Ambassador Kenneth Merten Remarks on U.S.- Bulgaria Relations, The Atlantic Club

July 27, 2023

Ambassador Kenneth Merten
Remarks on U.S.- Bulgaria Relations
The Atlantic Club

Dr. Passy, Distinguished members of the Diplomatic Corps, distinguished guests of the Government, thank you for welcoming me here today! Particularly thank you to the Atlantic Club for inviting me to speak today with you this afternoon, and for all the incredible work you have done these past three decades in advancing the Euro-Atlantic relationship.

I had the pleasure of joining Dr. Passy and his team for a recent visit at Sofia Tech Park where an exhibition full of young aspiring scientists connected live with experts from NASA and learned all about space, the final frontier as we say it in the U.S. It’s going to be hard to top that experience here today, but I’ll still do my best to, wait for it, shoot for the moon!

It’s been a little more than three months since my wife Susan and I first arrived in Bulgaria, and we have absolutely loved every minute. We hit the ground running, taking in all the historic sites in Sofia that first weekend and also venturing outside the capital. I have so far visited Varna, Burgas, and Pomorie during the Embassy’s Black Sea month in May, and then the town of Kazanluk for the Rose Festival, which I have to say, if anybody hasn’t been there for that, I would encourage you to do so, it is truly spectacular. I have explored the European capital of culture Plovdiv, the spectacular Rila Monastery, and the beautiful city of Blagoevgrad. We recently enjoyed a hiking trip and a visit to the old church and the Neofit Rilski Museum in Bansko and look forward to returning there this winter for a little bit of skiing, I hope. Of course, this is just the start, with a little bit more of three months, but I have to say, everywhere I have visited, I have been struck by how warm and genuine the welcome has been from the Bulgarian people. People here are incredibly hospitable and very, very friendly. It has allowed me to develop a real appreciation for this country’s history and everything it has to offer.

It is a history rich with poetry and literature, music and folklore, and exquisite cultural heritage sites that can tell the story of a land at the crossroads of civilizations.
It’s a history of liberation from foreign invasions and occupation, of stirring patriotism, and of a yearning for independence and integration with the Western world.

It’s also a shared history, in which the United States is proud to have played a supporting role. This year, as you heard, marks 120 years of diplomatic relations between the United States and Bulgaria. While our formal diplomatic relationship began in 1903, the story of our great friendship and partnership goes back even further.

The name Januarius MacGahan might not be a familiar one to everybody here – I know, it wasn’t for me initially, but his heroic acts marked an important chapter in our shared story. MacGahan was an American journalist who worked for The Times of London back in the day, and in 1876 the newspaper sent him to Bulgaria to investigate a report of stories of atrocities committed during the April Uprising.

It was Januarius McGahan who brought the world’s attention to Bulgaria’s plight and helped garner international support for Bulgaria’s independence.

Let me share another name with you – John Atanasoff. John Atanasoff was an American physics and mathematics professor of Bulgarian descent. His father was born in a village near Yambol, and his grandfather was killed by Ottoman soldiers after the same April Uprising that Januarius MacGahan documented. Well, John Atanasoff – the son of a Bulgarian immigrant – was a brilliant scientist who, together with his student Clifford Berry, built the world’s first electronic digital computer between 1939 and 1942. Today, he is widely recognized as the “Father of the Computer,” and we are delighted to honor his memory through photo installations at a series of tram stops in downtown Sofia, which many of you have probably seen.

I share all this with you today, not only because I am a history buff but because these anecdotes capture just how dynamic and interconnected our story together is. It is a story that continues to be written to this day. Just a few months back, acclaimed Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov and American translator and Fulbright Director Angela Rodel won the prestigious Booker International Prize – the first time this award has been awarded to a Bulgarian novel. That is quite an accomplishment. We should also recognize Bulgarian astronomer Dimitar Sasselov, who directs the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative; in 2003, Sasselov and his team discovered the most remote planet in the Milky Way to date. Solomon, I think you need to aim for this planet for next year’s Space Festival! We will see what we can do together on that! And how can we not mention Bulgarian-born artist Christo, with his amazing art installations which he did around the world wrapping iconic sites including the Reichstag, The Pont Neuf, and The Gates in New York City’s Central Park in beautiful fabrics.

There are so many remarkable milestones and personalities we can celebrate – frankly far too many to capture in this speech, and I’m honored to work with the Bulgarian government and with organizations like the Atlantic Club to share these important moments as we commemorate the 120th years of U.S.-Bulgaria relations.

Indeed, the story of U.S.-Bulgaria relations continues to evolve and grow, and I’m convinced that the chapters we are writing today and in the time ahead will be the best ones yet. Our strategic partnership is stronger than ever, with more than $2 billion in two-way trade and ever-expanding linkages across a range of key sectors – academic, commercial, cultural, civil society, and the public sector.

I’m pleased to share that preparations are well underway for the next edition of the U.S.-Bulgaria bilateral strategic dialogue in Washington, D.C., this Fall. This will be a perfect opportunity for our senior leadership to take stock of the significant progress our two nations have made working side by side on myriad issues of bilateral, regional, and global importance – from security cooperation and energy diversification to regional integration and upholding global democratic norms.

Let me just highlight a few key areas of our cooperation in particular:

First, our economic relationship – We’ve seen bilateral trade bounce back after the Covid pandemic to a higher level than before. Additionally, within the South-Eastern Europe, Bulgaria continues to grow its exports year over year. This is a testament to Bulgaria’s fundamentally strong and growing economy. During my tenure, I would love to see this vibrant economic partnership continue to grow. And we will be working hard to make that happen.

U.S. companies are actively exploring partnerships and opportunities in the Bulgarian market, and we’re proud to sponsor Bulgarian visits to the United States, like the recent energy delegation that visited a new, state-of-the-art nuclear power plant in Georgia. We see tremendous potential to expand our connectivity in areas like technology and innovation, agriculture, education and entrepreneurship, transportation and infrastructure, cybersecurity, and energy.

On energy, I’d like to acknowledge the impressive job Bulgaria has done to adapt to the major shocks to international energy markets brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s weaponization of gas supplies. By diversifying its sources of natural gas, Bulgaria is creating a more resilient energy market that boosts the overall energy security of the entire region. We are encouraged that Bulgaria is trying its best to diversify its nuclear power resources, nuclear fuel sources, as well, and we remain committed to help with this process.

Next, I’d like to mention our security partnership. Now more than ever, our two countries are partnering to make this region, and the world as a whole, safer and more secure for our citizens. Over the past five years, the United States has delivered more than $238 million in security assistance to help Bulgaria build a more modern and capable military. Our young men and women in uniform stand side-by-side in countless joint exercises and trainings each year. These joint activities fortify NATO’s defense and deterrence capabilities, boost our operational readiness, and prepare us to confront modern threats like cyber and hybrid warfare. I’m proud to note that this year is also the 30th anniversary of the partnership between the Bulgarian military and the Tennessee National Guard; we’re organizing a series of high-level events to mark this occasion, and I’m excited to see this partnership only continue to grow.

Our strategic security relationship matters because democracy is under threat around the globe and must be defended each and every day. Today, more than 500 days after Russia’s unprovoked invasion, Ukrainian soldiers fight with everything they’ve got to defend their nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Thanks to crucial assistance from Bulgaria along with other NATO allies and EU member states, Ukraine has been able to stand firm against the aggressor, and the international community is more united than ever before in standing up for our common values. And as President Biden has made clear, Russia remains the sole obstacle to peace in Ukraine; Russia and Russia alone can end this war and make it end today.

I’d like to underscore that there is an important distinction between the Russian people and the actions of the Russian government. We have tremendous admiration for the Russian people and for all their invaluable contributions to the world – whether it is in literature and the arts, or science and innovation. At the same time, President Putin and the Kremlin must be held accountable for reckless actions that have wrought unnecessary death and destruction; displaced millions of innocent civilians; disrupted the global economy; and undermined the international order through misguided attempts to redraw borders by force. We cannot accept unjustified aggression that undermines a country’s sovereignty – in Ukraine or anywhere. We must continue to stand united with Ukraine.

Whether we’re talking about security cooperation or economic partnership, The Three Seas Initiative, or other regional efforts to address common challenges, I think we can all agree that the Euro-Atlantic relationship is essential to our shared success. In spite of some political rhetoric that seeks to stoke fear and to undermine public confidence, the future – our future, our future together – lies in greater cooperation and integration. Bulgaria and the Countries of South-Eastern Europe continue to integrate with the rest of Europe and we see increased economic growth potential and democratic stability. I applaud the strong signals that the Bulgarian government is sending regarding its desire to fortify its EU and trans-Atlantic relationships, and I am confident that with continued investment in good governance, rule of law, and economic integration, Bulgaria will be well on its way to realizing key goals like OECD membership, Schengen membership, and entry into the Euro-zone.

Finally, I’d like to touch on our people-to-people ties. We estimate there are nearly 250,000 Bulgarians living in the United States, and nearly 90,000 Americans living in or traveling to Bulgaria every year. How very far we’ve come since Aleko Konstantinov wrote “To Chicago and Back” nearly 130 years ago! These rich people-to-people ties are the bedrock of our relationship, and we are working hard to fortify them every day through two-way exchanges and academic partnerships. One of our greatest successes is the Summer Work Travel program; more than 120,000 Bulgarians have participated in this program over the past two decades. They have served as Bulgarian cultural ambassadors to the United States and have brought our two nations closer together. Similarly, with the help of our fantastic binational Fulbright Commission, we are spurring exciting new exchanges in fields like science & technology, public health, education, cultural preservation, and public administration.

Bulgarians and Americans get along so well because we cherish the same things. We cherish our families, we cherish our countries, we cherish our freedom, we cherish our democracies, our vision for a future that is safer, more just, and filled with more opportunities for our children and our children’s children.

The United States and Bulgaria have accomplished so much together as friends, and as partners, and as Allies, and I know the best is yet to come. So, thank you for your attention, and I look forward to the rest of our discussion and answer a few questions.