Members of the diplomatic corps in Bulgaria, the America for Bulgaria Foundation team, and civil society organizations and media came together on Thursday, February 2, to discuss the importance of civil society in a democracy. Speakers at the event included ABF President Nancy Schiller, the ambassadors of Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States, and Nadia Shabani, director of the Bulgarian Center for Not-for-Profit Law (BCNL), the largest expert organization supporting the work of Bulgarian civil society organizations.
The event took place at a soon-to-be-opened social space run by BCNL and partners showcasing the work of over 30 social enterprises from around the country.
Ms. Shabani, the event’s host, welcomed the guests by saying: “We are in Sofia’s brand-new social space, which was created by civic organizations. More importantly, everything you see here — objects, furniture, decorations — was created by people who protect the environment, help people in need, preserve traditions, and develop learning and education.” She added that “over the past 20 years civic organizations in Bulgaria have been engines of change in all spheres of public life: fighting corruption, advocating for an independent judiciary, the building and development of democratic institutions. When our voice is strong, so is the voice of citizens who want committed institutions [and] open government.”
“Civil society is each and every one of us — citizens coming together to support a cause, to defend a right, to freely express a point of view, to enjoy our freedoms without fear of discrimination, to lend a hand to those in need,” said Ms. Schiller. “For 15 years, ABF has supported civil society. We are proud and privileged to work with such dedicated and passionate individuals. Your concern for your fellow citizens and for the democratic development of Bulgaria is impressive.”
“You are all aware of the great importance the US government places on partnering with civil society, both domestically and abroad. In fact, we have a duty to support, defend, and sustain civil society because democracy is impossible without a vibrant civil society,” said US Ambassador Herro Mustafa. She also highlighted some of the challenges faced by civil society in Bulgaria. “Sadly, during my time in Bulgaria, I also witnessed attempts to intimidate civil society and stymie your work. We always condemned those attacks and all attempts to silence your voices – and will continue to do so.”
German ambassador Irene Maria Plank highlighted two areas in which the Embassy of Germany will cooperate actively with Bulgarian civic organizations: media freedom and quality journalism as well as the rule of law. She emphasized that “a well-functioning legal system is a key prerequisite for a well-functioning democracy and civil society. There’s a lot of disinformation around, especially spread by social media and press that’s not quality journalism. So, we think in order for voters to be able to form their own democratically justified opinion, it is very necessary to strengthen quality journalism, to strengthen free media. And this is what we want to focus on together with you.”
Swiss Ambassador Raymund Furrer commended the work of civil society organizations, saying: “It is complex, it is also sometimes difficult, and I want to salute you for the civic engagement, skills, constructive and sometimes creative approaches.”
Spanish Ambassador Alejandro Polanco Mata sees civil society organizations as a key part of sustainably conserving traditions and cultural heritage and hopes that more such organizations will emerge in Bulgaria’s tourism sector. He underscored that cooperation with civil society will be an area of priority for Spain, which assumes the presidency of the Council of the European Union in July. Another will be the social aspect of the EU. “In this social aspect, you have a really important role to play,” he said in reference to civil society organizations.