As Ambassador to Romania I was resident in Bucharest but was also concurrently accredited to Bulgaria and Moldova. According to the rules a non-resident Ambassador has to pay at least two week-long visits a year to every country of concurrent accreditation.
In 2000 I presented my credentials in Sofia to President Petar Stoyanov in a simple and graceful ceremony. The Ambassador-designate is presented a guard of honour in the open square outside the entrance to the Presidency situated in the city center, on one of the main thoroughfares of Sofia. Passersby stop by the roadside to watch the parade and peer at the foreign Ambassador. After this he is led to the main hall of the presidency where the President stands waiting at the far end of the red carpet. As the name of the Ambassador and his country is announced he walks up and presents his letter of credence; this is followed by a customary chat session.
In my chat with the Bulgarian President I mentioned that one third of the seats in the national Assembly of Pakistan are reserved for women. This elicited a rather incredulous response from President Stroyanov. He asked me to repeat what I had just said. When I delivered the same information again, he turned to his Foreign Secretary and aides and said, ‘Did you hear that?’
I suppose this surprise is thanks to a lot of negative media coverage of Pakistan on the international front, and also because our diplomatic relations with Bulgaria are limited. The number of high level visits between the two countries have also been few and far between, but now we do have Pakistani missions in both Sofia and Chisinau. Here’s to hoping that the two nations can learn more about each other, and though the lot of women in Pakistan isn’t the best, it has elements of positivity that the world knows nothing about and could be brought to the forefront by Pakistan’s diplomatic missions everywhere.
The first Bulgarian state was formed in the late 7th century when the Bulgars, a central Asian tribe, merged with the local Slavic inhabitants. By the end of the 14th century the country was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Bulgaria gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1908. The Bulgarians sided with Germany in the two World Wars. Consequently, they came under the Soviet sphere of influence at the end of WW II and became the Communist Peoples Republic of Bulgaria. The Communist era came to an end in 1990 and the country held the multi party elections to usher in the democratic system of government after the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1991. Bulgaria has a market economy now; joined NATO in 2004 and was admitted to the European Union in 2007.
Pakistan has limited, but good relations with Bulgaria, that were established in 1965. Pakistan’s Embassy in Sofia was later closed but has been re-opened again. The Foreign Minister of Bulgaria paid an official visit to Pakistan in 2011. An agreement on economic cooperation between the two countries was signed during the visit. During the time I served as Ambassador to Bulgaria, on 12 February 2002, I signed an agreement on reciprocal promotion and protection of investment between Bulgaria and Pakistan. Pakistani exports to the country include rice, textiles, leather, sports goods and surgical instruments. Our imports from Bulgaria include synthetic fibers, sunflower, coriander and rape seeds, electric batteries and transformers. In the education sector, a number of Pakistani students obtain admission in Bulgarian Universities in the fields of Engineering and Medicine.
[quote]The authoritative nun was a bit perplexed by the laughter[/quote]
The second country of my concurrent accreditation was the Republic of Moldova. My first visit was, of course, to present my credentials to President Petru Lucinschi in the capital Chisinau (pronounced Kee-shee-now). When I paid my next visit a year later I met the new President M. Vladimir Nicolaevici Voronin, Europe’s first democratically elected Communist Party head of state after the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. The occasion was the annual national wine festival to which all the resident as well as the non-resident Ambassadors were officially invited.
It was a colourful festival with very large number of people on decorated floats, including some loaded with wine barrels. Groups of men and women clad in beautiful national and regional costumes, singing and dancing walked through the main thoroughfares of the capital Chisinau. The spectators cheered them all along the route with some becoming become part of the carnival as it moved along. By midday we were taken to a large dining hall where the President hosted a lunch for all the local and foreign dignitaries present, including all the Ambassadors. President Voronin who came and shook hands with all the Ambassadors stopped for a while when he reached me, and asked if I drank alcohol, and if not, whether I had liked the festival. I relayed to him that I was in fact a teetotaler and was therefore unable to comment on the quality of Moldovan wines, but that I had greatly enjoyed the cultural content of the festival. He left with a twinkle in his eye.
Wine is the mainstay of Moldovan economy. Wine exports account for half the total export earnings of the country. For centuries vine growing and wine making has been one of the main, if not the main, occupation of the people of this small country of 4.5 million people and of area less than a quarter of Pakistan’s Sind province.
[quote]The streets in the caves are so wide that trucks loaded with large oak barrels pass through[/quote]
Moldova has the largest wine cellars in the world. Just a few kilometers north of the capital Chisinau, are situated the Cricova caves, deep underground. These caves which resulted from the quarrying of limestone for centuries, run for about one hundred kilometers at the depth of 200-260 feet. It is a labyrinth of subterranean streets named after different famous types/brands of wine. The low temperature (about 12-14 degrees centigrade) and the high humidity remain constant throughout the year, perfect for storing wines. The streets in the caves are so wide that one can drive a car and even trucks loaded with large oak barrels pass through. There are large meeting rooms, restaurants and dining halls for visitors, officials and workers. Cricova museum stores the national collection of 1.2 million bottles of local and world famous brands. Milesti Mici is another wine cellar, not far from Cricova. It also runs for another hundred kilometers and stores about 1.5 million bottles.
Moldova is a small East European country hedged in on three sides by Ukraine, and Romania on the fourth. Moldova became independent from the USSR in 1991 but Russian forces are still present on its territory on the east bank of river Dniester, where there is a majority Slavic population, supporting the breakaway government of Transnistria with its capital at Tiraspol. Even within Transnistria there is another little region which aspires for autonomy. It is the area inhabited by an ethnic minority, Gagauz, who are Turkic Christian people.
[quote]Quite a few of us Ambassadors were Muslims so we pointed each other to different figures on their way to hell[/quote]
Once during my time in Romania the Foreign Minister Mr. Mircea Geoana directed his Ministry to arrange a familiarization trip of the country for the accredited Ambassadors. We experienced great hospitality during the three day trip to the north east, close to the border with Moldova. The region boasts of scores of famous historical monasteries. Among these the Sucevita Monastery some 50 kilometers from Suceava. It is a beautiful building with high walls that make it look like a fortress. One side of it is painted over by local artists. Of much interest to us was a large part of the outer wall had a depiction of the ladder to Paradise, with winged angels attending to the righteous going up the ladder steps, inscribed with various virtues. On the left side of the same painting were rows of infidels driven by devils, falling through the rungs of another ladder, to the burning fires of hell. Among the visitors’ group quite a few of us Ambassadors were Muslims (infidels!), so we joked amongst ourselves, pointing each other to different figures on their way to hell.
On a visit to one of these monasteries the self confident and expressive nun, who was to conduct us to different parts and facilities of the premises, stood on a pedestal and gave us a briefing and history of the place. She mentioned that over fifty monasteries were built by the great conqueror Stephen Cel Mare because he would celebrate every victory against the Turks by ordering the building of another monastery. This produced muffled laughter among the Ambassadors because the Ambassador of Turkey was standing right in front of her. The authoritative nun, a bit perplexed at this response wondered aloud and asked if she had said something that had provoked the laughter. The Ambassador of Turkey Mr. Zeitunoglu volunteered to explain, “I am the Ambassador of the country which provided the reason for the building of so many of your magnificent monasteries’.