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Eric Rubin on Bulgaria, AUBG and His Time as Ambassador

Eric Rubin served as the U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria for more than three years. With the end of his term approaching, he visited the American University in Bulgaria campus in June to meet with Interim President David R. Evans and members of the Board of Trustees. We talked to Rubin about his time in Bulgaria and his work as chief of mission.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

What is the mood for you at the end of your term in Bulgaria? Are you happy with the last few years you spent here?

Thank you. Well, yes, I’m very happy and my wife is happy. We’ve had a wonderful three and a half years here so the mood is a little bitter-sweet because all good things must come to an end. In our profession, it’s preordained that we will have to leave at some point, but it really has been a wonderful experience in every respect – in terms of the work, in terms of our friendships and our lives here. We will come back, without question.

What are some of the most important projects and the ones that you’re most proud of from the time you spent in Bulgaria?

There’s quite a bit. The work our team at the embassy has done in the field of education is something I’m very proud of. Supporting our American educational institutions like AUBG and the American College [of Sofia], but also reaching out to support programs all across Bulgaria, including the programs that our embassy partners [on] with the America for Bulgaria Foundation, Teach for Bulgaria, the Fulbright teaching assistance in high schools all across Bulgaria.

On job creation, I’ve worked very hard to bring American investment here with the goal of helping to create good jobs and good wages that will get young Bulgarians to either come back or to stay after graduation. There’s been a lot of success in that regard. It’s obviously not enough and obviously it can’t just be American investment alone – it has to be investment by Bulgarians and people from all over the world. But it’s a start.

In the field of security cooperation, I think the past three and a half years have seen a lot of progress in helping Bulgaria control its borders. This is a critical security question in terms of not just the migrant crisis but also all the illicit activity that crosses Bulgaria like human smuggling, drug trafficking and potential terrorism. That’s something I think we’ve achieved a lot of progress in.

And on defense cooperation, Bulgaria and the United States, I think, are closer than ever and we’ve had, over the past few years, a series of very successful big military exercises. Also, Bulgaria is on the verge of a very critical decision on defense modernization to finally acquire modern NATO-compatible equipment for its military.

On energy, I have done a lot, together with my colleagues from other embassies and our team at the [U.S.] embassy, on diversification of energy supplies. The pipeline from Greece, the interconnector, is being constructed and they’re just starting now near Blagoevgrad. That will be the first of a series of steps to get Bulgaria multiple sources of energy, which will then lead to lower energy costs and less dependence on Russia. That’s a pretty important priority as well.

What do you think is some of the progress the country has achieved recently? What are some of the bigger challenges we have yet to face?

I think there’s been some real progress on several fronts. Demographically you have a continuing challenge, not just the shrinking birth rate and the lack of population growth, but also brain drain and the departure of so many young Bulgarians. Hopefully, that’s temporary, at least for many of them. It’s not entirely a bad thing and I personally think the European Union and the European project are things to be celebrated, and the fact that Bulgaria is in the European Union is something to be celebrated, and the opportunities that young people have is definitely something to be celebrated. I’m old enough to remember when this country was essentially a prison. Now Bulgarian young people are freer than American young people to travel and study and work. So it’s not just all negative, but obviously, the country needs doctors and nurses, and teachers, and police, this is critical. It also needs tech entrepreneurs and people who will create jobs. I think that’s the biggest set of challenges.

Progress has been made in several areas. One of them is foreign policy where Bulgaria played a really positive role in helping to finally achieve solution to the Macedonia-Greece dispute and to support the Western Balkan neighbors in their EU and NATO accession. I’d say relations with all the neighbors now are better than they were and that’s something to be saluted and celebrated. In certain areas of the economy, there’s been real progress. Bulgarian agriculture is a very mixed bag, but the mechanized agricultural sector is flourishing and booming and creating, potentially, a trade surplus for the country for the first time in a long time. It’s a mixed bag, but I would say those are some positive things.

Also, the infrastructure keeps getting better. Obviously, you know that when you drive from Sofia to Blagoevgrad. I was first here in the early 1990s when the infrastructure was pretty frightening, so that’s real progress, as well.

You mentioned that education is a big priority for the embassy. How do you think AUBG and its mission fit in the contemporary world, both in Bulgaria and globally?

I think AUBG has a special niche as an American liberal arts institution in Bulgaria, in the Balkans. I think that mission could be expanded. It already plays a role in educating kids from all over the region but it could do more. The vision is to have AUBG as an American educational flagship for the entire region. It’s a different mission than it was when it was founded because with the EU membership conditions here have changed. But that doesn’t mean that broader mission is not valid and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t new possibilities – there are new possibilities. I see AUBG as an emblem of what’s great about American education. The graduates, the alumni, are messengers of that set of values that they have acquired here and I’ve seen that in real life.

And what do you hope to see this institution become in the next few years?

I would like to see it be the leading university of the region, of the Balkans. I think it can be that, it can be one of the top European universities. This is going to take a lot of work, but there is already such a solid foundation both academically, in terms of the students and the faculty, but also the infrastructure here. I’m very proud of the contributions that the American people have made to this institution through USAID, through the America for Bulgaria Foundation, both of which are essentially funded by the American people. It’s a good investment, one that has already paid huge dividends. I hope with continuing support and vision and good leadership the university can really become a regional center of excellence.

Interview by Martin Georgiev

Photos by Anastasia Garyainova

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