Why Bulgaria has image issues in the Netherlands
Novinite.com/Sofia News Agency, 28 January 2010

Reading the Dutch Survey it seems the relations between Bulgaria and the Netherlands couldn't be warmer. In Dutch media and society however, the image of Bulgaria can do with some serious polishing.

Your problems are our problems, just like your interests are ours as well, Dutch ambassador Karel van Kesteren said in an interview to Novinite this week, explaining the relationship between the Netherlands and Bulgaria. And both 'problems' and 'interests' are discussed in an 'open and frank dialogue', according to the ambassador.

No doubt his Excellency voiced the official position of the Dutch government well. Although for the outsider, whether in Bulgaria or the Netherlands, the relationship between the two countries seems to be dominated by harsh criticism from the Dutch side. But as vice-minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans put it: the Netherlands not only are the most demanding of EU-member states, but also the most involved, combining criticism with help and advice. When you're involved you have the right to speak out, thus is the message.

Without questioning Mr. Timmermans good intentions - he was a passionate supporter of Bulgaria's accession to the EU long before he became a minister - there seems to be more to it. How else are we to understand his threat last summer to get the EU to activate the safeguard clauses against Bulgaria if the country keeps falling behind on it's reform programme? Remarks made only days after Mr. Timmermans and his social-democratic party had been dramatically defeated in the European elections by Geert Wilders and his right wing extremists, one of whose main issues was, and still is, throwing Bulgaria (and Rumania) out of the European Union.

Surely, Mr. Timmermans' remarks were given in by an attempt to butter up the average guy in the street, whom Geert Wilders is considered to represent. And that average guy isn't very fond of Bulgarians. Oddly enough, since the chance he ever met one is quite small. Bulgaria still isn't a very popular holiday destination and, although official numbers are lacking, there are probably only a few thousand Bulgarians residing in the Netherlands. On a population of over 16 million this means you need to work rather hard to bump into one.

The 'anti-Bulgarian sentiment' - to put it dramatically - can partly be explained by the feeling many people in the Netherlands have that with the last enlargement the European Union has grown out of control, and by a sentiment of fear for the outside world in general that has caused the country to retreat more and more behind its borders. However, it's also to be explained by the way Bulgaria is being portrayed - and portrays itself - in the media.

Since 2008 Dutch media are paying more attention to what is happening in this part of the world, while at the same time cutting their budgets and reducing their staff. With the result that the correspondents for the major newspapers whom are responsible for Bulgaria are now based in Belgrade, Berlin and Warsaw and are supposed to cover all countries in Eastern and South-eastern Europe. Every now and then they fly in for a few days to work out a fixed programme and easily walk into the traps set for them by NGO's, politicians and other stakeholders looking for attention for their causes.

The rest of what appears in the Dutch media is mainly taken from press agencies, who in turn base their stories on Bulgarian media, who in general don't bother too much about distinguishing fact from fiction. Thus we read in Dutch newspapers that the only thing that prevents Bulgarians from starving in winter, are their home-grown food supplies; becomes gangster-radio host Bobi Tsankov suddenly an investigative journalist; and turns his killing into a direct assault on press freedom. Just to remind the reader, every story ends with the remark that Bulgaria is either Europe's poorest or most corrupt member state; and sometimes even both. So the Dutch public can decide whether it's dealing with a poor though exotic country that somehow got stuck in the 19th century, or with a mafia invested rogue state. Although both images of course have some elements of truth in them, they still stand far from everyday Bulgarian reality.

The negative image is further reinforced by the often clumsy way the country and it's formal representatives manage to draw foreign attention to themselves. Any interview with or profile of prime minister Boyko Borisov will at a certain point describe how he makes the foreign journalist look at all his diploma's, trophies and awards. Thus creating the image of a vain man whose ego is bigger than his political ideas and the many problems his country is facing. And when confronted with criticism from Brussels in recent years the reflex all too often was one of stubbornness, feeling hurt and complot thinking, instead of just taking responsibility, admitting guilt and promising to do better next time.

It's a reflex we often come upon in Bulgarian society as well and unfortunately, as the whole Jeleva affair showed just a few weeks ago, it hasn't left the government buildings together with the Stanishev administration. And unfortunately it's a reflex that works better when dealing with Bulgarian media than with foreign; and as Mrs. Jeleva to her great shame now can testify, it works a lot better in the Narodno Subranie than in the European Parliament.

In these times of crisis it's unrealistic to expect more (or more often) Dutch journalists to travel to this country, although the criticisms as well as the involvement of the Dutch government would certainly justify it. It's just as unrealistic to think that the negative sentiments in the Netherlands towards the EU, and the general climate of fear for the outside world will change in the short run. As a consequence the brushing up of the image of Bulgaria in the outside world has to start within Bulgaria itself, preferably with the government taking the lead. Let's hope this is something that's not too unrealistic to expect.