The familiar red-and-white flag is caught in the occasional lift of a breeze of an autumn Sofia sky, visible above the hedge outside the window in the well-appointed reception room, where the light illuminates Gerhard Reiweger’s face as he leans forward in his armchair to speak of the new European spirit of co-operation that touches his country, this one and all within the European Union.
The EU, he says, has the explicit goal of economic upliftment throughout the bloc, of supporting progress in all countries, Bulgaria included, to raise them to a shared standard of living.
"We are working in an environment that calls on us to share this perspective, of a European spirit of co-operation. Tradition was that each country would take care solely of its own interests, and you could say, ‘if Austria is well-served, that is sufficient’, but that is no longer true, as the EU invests billions to support economic development in countries such as Bulgaria. It is a situation that is much better than before."
Ten months ambassador to Sofia, less than a quarter into a four-year term of office, Reiweger speaks with conviction about the positive role being played by Austrian companies and individuals in Bulgaria.
Acknowledging that the global financial and economic crisis had a negative impact on the statistics, at the same time Reiweger confirms that Austria continues to hold its position as top investor in Bulgaria, the place it has occupied for the past 12 years.
"The positive news is that we are seeing some very large investments from Austrian companies that already are established here."
Such companies, he says, are proof positive that in Bulgaria, Austrian firms are permanent contributors to the economy, here for long-term investments, and at the same time good corporate citizens.
Among the major developments, he lists power distributor EVN’s agreement with the National Electricity Company (NEK) about the Gorna Arda power plant project, and MobilTel’s acquisition of two companies just two months ago as the mobile phone service provider company’s investment in broadband. Reiweger is also very happy about the agreement between Alpine Bau and the Bulgarian Government on the Tsankov Kamuk project.
In the time that he has been here, he has witnessed the opening of the new large-scale logistics centre near Sofia by retail chain Billa and the opening of Knauf’s new production facility in Galabuvo near Stara Zagora.
Reiweger is keen on companies being good corporate citizens, and relates with satisfaction that when he began discussions with them about this theme, it was clear that the Austrian companies were thinking along the same lines and already were active in the field.
Many are active in sports sponsorships, support for cultural events and charity work. Raiffeisen Bank, for example, through voluntary contributions from staff and the use of its own corporate funds, supports social projects chosen by a special commission to ensure that the money is used effectively and properly.
Culture and co-operation
Companies support Austrian cultural events, which in turn help develop bilateral relations between Austria and Bulgaria, within a European perspective.
"Cultural relations are close," Reiweger says, "we live within the same cultural traditions".
Austria is keen to show to Bulgarians its place in modern cultural developments, from contemporary classical music to design and architecture. Currently, there is a project to set up an architectural centre in Sofia, on the model of a successful such initiative in Vienna.
This project, Reiweger believes, could highlight both aesthetic developments and present the connections between Austria and Bulgaria – and in particular, Vienna and Sofia – in architecture, given the significant number of buildings in the Bulgarian capital that were the work of Austrian architects. Further, such a centre could stimulate local debate on sustainable development of a modern city, on issues such as infrastructure, green design and energy-efficient building.
He adds that Austrian technology in this area is very advanced, in pushing forward energy-efficient building and the use of sustainable materials.
"We are very happy that so many Bulgarian students come to Vienna because it shows the cultural, historic, often emotional, attachments which young Bulgarians have to Vienna," Reiweger says.
"I would hope that many of them then use the education that they acquire in Austria to come back and use it for the development of their own country, again in the sense of this European goal of creating a common economic and social sphere to the benefit of everyone."
The experience of educational exchange builds people-to-people contact, he says. Bulgarians who go to his country to study "get to know Vienna, get to know Austria – and the Austrians get to know Bulgarians".
To build such mutual understanding, Reiweger says, "I am very interested in getting Austrians to come here, as students and through academic exchange and as tourists, the better for the people of the two countries to understand each other".
There is a system, publicly-funded, whereby Austrian university lecturers take visiting posts at three Bulgarian universities for a year at a time, applying to do so because of their interest in this country, its people and culture.
"For this programme, we want to find people who have a certain affinity to the country, and there are quite a few each year."
"I believe in promoting tourism not only for economic reasons, but also for people-to-people contacts," Reiweger says.
The Austrian National Tourist Office (ANTO) is funded by membership fees from the Austrian Federal Ministry of Economy, Family and Youth (75 per cent) and the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (25 per cent) as well as from the Austrian tourism trade’s partnership contributions for marketing services.
ANTO has a regional office in Budapest which has, among its tasks, taken on the development of tourism with Bulgaria.
Reiweger says that he would like to see Bulgaria succeeding in showing Austrians its tourism potential, because awareness of Bulgaria’s tourism opportunities remains low in Austria. In turn, he says, Austria’s economy could benefit, given the number of companies that the country boasts that specialise in tourism industry-related infrastructure from consulting to ski lifts to hotel construction.
In any business environment, improvements are always possible and it is normal for companies to press for changes to clear away deficiencies that they perceive, he says.
While concern remains among companies about Bulgaria’s standards regarding the rule of law and about regulation, the "general gist" is that there are improvements.
"I hear this from different sectors, be it insurance companies or energy companies. Our feeling is that the Bulgarian Government is taking justified complaints seriously and even to change legislation where necessary, so for example, there is a new law on investment, and there will be a new law on renewable energy."
Political relations could hardly be stronger. March next year will see President Georgi Purvanov visit Vienna and a visit to Sofia by the Austrian federal chancellor. Plans are for Austria’s economy minister to come to Sofia soon.
Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger has made the Black Sea area a focus of Austrian foreign policy. His Bulgarian counterpart, Nikolai Mladenov, was among participants in a large-scale conference on the theme in Salzburg this past summer, discussing economic development in the Black Sea area.
"We would be happy to intensify this dialogue and perhaps to hold a follow-up conference to the Salzburg meeting," Reiweger says.
On the sensitive issue of immigration, Spindelegger recently made an unequivocal statement that it is his belief that Austria benefits from immigration and all that is needed is a sensitive immigration policy to the benefit of Austrian society.
Thus, Reiweger says, the outcome of the recent local elections in Vienna, widely interpreted as producing a surge for Austria’s far-right, anti-immigration party, need not concern Bulgarians because, in fact, the apparent success of the anti-immigration party was the result of that party’s reunification after a past split – and in any case, the social democrats were returned with one seat short of an absolute majority in Vienna. Significantly, all other parties rapidly made it clear that they would not serve in coalition with the anti-immigration party.
On the Schengen issue, Reiweger emphasises that his country is supporting Bulgaria’s efforts to fulfil the technical criteria that will see it became an active member of the EU visa zone.
As noted, Reiweger is in the relatively early stages of his term in Sofia, and says that his goals including boosting cultural and economic relations, which already are close, even further.
He would like to make the embassy a landmark point, a meeting place for Austrian companies striving to be good corporate citizens, "a centre where economy meets culture and the world of education and training," Reiweger says.
"A field that I want to develop is educational and scientific co-operation, and also, in particular, dialogue in civil society on European issues, which means trying to organise with Bulgarian partners conferences on topical issues, topical European issues in particular, and in this way also contribute to that European spirit of development."