Articles - October 2017

A Bulgarian in LaLa Land

Consul General Vesselin Valchev
Consulate General of the Republic of Bulgaria in
Los Angeles, California

Apart from New York, Los Angeles has more foreign consulates-general than any other U.S. city—sixty-four in total—not counting honorary consuls. Many have jurisdiction up and down the West Coast. The Bulgarian consulate-general’s reach is vast: its area of coverage stretches to both Hawaii and Alaska. The consul-general is Vesselin Valchev, a Bulgarian diplomat with a distinguished career. His training includes time at the prestigious Paris School of Administration (ENA), Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Berlin School of Economics. His earlier postings included Moscow, Prague, and Kosovo. He has held senior government posts and experienced first hand the collapse of the Soviet empire. Along with other career diplomats and politicians, he was involved in Bulgaria’s transition to democracy, including the process of becoming a member of NATO and the European Union. Furthermore, in 2009, he was Bulgaria’s ambassador to Cyprus. Returning home, he was appointed Secretary General of the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a top diplomatic job. Prior to his Los Angeles posting, he was ambassador-atlarge for Antarctica, to which he organized the first Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, in 2015.

As Valchev explains in an interview with Diplomatic Connections, the Consultative Meeting is the primary forum for solving problems and making collective decisions in accordance with the Antarctic Treaty; it was attended by representatives from over 50 countries. The primary role of a consulate is to service its citizens, but Valchev also focuses on building bi-lateral cooperation and trade, and on helping a number of schools in the area where the Bulgarian language and culture are taught.

Diplomatic Connections: How does this assignment in Los Angeles fit into your long and varied career?

Consul-General Valchev: In 38 years of serving my country, I’ve experienced some of the great changes in the world, including my nation joining NATO and the European Union. I’ve experienced the winds of change in countries that no longer exist like Czechoslovakia [which in 1993 split into two nations: the Czech Republic and Slovakia] and the Soviet Union. I’ve been a [government] minister, adviser to the president, chief of staff of the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. I’ve been ambassador and so on. Now, for the first time, I’m a consul-general and in Los Angeles. This means I am responsible for 11 U.S. states with a territory 1.7 million square miles. It’s both a challenge and a privilege, which is why I’ve taken this post.

Diplomatic Connections: As consul general, what is your number one concern?

Consul-General Valchev: My two main priorities in this assignment are to further develop bi-lateral relations between Bulgaria and the United States – political, economic, cultural, social, etc. My other priority is to serve and protect citizens in the Bulgarian community in my area.

Diplomatic Connections: How many Bulgarian citizens are we talking about in your area?

Consul-General Valchev: We don’t have exact data because there’s no obligation for Bulgarians to report or to register with the diplomatic missions in the United States, but we estimate that in these 11 states there are about 100,000 Bulgarian citizens. The biggest communities are in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Las Vegas; we organize consular days in those cities.

Diplomatic Connections: So how much of your territory have you actually visited?

Consul-General Valchev: Bearing in mind that I have been in the post for two years, I have been to Seattle, Las Vegas, San Diego, Irvine and Sacramento.

Diplomatic Connections: So far, not to Alaska or to Hawaii?

Consul-General Valchev: We visit locations where there are cases that need attention, or we have a request from citizens where they need consular assistance. From the areas that you mentioned, we haven’t had any. Besides, the numbers of Bulgarians in these areas are very few.

Diplomatic Connections: I was thinking more of Alaska because of your role in the Antarctic negotiations.

Consul-General Valchev: I was ambassador-at-large for the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting which was held in Bulgaria in 2015. The main purpose of the treaty is to ensure that “it is in the interest of all mankind that the Antarctic will continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become a scene or object of international discord.” The Antarctic Treaty has been signed since 1959 by 41 countries, 17 of them are countries doing research in the Antarctic territory and another 24 countries attending the meetings, don’t participate in the decision making. The Consultative Meeting, I would say, is like the government of Antarctica. All those countries who are involved in research in the area get together and reach consensus on all the issues. In the consultative meeting, countries like the United States, Russia, Germany, as well as smaller countries, such as Bulgaria, gather and solve all the issues by consensus. This is an example how the world should function. Bulgaria is a full member since September 11, 1978. Since then, we have a base, called Livingstone, where a group of scientists conduct research.

Diplomatic Connections: Is Bulgaria the permanent location of the Antarctic Consultative Meeting, and did you head it?

Consul-General Valchev: No, this was an assignment as ambassador-at-large when Bulgaria hosted the Antarctic Consultative Meeting. I headed the national secretariat, prepared the meeting, but the hosting then moved on to the next country in alphabetical order.

Diplomatic Connections: Has Bulgaria been admitted to the U.S. Visa Waver program?

Consul-General Valchev: This is a sensitive question for Bulgarians, and it goes in contrast to the perfect – I would say excellent – bi-lateral relations between Bulgaria and the United States, which is now a strategic partnership. But within the strategic partnership, Bulgaria is still not included in the U.S. Visa Waiver program, and we hope that soon this problem between our two countries will be resolved.

Diplomatic Connections: As I understand it, one of the criteria is the percentage of refusals of visa applications by Bulgarians.

Consul-General Valchev: Two main criteria: The issue of security and the percentage of rejected visas. The security issue is not a problem between Bulgaria and the United States. This has been solved positively. But the percentage of rejected visas is still above the level established by the U.S. Congress.

Diplomatic Connections: At what level is that percentage now?

Consul-General Valchev: The trend within the last couple of years is downward, and we hope very soon to reach the level to qualify for the program. If you look at the history, there are a number of agreements signed that enhanced the visa process. I won’t list them, but from a procedural point of view, there are a number of bi-lateral agreements which make the visa process easier.

Diplomatic Connections: What are the most common problems that the consulate has had to deal with?

Consul-General Valchev: The most common problems are issuing Bulgarian passports and Bulgarian IDs, power of attorney, and issuing visas for third country nationals, etc. The scope of our activities is so big. All the problems for us are common, and usual, and we’re dealing with them in a professional way.

Diplomatic Connections: What are the requirements for, say, a U.S. citizen obtaining a Bulgarian passport?

Consul-General Valchev: The requirements are listed in the relevant laws. Every person who can show that at least one of his parents is Bulgarian is considered a Bulgarian. Last year, Ted Kotcheff, director of the first Sylvester Stallone Rambo movie, who had Bulgarian parents, although he himself was born in Canada, applied and was given Bulgarian citizenship and a Bulgarian passport.

Diplomatic Connections: Have you set yourself any personal goals you would like to accomplish during your time in Los Angeles?

Consul-General Valchev: Besides the priorities I mentioned, the first of my personal missions is raising awareness and spreading information about the heroic effort of Bulgarians during World War II in saving Jewish lives. Bulgaria was the only [German] occupied country that saved all the Bulgarian Jews from deportation to Nazi camps: 48,000 lives were saved by the combined brave actions of the Bulgarian king, the church, politicians, members of parliament, and the people. They resisted the efforts of the Germans and the Bulgarian government of the time to deport Bulgarian Jews to the concentration camps. This is one of my priorities – my burning priorities. At the moment, we are in the process of negotiating with the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum for a memorial plaque about what the Bulgarians have done; it is to be placed under an olive tree in front of the museum.

My other personal mission is to develop the Bulgarian schools. There are about ten Bulgarian schools in my consular district; that is, schools where young Bulgarians learn the Bulgarian language, literature, history, and geography. That way, young Americans of Bulgarian descent will learn about the country where their parents were born. Bulgaria will have the (rotating) presidency of the European Union council in the first half of 2018. Bulgaria has prepared a large presidential agenda, and it’s another of my priorities to make people aware of it.

Diplomatic Connections: To return to your first personal mission, in the early stages of World War II, Pope John XXIII, then Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, was the Roman Catholic representative (apostolic delegate) in Sofia and was also active in helping and supporting Bulgarians in saving Jews.

Consul-General Valchev: The Bulgarian church played a very important role in saving Bulgarian Jews. There was a group of Jews collected in a school yard in Plovdiv, and the Bulgarian bishop jumped over the fence, and succeeded in blocking the Jews from being moved to the train station by vowing to lie down on the train tracks and blocking the train. And the speaker of the Bulgarian parliament tabled a motion to stop the deportation of Jews. There were also street demonstrations, and the collective result was that deportations from a Bulgarian territory never took place.

Diplomatic Connections: How much has the Trump Administration’s tougher policy on immigration impacted your consulate?

Consul-General Valchev: We don’t, up to now, feel the impact of new restrictions.

Diplomatic Connections: Is that because there are few, if any, Bulgarian illegal immigrants?

Consul-General Valchev: Or if there are, they didn’t, at any rate, come to the attention of the consulate.

Diplomatic Connections: How much autonomy does the consulate have from the embassy in Washington, D.C.?

Consul-General Valchev: We have full autonomy while simultaneously cooperating and consulting with the embassy in Washington on a regular basis.

Diplomatic Connections: What about bi-lateral trade? What is the current situation?

Consul-General Valchev: Bi-lateral trade is a very important issue, enhanced by a number of bi-lateral agreements. But at the same time, we consider that there is room for an increase. The United States is among the first ten biggest investors in Bulgaria. Some of the most substantial investors are Johnson Controls Electronics, Hewlett Packard, Kraft Foods, Microsoft, MacDonald, IBM, NEWS CORP, and many others. The United States, for us, is a strategic partner. We are working hard so that investment and foreign trade increases within the coming years. Bulgarian exports to the United States need to be enlarged. Annual Bulgarian export and investment in California is not big--$60 to $70 million.

Diplomatic Connections: Do you find yourself much involved with California political figures?

Consul-General Valchev: I enjoy regular contact with politicians in my consular district. While in Sacramento, I had meetings with senate and governors offices. There are bilateral as well as multilateral meetings organized at the consular group level: the L.A. consular corps is the third largest in the world. The European Union consuls meet separately each month and have a guest speaker, usually a prominent public figure.

Diplomatic Connections: In your view, what is the state of bi-lateral relations?

Consul-General Valchev: U.S.-Bulgarian bi-lateral relations are excellent.

Diplomatic Connections: What is the single thing about living in California that you find puzzling.

Consul-General Valchev: I may not sound original, but it’s the traffic.

Diplomatic Connections: Do you live near the consulate?

Consul-General Valchev: I’m living 200 feet from the office. This makes my life very easy because I can walk to my office. Sometimes, we have emergencies, and I can get to the office quickly and easily.

Diplomatic Connections: Coming back to the ongoing commitments of your present assignment, how much consular work in Los Angeles is related to one of the area’s main industries, which is show business?

Consul-General Valchev: Living and working in L.A. one has to be involved with show business people. Each year, Bulgaria has an entry in the foreign film category of the Academy Awards. Unfortunately, we haven’t won an Oscar yet, but we’re optimists. At the same time, the European Union member countries organize an annual European Film Festival in Los Angeles, and Bulgaria also participates in that. There’s also a Festival of East European Films and Bulgaria is a participant.

Diplomatic Connections: When did you last meet a movie or TV star?

Consul-General Valchev: We consuls often meet celebrities; it’s our business, mainly at events and receptions. My last such meeting was with Sharon Stone. We had a very nice discussion about her ambition to make an active contribution to the struggle for world peace.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you very much, Consul General Valchev.


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