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Every step that brings us closer to the EU smoothens out the friction between different ethnic communities in our country. Bulgaria is the country that strongly supports Bosnia and Herzegovina on its European path of development

Zdravko Begovic was born on the 31th July, 1952 in Foca. He graduated from the Faculty of Technology at the University of Tuzla in 1975. A considerable period of his professional life passed into one of the largest complexes of former Yugoslavia's forest industry – Sipad Maglic, where he gradually rose to the position of general manager. He is recipient of the most significant recognitions of Sipad – golden poster.

From 1998-2001 he was Deputy of the Minister of Trade and Tourism in Republic of Srpska Government. From 2001 to 2005 he was Republic Market Inspector and Head of Analyze and Control Section. In 2005 he was elected the Assistant Minister of Ministry of Spatial Planning, Civil Engineering and Ecology where he worked till 2008. During this period, he was also the Climate Change Coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina and President of the Group of East and Southeast Countries of Europe for climate changes. He chaired the Bosnia and Herzegovina delegation at the annual UN conferences on climate change in Montreal and Nairobi. He is the recipient of the most significant recognition of Ramsar Secretary of UN for swamp area for contribution of declaring Bardaca Ramsar Site.

From 2008 to 2011 H. E. Mr. Zdravko Begovic is Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Republic of Slovenia and from 2012 to 2015 - in North Macedonia. An expert in economic diplomacy, during his tenure in these countries, he has implemented numerous projects in the field of economics. With ambition for more such, on April 3rd this year, he presented his credentials as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Republic of Bulgaria.

- Your Excellency, you have only been in Bulgaria for five months, but we all noticed your activity and the ideas that you want to realize. What priorities have you set for your time as an ambassador to Bulgaria?

- The main priorities during my term of office, which is confirmed by the time I am here, will be to strengthen the cooperation in the economic and cultural fields, but also in education, healthcare and others. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria are friendly countries with no open issues, but economic and cultural co-operation is lagging behind. Although, we have encouraging first results. We have taken some steps in the field of culture. At the initiative of our embassy, ​​the director of the Ivan Vazov National Theater, Marius Donkin, was a guest at the National Theater in Banja Luka, where it was agreed to exchange performances. So in November the National Theater of the Republika Srpska will visit Sofia, and in March your National Theater will visit Banja Luka. We hope that by the end of September the Director of the State Archives Agency of Bulgaria will visit Bosnia and Herzegovina with his colleagues and establish long-term cooperation. The President of the Fiscal Council of Republika Srpska also visited Bulgaria in June and established useful contacts. We are furthermore working on cooperation between the museums of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria. And with the Bulgarian Minister of Sport, Mr. Krasen Kralev, we discussed what can be done about this area as well. So we have started many activities and I sincerely hope that all this will take our cooperation to a new, higher level.

I take this opportunity to highlight a very important fact. The Kalotina-Niš highway is expected to be opened next month, which means that practically the road to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina will be mainly highway, which will make it easier for many travelers and will significantly reduce travel time. Communications are very important because people have to travel, goods have to be transported. And I am pleased to say that there is progress in this area.

- Bulgaria is the first country in the world to recognize Bosnia and Herzegovina's independence on January 15th, 1992. Today, one of the main focuses of our foreign policy is the European perspective of the Western Balkans. How far did your country's reforms go in its pursuit of European integration?

- Under the Dayton Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a complex country made up of three peoples - Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, of two entities – Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Brcko District. Because of its structure, the decision-making process is often quite complicated. But the most important is that the Dayton Agreement has brought peace, that the situation is now peaceful and stable, and that development is being considered. We, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, have certain differences on certain political issues. But we do have a consensus on our European path of development. In practice, the larger ethnic communities are accepting this way and in the next period we will work more intensively on this. However, that cannot be said when it comes to our path to NATO. The Serbian ethnic community has some concerns about NATO after the bombing. So we will see how the situation will develop. But as far as Bulgaria is concerned, the most important thing is that it is the country that strongly supports Bosnia and Herzegovina on its European path.

In many features we as countries are similar. There are representatives of different peoples in both, but naturally in Bosnia and Herzegovina this multinational structure is much more pronounced, we have similar GDP, economic development rate, average standard of living. Thanks to all this, in the next period we will try to make full use of the experience of Bulgaria, both from its pre-accession period and its EU membership. And most importantly, the Bulgarian institutions are willing and ready to assist Bosnia and Herzegovina in these efforts. This was best seen during the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council in the first half of 2018, when Bulgaria expressed its support for the integration of the Western Balkans.

- Did your country really make a step forward in this regard?

- Some of the reforms are already underway, but the greater is yet to come. I want to stress that because of the complex structure of our country, many of these reforms are not being implemented quickly enough. Of course, we ourselves are not happy with that. But in any case, this is the way to go. And we will certainly make it much easier with the support of countries like Bulgaria.

- Western values ​​are said to dominate your country's public life and politics, though more than 44% of its population is Muslim. How is interethnic co-operation currently developing?

- The figure can only be taken conditionally. The most important thing is that there is peace, stability and security. People work, invest, develop and make progress. We are a country that was and is the center of what was once Yugoslavia, and in any case we are part of Europe. We have a 1000 km border with Croatia, an EU Member State. From Banja Luka to the Croatian capital Zagreb, there are only 180 km on the highway. In just over an hour, you are in Zagreb. But most importantly, every step that brings us closer to the EU smoothens out the relations, the friction between the different ethnic communities in our country. In different sectors of life, European practice will gradually be introduced and that will erase the differences.

- You said that economic cooperation would be a priority for you. You recently visited the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and had a conversation with the Chairman of the Board Mr. Tsvetan Simeonov. What is the current state of our bilateral trade and economic relations?

- First I have to say that you have a very good BCCI chairman. I am an economist by education and quite naturally economy is my priority. The conversation with Mr. Tsvetan Simeonov was very serious, but also very cordial. We've actually met each other more than once. I will name some of the projects. Next year we will try to organize an economic forum in Bulgaria. We will try to establish some contacts that have not been made so far, for example, a meeting between furniture manufacturers from Bosnia and Herzegovina and wholesalers from Bulgaria. We have already been able to promote some bilateral contacts. For example, one of our companies imports alcoholic beverages in Bulgaria. We will also make full use of the following exhibitions and fairs here to ensure the presence of more business representatives from Bosnia and Herzegovina in the respective areas. When it comes to a tourism fair, we would expect representatives of tourism organizations and businesses to come to talk with their colleagues and negotiate. These are some new points that have not been used in our cooperation so far. And as for winemaking, I can say that ours, like yours, is very well developed. I had a meeting with the director of the Executive Agency for Vine and Wine, Eng. Krasimir Koev, who has already arranged for me to visit one of the wine complexes near the town of Rousse. We agreed to hold regular meetings between our and your winemakers. Your winemakers are members of the EU Wine Producers Association and can help ours to reach European standards in wine production.

- At what level is our cultural cooperation? And as an ambassador, how would you like to promote your culture and traditions in Bulgaria?

- I already mentioned theaters, museums, archives. But we should not forget one more thing: in ours, and in your country, we have a very well developed amateur art. On the other hand, you have very developed tourism on the Black Sea coast, and this summer a dozen amateur bands from Bosnia and Herzegovina visited various cultural festivals there. We will continue with this activity, more bands will be coming, but we want more Bulgarian bands to visit us too. We are also trying to arrange the visit of one of our very famous choir in Bulgaria, the "Banjalucanke" choir, which is one of the oldest female choirs in our country, with almost 40 years of history, hundreds of tours and concerts in the country and around the world, with a rich and varied repertoire, featuring works of all ages, genres and styles.

- They call Bosnia and Herzegovina the hidden treasure in the Balkans. What are the things that one tourist must not miss?

- We have many similarities in this matter as well. We are also a green country like Bulgaria. Tourism is also an important economic component here. And we have both winter and summer tourism. You know, the 1984 Winter Olympics were organized in Sarajevo. Then we renovated and upgraded our winter resorts. Now we want to raise the level of cooperation with those in Bulgaria - Bansko, Borovets, Pamporovo. We have a 32 km exit to the Adriatic Sea, which is very picturesque. Of course, Bulgaria has a much longer coastline and much better developed sea tourism. According to our information, last year, 22 000 citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina visited your country.

Speaking of tourism, I want to emphasize the importance of adventure tourism. We have some of the most famous rafting destinations in Europe, on the Tara, Drina, Vrbas, Neretva and other rivers. The European rafting competition was held in Banja Luka, and we expect to organize a world rafting event in the near future.

Religious tourism is also well developed. And in this respect we are similar to Bulgaria. I have already visited 5-6 of your monasteries and I am impressed with what I have seen. Your tourists can enjoy such wealth in our country, as well.

The similarities are really a lot. We have similar food production. Our cultures are similar. We have similar habits, our latitude is similar. Even our cultural and historical heritage is similar. Bulgaria is known as a country with a rich cultural and historical heritage. We are working to bring our citizens closer to your country. In short, there are many reasons for the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina to visit Bulgaria and for the citizens of Bulgaria to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina.

- Your capital Sarajevo is a very interesting multi-ethnic city. Tell us more about it ...

- As you know, Sarajevo is our capital, our administrative center. The city has been developing very intensively lately. But as a consequence of the last war, it is divided into two - Sarajevo and East Sarajevo. I would say that this division does not affect development, although the ethnic structure of the city has changed significantly - the number of Croats and Serbs has fallen sharply, and the number of Bosniaks has increased. Otherwise, communications between East Sarajevo and Sarajevo are normal, there are no barriers.

Sarajevo is known for its specific appeal, it was one of the examples of a multi-ethnic life in the time of Yugoslavia. And this specificity, it seems to me, is slowly coming back. In any case, it is a truly astonishing variety of styles over a relatively small territory, born of cohabitation and religious division between Christians, Muslims and Jews, through purely historical influences - from the Ottoman Empire,through Austria-Hungary, to the former Yugoslavia. I think it's worth seeing.

- And your Banja Luka?

- The city is considered to be one of the greenest in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with mountain peaks all around, and the biggest pearl for our guests is the entertainment offered by the Vrbas River. And above all, rafting, especially night rafting that is not found elsewhere in Europe. I think it will not be exaggerated to say that this makes Banja Luka unique not only in Europe but also in the world. Religious tourism is also highly developed. There is what to see here - we have picturesque churches, mosques. Banja Luka is located between a mountain and a plain. So you can see everything that is characteristic of the mountain and the plain within a small space and in a very short time.

- Which Bulgarian city would you compare Banja Luka to?

- Maybe with Plovdiv, which is the European Capital of Culture for 2019. On the 24th of September we will present Banja Luka in Brussels and we will apply for being the Capital of Culture, and I, of course, hope that this will happen. I have already spoken to the Mayor of Banja Luka on this occasion. It would be good to visit Plovdiv in the near future in order to use the experience that the municipal administration has gained and managed to apply in a phenomenal way.

- Are there any more similarities between us?

- We are very close. I have toured many countries around the world. And I can hardly point out another one with which we are as close as Bulgaria. I already mentioned some similarities – geographical location, cultural and historical heritage, the cuisine... Even our languages ​​are close, people understand each other easily. Of course there are differences as well.

What personally embitters me both in Bulgaria and in Bosnia and Herzegovina is crime, so we have a serious fight with it - both with the big and the small crime. The institutions of both countries are doing their utmost to limit it, to increase security and stability not only in their countries, but throughout the region. I believe that the European path of development will help us, and the European practice will help Bulgaria.

It is difficult to explain how with all these similarities, with the good relationships we have, there is no greater visible result and a greater effect in our relations in the economic sphere, in culture, in education, in healthcare, in sport. Because objectively, we have great potential, great resources, and we must take advantage of all this to bring the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria closer together, for the good of our peoples and of the two countries.

Photo: Diplomatic Spectrum