Young people are the ones who will bring our two nations even closer.

On the 11th of September 2018, the President of the Republic of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev, awarded the Order of the Madara Horseman First Degree to the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Croatia in Bulgaria – H. E. Ms. Ljerka Alajbeg. She received the high state award for her contribution towards deepening the political, economic and cultural cooperation between Bulgaria and Croatia just before departing from our country. Undoubtedly, during her mandate (2013-2018), the relations between our countries deepened in many spheres, and the human ties between Croats and Bulgarians were activated. We owe this to her work, her experience in diplomacy and her affection for Bulgaria, which, as she confessed to our team, will remain forever in her heart.

In fact, before coming as an ambassador to our country, H. E. Ms. Ljerka Alajbeg has held important posts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Croatia. She was a Consul in Pittsburgh, USA, counselor in the New York City Cultural and Information Center, an advisor to the mission in Berlin, Germany, a counselor minister in Ottawa, Canada, ambassador in Belgium and Luxembourg, and general consul in Subotica, Serbia. She was the Chief Legal Advisor and Head of the International Legal Department at the Croatian MFA. She represented her country on the 6th Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, as well as, in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, on various committees of the Council of Europe, at the UNCITRAL annual meetings of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law. She has also been an International Law lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy, the Police Academy and the Military School in Zagreb.

- Your Excellency, you have just received a high state prize from our President Rumen Radev - the Order of the Madara Horseman First Degree, for your contribution towards deepening the political, economic and cultural cooperation between Bulgaria and Croatia. What from all you have achieved in your work during these five years makes you proud and is there something you wanted, but did not manage to fully accomplish?

- For five years, a person might have enough time and might also have no time at all. Certainly, my embassy staff and I, achieved a lot of things, some of which we managed to complete, others we just started, but even ten years could not have been enough to finish. Of course, we participated in the realization of numerous contacts in all spheres - politics, culture, economy. But I am most proud of having made the human ties between the two nations closer; of course, with the help of some governmental and non-governmental organizations. For example, in cooperation with the Association of the Croats in Bulgaria and the Croatian-Bulgarian Friendship Association "Bishop Josip Strossmayer", which is very active locally, we managed to provoke interest in four Bulgarian schools where now children learn Croatian as a free choice subject.

We also made contacts and connections between schools in Zagreb and Jastrebarsko and from the municipalities of Mramor, Ilinden, Novi Iskar and Nadezhda. We hope that these friendships will become stronger and stronger and, as I said during the award ceremony, young people are those who will bring our two nations even closer, not as much in a political, ruther in a purely human way. Because it is known that Bulgarians and Croats have a long-standing friendship.

- In the distant 1230, the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II issued a document called the Dubrovnik Charter, which gave the merchants from Dubrovnik the right to freely trade on the territory of our kingdom. Last year, our Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and the Mayor of Dubrovnik, Mato Franković, unveiled a memorial stone of the Dubrovnik Charter. What are our bilateral trade and economic relations at the moment and are they as stimulated as they were in the past?

- As I said, Bulgarians and Croats have had a long-lasting friendship and excellent relations, and this should logically lead to good economic relations. But as do the Bulgarians, we, the Croats, feel that our potential is much greater than what we have accomplished so far. This is because the smaller countries seem to have more confidence in the larger ones, and when it comes to some economic problem or work, then we turn towards the more developed economies. For example, both Bulgaria and Croatia have great potential in IT technology. We are happy about it, but maybe we can further develop cooperation in this area. We worked hard and we organized a presentation showing the use of IT technology in the health care section, where Croatia has achievements, but the results are not as we expected.

We are proud of the good cooperation we have with Bulgaria in the field of infrastructure. On the 18th of May 2018, in Sofia, the prestigious Croatian company Končar - KET signed a contract with the National Electric Company EAD (NEK) for the rehabilitation of three hydro power plants from the cascade in the Rila Mountains (Belmeken, Sestrimo and Momina Klisura, located on the Kriva River, a flow of the Maritsa River). The installed capacity is 1200 MW and the budget is 20 million euro. Končar - KET will implement this project in a consortium together with the Czech company ČKD Blansko and the Slovenian company Rudis.

The Croatian construction company Konstruktor-inženjering also built part of the ring road in Sofia. A contract between Končar and BDZ for the reconstruction of locomotives has also been signed. There are also many smaller projects.

We have several prerequisites that can be considered as an advantage for the development of our economic relations, for example, the similarities in our language and mentality. A very big disadvantage for business however is the fact that we do not have a good road network and there are no direct flights. We have been trying to improve this for years, not just us, but also the Bulgarian Embassy in Croatia. The answer is that there is not enough interest. But the truth is that if there is a direct line, there will be more interest. No businessman would like to have delayed transportation when traveling. The same applies to the tourists nowadays. It is a paradox is that from Sofia, I can get faster to the USA than to Zagreb. That is the reason why one of the highlights of the Bulgarian Presidency wasthe connectivity on the Balkans. It is extremely necessary for us all. Whenever I talk to colleagues, I mention that we had been better connected during Agatha Christie’s time with the Orient Express, than we are now.

We have tried to do everything possible for the development of our economic relations and therefore,I am very proud that I was awarded Ambassador of the Yearby the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2016.

- In May, our Prime Minister was on an official visit to Croatia, where he met the Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković. The main topic was the Western Balkans. Tell us more about the results of this visit...

- Our Prime Minister, even before the Bulgarian Presidency, promised to your Prime Ministerthat we would continue the subject of the Western Balkans. That means doing our best to make our neighbors part of our European family and NATO. And when Mr. Plenković came to Sofia for the summit during your presidency, he had a special place. His role on the subject was specifically emphasised by Prime Minister Borissov. As if it had just been set by the Bulgarian Presidency and Croatia had not committed to continue it, it might have just faded away. We believe we need to keep this topic alive, as it is very important. And I think that as EU Member States, Croatia in the north and Bulgaria in the south, we are somehow responsible for our region.

Another important result of Mr. Borissov's visit is that he unveiled a monument of Ivan Vazov in Zagreb. This is a sign of the deep friendship between our two countries. Ivan Vazov is one of the many intellectuals who have visited Croatia, where he had friends, his workshave been published there, for example "Under the Yoke", which was translated into Croatian by Fran S. Gundrum - Oriovčanin. In fact, our intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century were exclusively connected, they had a creative exchange - their works were translated and published. Of course, a great role for this was played by Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer. He offered scholarships to many young Bulgarians to study in Zagreb. We can talk a lot about our relationships over the centuries, but it is important to renew and develop our historical connectivity in all spheres even further.

- You have a law degree. How do our relations in the field of judiciary develop, is there exchange of good practices?

- They often blame our country, as well as yours, that our judicial system does  not function very well. Similar to you, we are trying to modernize it. And in this area we have developed bilateral relations and contacts between the courts. I must emphasize that both Bulgaria and Croatia have signed all conventions on cooperation in the field of justice and international legal assistance. And in this sense, our contacts regarding the functioning of our judicial systems are excellent.

- The Vučedol dove, the symbol of Croatia, is also a symbol of peace and hope. Tell us more about it ...

- The Vučedol dove became a symbol of peace during the aggression over our land. Vučedol is a place near Vukovar, and you know that this was the first city to be completely destroyed during the agression. In addition, there is a concept "Vučedol culture", which is part of a much larger cultural territory in the Danube region, extending from the Carpathians in the North to the Dinars in the South. The Vučedol culture dates back to 3000 BC. and is known for its highly developed metallurgy and ceramics. To this day its terrain is being explored and new valuable artifacts are being found. Three years ago a museum dedicated to the Vučedol culture was opened in Vukovar. Like many new museums in Croatia this one is also highly digital and is very interesting, it even was nominated "European Museum of the Year" in 2018.

So the Vučedol dove is a well-known artifact of this culture dating back to 2800-2400 BC. It was used as a ritual vessel. By the way, there are other well-known artifacts from the Vučedol culture, for example, the Vučedol boot.

And as the dove is a symbol of peace around the world, we, as a result of the war, adopted the Vučedol dove as our national peace symbol.

- There are interesting cultural events and festivals in both Croatia and Bulgaria. How good is the cultural exchange between our countries?

- Both Bulgaria and Croatia have many festivals, we obviously love them. And the exchange of participants in them is good. I have learned that here you have exclusive festivals related to folk traditions, folklore, dance and music. In Croatia, we have some more specific festivals, like the Dubrovnik Summer Festival featuring arts like theater, music and folklore, with guests from all over the world. Another great festival is Split Summer. There are, of course, many other festivals that deserve attention, but unfortunately, because of the form of the interview, I could not list them all.

- You have a beautiful coastline on the Adriatic Sea and numerous islands. Is the tourist flow for summer holidays from Bulgaria increasing and vice versa? To what extent istourism between the two countries developed?

- Tourism is highly developed both in Bulgaria and in Croatia. We have a huge number of visitors per year - about twenty million, with a population in the country of four million and one hundred thousand. Bulgaria has more than eight million tourists, which is also above its population number. The two countries have an exceptional cooperation in the field of tourism. A joint initiative was proposed during the Bulgarian Presidency - to create a tourism fund in the European Union that will support countries with highly developed tourism but also those in which that field needs to be further developed. We hope this fund will really be created.

As for the number of tourists from Bulgaria who visit our country, they are about 50-60 thousand a year. This number could increase significantly. Many Bulgarians travel through Zagreb to other places in Europe and we strive to keep them for more days in the city. Otherwise, there are charter flights to our sea resorts Dubrovnik and the island Krk in the summer, but unfortunately they are only from Varna.

I have to mention one more thing - preparations for the Christmas holidays,  Advent, begin four weeks before Christmas in Zagreb. For the third year in a row, the capital has received the "Best Christmas Bazaar in Europe" award, which attracts tourists during the winter.

- Croatia has rich tangible and intangible cultural heritage protected by UNESCO. Besides the world-famous Dubrovnik and Split, what other tourist sites would you recommend to compatriots?

- Šibenik, with its cathedral, our archaeological sites, the National Park of the Plitvice Lakes, the Krka Riverwaterfalls, Kopački Rit, the Lonjsko polje... We also have one of the largest arenas from Roman times - the Pula Arena, the 6th largest in the world, as well as many other attractions.

It is interesting to say that when people think of Croatia, it is usually all about the sea, but we have many other things too - rich cultural heritage and beautiful scenery with rare biological species. In our country there are some of the largest European nature reserves. We have many natural phenomena, underwater rivers and exceptionally beautiful lakes. We have more than 1200 islands, of course not all of them are inhabited but they are like pearls in the Adriatic.

- You also gave the tie to the world ...

- Its name is "cravat" which derives from the word "croate", which in French means Croat. According to our old tradition, when a man goes to war, his beloved ties a hand-crafted scarf with beautiful patterns around his neck, to remind him of her love. During the Thirty Year War, the French King Louis XIII was impressed by these scarves of the Croat soldiers. And since the French have a good sense of elegance, they liked the scarf; soon it came into fashion in France and then all over the world.

- Did you get to know Bulgaria during your mandate? What are the impressions you kept from the country, the people, the culture ...

- I traveled a lot, but time is never enough for everything. On one hand, I saw what world pearls you have as cultural heritage. On the other hand, I noticed the similarity in the nature of our lands. They both have sea and mountains, with yours being slightly higher. I have always told my colleagues that you have the unique Perperikon, which is for me the Machu Picchu of Europe. The Rila Lakes are a phenomenon that stops the breath of a man, and the Rila Monastery is a true spiritual oasis. I also like Velingrad with its mineral waters, as well as, other wonderful towns and small villages. Every place here is different and every time I find something new with surprise. It is the same in Croatia: very diverse and beautiful. We have beautiful lands and we do not realize how blessed we are with our natural beauties.

Bulgaria will remain in my heart forever. I did not know the country well before I came here as an ambassador. But now I feel at home, may be because there are many common features among our peoples. I am sure that if a direct flight is launched between Sofia and Zagreb, I will come here often.

Photos: Embassy of the Republic of Croatia

First row: H. E. Ms. Ljerka Alajbeg, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Croatia to the Republic of Bulgaria with President Rumen Radev; with the Mayor of Sofia Municipality Yordanka Fandakova; with H. M. Tsar Simeon II; at the entrance of the Embassy

Second row: Her Excellency with children from Bozhurishte; with a folklore ensemble from the village of Mramor; in the park-museum Vladislav Varnenchik in Varna; in Veliko Tarnovo