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While Bulgaria continued down the path of political and economic reform in its effort to join the European Union (EU), the Bulgarian government embarked on a public diplomacy campaign to improve the overall image of Bulgaria among European citizens. In order to enhance the prospects for meeting its goal of joining the organization in January 2007, in January 2002 the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Bulgaria established a formal Communication Strategy aiming to create a more modernized and democratic public image of Bulgaria. The Strategy is an example of an interesting case of public diplomacy where the Bulgarian government simultaneously works to improve the country’s image abroad while also encouraging broader understanding of the EU-membership and support for the required reforms at home.
Within the national campaign the goals of the Communication Strategy included: ensuring a high level of support for integration into the EU; keeping the Bulgarian public informed and involved in the accession process; and drawing attention to both the procedural steps towards accession, as well as the content and rationale of the reforms and the ensuing commitments for Bulgaria. A key objective in the effort was the involvement of all age, social and professional groups of Bulgarian society, including those who have not yet been interested in the EU-integration process. Internationally, the communication strategy also targeted various groups – the public at large, leaders and opinion makers, social and political institutions of the member-states, as well as those of the other aspirant countries, and the institutions at the transnational Union level. The Strategy’s aim was to project and fortify the image of Bulgaria as a stable political and economic system, good investment environment, a rich cultural and tourist destination, as well as to inform EU citizens of what Bulgaria had accomplished in its preparation for accession.
To reach these goals the Communication Strategy engaged government institutions and civil society using public awareness campaigns, discussions, conferences, workshops, and international forums. It sponsored projects to disseminate informational materials and set up Internet portals (Evroportal, Euractiv) and information centers in both the EU countries and Bulgaria. Other activities included publications in prestigious European media and specialized journals and participation in major EU events.
The Communication Strategy was implemented through the 2002-2006 Action Plan and annual Work Programs approved by the Council of Ministers. Each year the Council of Ministers adopted a specific Work Program that aimed to implement a particular element of the overall strategic goals.
The 2002 Work Program coincided with the most demanding stage of the accession process where a number of complicated issues were being negotiated during a time when a bulk of unpopular reforms were beginning to be put into effect. At the outset, Bulgaria relied on the experience of the EU member-countries and the other candidate-countries in implementing its Communication Strategy. For example, significant technical assistance provided by the Dutch embassy in Bulgaria was pivotal to the early success of the program (for more information, see: MATRA; and here: Diplomatic Dispatches - The Dutch ambassador discusses the ransition from national and multilateral diplomacy to public diplomacy). In these early stages of Bulgaria’s public diplomacy campaign, the first priority was to create a decentralized network of contacts, both individuals and institutions, which could help in the implementation of the communication strategy. In order to reach the various groups of citizens, over 100 partner organizations - governmental and non-governmental, media, academia, professional and business groups and individuals, were mobilized to ensure widespread and comprehensive circulation of the message. At this point, the specific goal was to develop a unified approach towards building a positive image of Bulgaria, not only as laid out by the Communication Strategy, but also as a national concept to better coordinate the work of all institutions. In particular, the international campaign included a series of political, cultural and other activities, such as: presenting information on Bulgarian history, government, and its contribution to world culture in the European Convent on the Day of Bulgarian Culture; harmonization of the embassies’ web pages to project a unified image of Bulgaria as a candidate-country; providing special press conferences for international journalists; publishing information about Bulgaria in the “Europe Diplomatic Magazine�? and other European print media; participating in the Open Doors Day in Berlin, Strasbourg etc. and in the Europalia 2002 (an annual event meant to improve European public awareness of the guest country's cultural heritage); in addition to other efforts aiming at the broad dissemination of informational materials to people within the EU.
2003 was a crucial year for Bulgaria in that it established a concrete time and political framework for the actual accession into the EU. Because the integration process enjoyed an extremely high support among Bulgarians, the government was able to focus more on the international aspect of the communication campaign. The work of the diplomatic missions in the international campaign was supported by the Bulgarian communities and their organizations abroad. The State Agency for the Bulgarians Abroad was responsible for the mobilization and coordination of their resources and outreach efforts. Numerous cultural events, including celebrations of national holydays, exhibitions and distribution of Bulgarian art and cinema, and concerts displaying the Bulgarian musical culture were arranged in each EU-member country with the cooperation of local authorities and organizations. In addition, several governmental institutions were engaged in publishing advertising materials and developing multimedia products that would present the country’s contribution and development in various spheres such as business, economy, culture, tourism, social policy etc.
In 2004, the negotiations on accession were coming to an end and Bulgaria proceeded from codifying the required EU standards into its legal system toward actual implementation of the legal regulations into practice. Yet, 2004 was a hectic year for the EU, signified by robust debates regarding the adoption of the European constitution, the enlargement of the EU to ten new countries, and the election of a European Parliament and a European commission from all 25 countries. At the same time, the Bulgarian public support for integration into the EU remained unusually high despite the approaching accession date, which, based on the experience of other candidate countries, often results in the adoption of a more realistic point of view and a drop in public support for reform. Therefore, the 2004 Work Program focused on the national campaign in order to educate the so-called "uninformed optimists." At an international level, it was during this period that Bulgaria was able to receive important feedback on its public diplomacy efforts from EU states. The Bulgarian Media Coalition undertook a Survey on the image of Bulgaria in foreign media to help track the success of the communication strategy and interpret the messages that it had sent abroad.
In 2005, the priority was on the signing of the EU Accession Treaty with Bulgaria, an event that has attracted significant public attention at home and abroad. In order to be successful, Bulgaria continued to consistently explain to the European public the results of the closed negotiations with the EU, as well as the potential positive contribution that the country would provide as an EU member in all spheres of the economic and public life. Appropriately, efforts were aimed at highlighting the signing of the Accession treaty and presenting Bulgaria as a promissing member-state in order to maximize the speed with which the accession treaty is ratified by EU member states.
The success of Bulgarian public diplomacy in the framework of the Communication Strategy can be estimated based on the results of the (Eurobarometer surveys) between 9 May and 14 June 2005 among the citizens of the European Union, the two accession-countries (Bulgaria and Rumania) and the two candidate-countries (Croatia and Turkey). This Eurobarometer was carried out in an atmosphere strongly marked by debates over the text of the European Constitution and the ratification process, on the eve of the French and Dutch referenda. It is noteworthy that only half of the respondents in the 25 current Member States were in favour of further enlargement of the European Union in future years (50%). This result has fallen by 3 points since 2004 and is followed by a proportional increase in the level of opposition to the idea (38%). In the same time, a comparative analysis shows that Bulgaria was making progress in improving its positions abroad. Even though there had been a group approach to Bulgaria and Rumania and despite the fact that both countries had been following a parallel pace of negotiations, one in two citizens were in favour of Bulgaria joining the European Union (50% in favor; 36% against), whereas opinions seemed to be more divided with regards to Rumania (45% in favor; 41% against). Within these 50%, Bulgaria enjoyed better acceptance from the citizens of the new Member States (70% in favor of Bulgaria becoming a part of the European Union), while only 46% of the citizens in the 15 old Member States were positively inclined towards the country’s future accession.
In the same time, considering the status of Bulgaria’s efforts at public diplomacy before the launch of the Communication strategy, it can be concluded that success had been achieved in several respects. First, the communication strategy provided for an effective mechanism for partnership and coordination between government institutions, local and regional authorities, non-governmental organizations, business, and media. Second, initiatives were no longer directed to work exclusively with the institutions of the EU, the Member States and candidates for membership. Third, information materials in foreign languages on the candidacy of Bulgaria for EU membership were broadly disseminated and the communication with the average citizens was increased substantially. Fourth, considerable work was done to attract the attention of foreign media to Bulgaria as a topic of interest, and numerous cultural events intended for popularizing Bulgaria abroad were organized. In addition, as a result of the national campaign three-quarters of Bulgarians felt more attached to Europe. Although it decreased slightly trust in the EU in Bulgaria remained higher than the EU average and in most of the EU-member states.
Overall, the most important indicator of the success of the Communication Strategy was the positive feedback coming from the European Union. At the time, the EU's Enlargement webpage commented that Bulgaria is widely considered to be the most likely of the Balkan countries to join the EU in 2007.
- Bulgarian Council of Ministers on the Communication Strategy for the Preparation of Bulgaria for Membership in the European Union