for long-term success today than it has ever been.

However, one area where we have unfortunately not seen as much progress is in the area of ​​the rule of law. And I say that completely honestly. The fact that we all gathered today is a success, but for those of us who care so much about this issue, with our partners, we must do more. It is not a lack of effort on the part of the Bulgarian people, Bulgaria’s international partners, but we have seen firsthand how incredibly difficult it is to reform institutions and root out deep-rooted vested interests. You heard Olivier saying that one of my priorities is corruption, and before coming to Bulgaria in all my opening meetings, many Bulgarian officials told me: “Don’t use that C word. Don’t use that C word – corruption, that’s not beginning.” It will destroy my relationship with the government. It will set me up for failure. However, I would talk to Bulgarians and institutions and the first thing they would say is that they are most worried about corruption. Business entities, civil society, journalists, average people would say: “Corruption is a problem we have a hard time dealing with.”

So of course I had to make this my priority. And it’s a priority for the Biden administration. Now some of you might be wondering – why do I care so much? Because I personally care. Why do I care so much? I care because true friends, true partners, true allies work together to build each other up. And when Bulgaria is strong, we are strong too. And real partners talk honestly with each other. So, I am here to say: I am a true friend of Bulgaria. And I always will be. So, if you’ll allow me to talk frankly with you today about some issues that I still care about. You in the business community know what the stakes are. We have heard, and I know other chambers have heard from so many investors, that they see huge potential here in Bulgaria, but fear that their rights will not be respected if they are ever involved in a court case. We hear stories about companies being targeted by powerful individuals. They use institutions to harass, intimidate, and extort their opponents. We hear about suitcase lawyers, backroom deals, commissions. We hear about non-transparent procurement practices, customized tenders, specifications and favoritism of government contracts. We hear it from our companies, so we know it first hand. In Bulgaria, we have seen that corruption has fundamentally distorted the functioning of some institutions and who controls them, to the detriment of the Bulgarian people. And we understand that the fight against corruption is a long-term project. Not easy. No country, not even my own, not even the United States, is immune to corruption. Constant vigilance is needed to fight him.

Now, our national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has summarized our anti-corruption strategy as essentially two lines of effort: first, helping the good guys; and secondly, to go after the villains.

As for helping the good guys, there is a lot of support in Bulgaria and we did that together with our American partners. I know many other chambers have done this. And that means increasing our training and assistance to judicial and law enforcement officials. And even in just the last three years, our resident legal advisor for the judiciary has conducted more than fifty capacity building programs in Bulgaria. They trained more than 1,000 prosecutors, investigators, judges, and legal experts. They send Bulgarian experts to the United States on professional exchange programs. We brought in new international and American non-governmental organizations to work on anti-corruption issues at the national level, at the municipal level. We also help build the capacity of local civil society working on these issues through USAID grants, training and technical assistance. And this is all in addition to the wonderful work that the America Foundation for Bulgaria is doing on this issue.

We also support the work of investigative journalists and I am proud to say that a Bulgarian journalist won the prestigious State Department Anti-corruption Champions 2021 award. We mention the rule of law in almost every meeting we have with Bulgarian officials and we are constantly looking for allies at all levels of government. And again, I want to be clear. We believe that the vast majority of Bulgarian police officers, prosecutors, investigators, judges, members of parliament, public servants, are good, honest people, drawn to public service just like us – out of a genuine desire to help. And the challenge, unfortunately, is a small minority that has created a system that enriches the oligarchic class and captures state resources. I know this personally because I work with our businesses to counter this. And what happens to those who do not have this help – it creates a feeling of hopelessness. And it discourages those who want to fight for their country. It really hurts me to see that.

We often hear from members of the judicial and law enforcement communities who make valiant attempts to investigate and prosecute corruption, only to have those investigations closed, transferred to other offices, or postponed indefinitely when they get too close to certain red lines. These civil servants are denied promotions, transferred to distant cities and fired. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. I’m just telling the truth as your friend so let’s all focus on this.

I’ll give you an example. In just the past few weeks, corruption investigations in Varna and Shumen have been closed or transferred without publicizing the legal basis. Did you know that? That’s just an example from the past few weeks. We see that cases languish in pre-trial proceedings or trials for years, and some never even reach that stage. So that’s why we’re moving to another line of effort, which is going after the bad guys, as we say. And to bring lasting change, we must increase the price of corruption.

We have taken some steps as the US government to make it more difficult for corrupt actors to exploit US financial systems to promote corruption and siphon off the proceeds of their crimes. For those of you, most of you already know this, but during our tenure here, we designated three Bulgarians under the Global Magnitsky Program and restricted the visas of six Bulgarians, all for corruption.

I am proud of these actions. We stand behind those labels. None of them have been publicly accused of corruption. None of them have been convicted of a crime in Bulgaria. Most of them were neither disciplined nor dismissed from their duties.

While we will continue to use all the tools we have as your partner to serve as a catalyst, we all know that change must come from within. Bulgarian politicians showing courage, according to the Minister of Justice, having the will, citizens are demanding the responsibility of their government. Again, that’s why events like today are so important. The business community in Bulgaria has enormous influence in stimulating public debate, shaping policy and proposing implementable reforms to improve the business climate. We need a united effort, all of us, gathered.

You know I’m an optimist – the American way, American optimism. Again, when I look back on my three and a half years here, I remain hopeful because the fact that we are gathered, which even two years ago would have been taboo, means that there is progress. The Bulgarian people said: “We have to deal with this issue! Parliament now has it before it – legislation on judicial reform, linked to the European Recovery and Resilience Plan. And this law, I am sure that my European colleagues will also deal with it, responds to specific recommendations of European institutions. I think it’s time to show some political will to pass this law. Of course, when you pass it, it must be implemented, and not just selectively, but completely. And this includes the reforms that the Europeans have proposed for the Office of the Chief Prosecutor. I think it’s time to tackle these reforms. I believe that in the coming years we will see momentum in improving procurement practices, creating a strong investment screening mechanism and strengthening the protection of intellectual property rights. And I am optimistic that steps will be taken to reduce impunity for those who abuse state resources.

I encourage all of you to continue to advocate for these and other reforms, to hold your leaders to high standards just as we are trying to do in the United States. And to demand courage and commitment from them.

I believe that your joint efforts will continue to lead Bulgaria in a better direction. And again, I’m proud to be your partner and your friend in all of this.

I wish you continued success in your endeavors and look forward to working with you in the little time I have left here.

Thank you!

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