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Juliana Nikolova – building Bulgarian teams

“You cannot imagine the enormous differences between the administration in 1992 and 2007.”


After years of stop-go reforms and stagnation, Bulgaria’s economy was moving slowly but decisively towards collapse. It was the year 1996, and Juliana Nikolova, an employee at the Ministry of Industry was working on what must have seemed an obscure assignment: compiling answers to a weighty questionnaire that the EU had sent each of its applicant countries, Bulgaria included. The ministry was led by an ex-communist, but Juliana, along with a few liberal colleagues, was given enough room to operate.

“Vladimir Kissiov, Lubov Panayotova, Silvana Lyubenova, myself – everyone in the ministry knew us as supporters of the opposition. But for the former communists the work we were dealing with was unattractive. They could not understand the logic behind it… The Bulgarian Socialist Party was not interested in EU membership. It was [then deputy minister of foreign affairs] Irina Bokova’s personal contribution to have lobbied in all these long corridors of the Socialist Party, and to have made Bulgaria apply for membership in 1995.”

While Juliana and her colleagues worked on answering the European Commission’s questionnaire, the situation in the country became increasingly desperate.

“There were queues everywhere. It was in April, May, during Easter holidays. We have this special bread for Easter called ‘Kozunak’. I remember walking around in my neighbourhood, kilometre by kilometre – no bread. Nothing. And then on television there was this politician, Peter Dimitrov, an economy professor from Varna, who was asked why this shortage had occurred. And he said that it was because of the transition to a market economy. He called it ‘a typical crisis of capitalism, a crisis of supplies’ [laughs]. In reality it was because a number of individuals within the government had made a lot of money exporting grain.”

The former communists had brought the country close to the abyss. The government’s credibility was collapsing as quickly as the economy. By the end of 1996 the situation had become untenable.

Representing Bulgaria abroad under these circumstances was difficult. It had become nearly impossible to refer to it as a future EU member while keeping a straight face.

“I remember 31 January 1997. A lot of strikes and demonstrations, everybody in Sofia out on the streets. I was in Brussels with the minister of trade at that time, Paparizov, at a high level conference on trade with two or three commissioners – Bangemann, Van den Broek, and Leon Brittan. Delegations from all the candidate countries participated in the conference. Bulgaria’s was [seated] at the first table. I still remember, we all had these “Bulgaria” badges, and there was like a vacuum around us. No one wanted to get close to us. Because in the foyer on the TVs it was all CNN, the masses on Sofia’s streets, the protests, the chaos.”

Life had become increasingly tough in Sofia. Nikolova, a mother of two, recalls, “I thought only of how to feed my children, how to survive. You could only plan for the next day, or for the next few days. There was no longer-term perspective.”

In February 1997 the government resigned amid the protests. A caretaker government under Stefan Sofianski fought to stabilise the economy, securing a stabilisation loan from the IMF. “But in private life”, Nikolova points out, “you could not see [the effects].” In the elections of April 1997 the former communists were defeated at the polls and a committed reform government under Ivan Kostov assumed office. This was a key turning point in Bulgaria’s difficult path to EU membership.

The European Commission asked the government additional questions related to Bulgaria’s membership application, as the previous ones – prepared in the summer of 1996 – had become irrelevant.

“During this process the Bulgarian government managed to convince the European Commission that although we were in a dreadful position, we would take steps, real steps, to reform the country – not only to stabilize it, but to implement painful reforms. I think that’s why in 1997 Bulgaria was allowed to become a candidate country.

We have to remember the situation at that time. The National Statistical Institute had just announced that annual inflation had been 1,012 percent. Economic growth had been minus 11 percent, or close to that. At the same time, the government adopted a strategy for Bulgaria’s accession to the EU. The first page stated that Bulgaria should prepare to start negotiations in 2000/2001. It also stated that Bulgaria should be a member of the European Union in 2007. As part of the team preparing this strategy paper, I thought this was audacious, not to say arrogant. But it was quite motivating. It was a very, a very strict agenda for economic reform. Everything is based on economic reform. That’s why I believed that it could be done.”

In early 1999 Juliana became deputy minister of Industry, responsible for European integration, replacing her former boss, Vladimir Kissiov, who had moved on to become deputy foreign minister. But she did not stay on for very long. In December 1999 Prime Minister Ivan Kostov appointed Juliana as director of a newly created directorate for European integration in the Council of Ministers. This body played a crucial role in coordinating the work of different ministries and government bodies on all issues related to the membership negotiations.

Kostov, true to his unyielding and somewhat controversial style of leadership, announced Juliana’s appointment at a meeting with officials and EU ambassadors on 23 December 1999 (Kostov’s 50th birthday). He had not bothered to consult her before.

“I entered after the start of meeting and sat down somewhere at the back, listening to the Prime Minister’s statement to the ambassadors. And then he said: ‘I established a new directorate within the Council of Ministers, and the new director is Juliana Nikolova.’

I was astonished and almost started crying. I did not want to move to the Council of Ministers. I liked my work, I liked my team at the ministry. I’m a conservative person, I don’t like changes. I adore evolution; I don’t like revolution.

After the meeting with the ambassadors, the Prime Minister – we had only met two or three times till then, always very formally – told me, ‘Julianka, please excuse me, I didn’t ask you. But I give you a lot of power.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want this power. I don’t like power.’ However, it was the start of my career within the Council of Ministers. And I am really grateful for this chance; it was probably the greatest period in my professional career in government. It was really challenging to be there, in the kitchen of Bulgarian politics.”

Juliana built up a committed team of less than 20 people: “very small, but motivated and enthusiastic”, as she puts it. Initially, it was unclear what – in the way of salaries or job security – she could offer her staff.

“The only thing I could promise was that it would be fun. And it was fun. We sometimes worked all night long just to prepare for meetings. It was quite difficult, because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a conservative structure that wants to keep everything inside its walls and is reluctant to share information with outsiders. Luckily, it was Deputy Minister Vladimir Kissiov who was responsible for European integration in the Foreign Ministry. Because I’ve been friends with him more than half my life, we immediately had an alliance … With him at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and with me at the Council of Ministers, we succeeded in creating a team of motivated persons.”

In 2002 Juliana Nikolova left the administration to become director of the European Institute, Bulgaria’s leading think tank on matters related to European accession (for an account of the Institute’s role in Bulgaria’s Europeanisation, read the portrait of Nickolay Mladenov, Nikolova’s predecessor).

The Institute has meticulously observed Bulgaria’s achievements and shortcomings over the years. When in 2007 Juliana looked back at how the administration has changed her opinion was clear:

“I know all the weaknesses of the Bulgarian administration … You cannot imagine the enormous differences between the state of the administration in 1992 and 2007. Today it is more institutionalised, maybe more “bureaucratic”, possibly more corrupt. What matters, however, is that there is a different kind of spirit, a different kind of thinking … It’s not a communist administration anymore. That’s probably the biggest difference.”

In August 2009, Nikolova became adviser to Bulgaria’s new prime minister, Boyko Borissov of the GERB Coalition (“Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria”). She was also appointed Secretary of the Council of EU Funds Management, a new special government body established to improve the management of EU funds.