Mrs. Nikolova, do you have a vision on how to make Bulgaria a more attractive place to work and live?
There are specific goals and measures in the Government’s Program aimed at improving the quality of life, and we are gradually implementing them. In the last year alone, incomes have increased by 11%. I see how Bulgaria is turning into a more and more attractive place to live.
Economists claim that we are already in the vicious circle of “there are not enough investments because there are not enough people.” Is this statement true?
The shortage of workforce is a problem we work on with our social partners. You know that the access regime for third-country specialists was simplified as a measure to compensate this deficit. Our efforts were especially focused on the Bulgarian communities in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Serbia. Priority is given to highly qualified staff who receive an EU Blue Card. We are looking for other mechanisms, as well, but we are still facing issues with the shortage of human resources. There is almost no EU country unaffected by this problem. 400,000 people with specific qualifications are needed in Germany each year, and 1.5 million Ukrainians work in Poland. The situation is similar in the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Slovenia. However, I cannot agree that Bulgaria has entered into a vicious circle. The upward trend in foreign direct investment continues. This is also proved by the data of the BNB: In January-November 2019, FDI increased by EUR 989.2 million compared to an increase of EUR 521.6 million in the same period of 2018.
You make a lot of efforts to convince our compatriots abroad that it is worth returning to their homeland. What would motivate them?
The Environment and quality of life are undoubtedly the main motives for most people when choosing where to settle permanently. That is why, in the government policies, the focus is put on sustainably increasing incomes and improving living conditions from a social, health and educational point of view. The scope of the National EURES Network procedure implemented by the Employment Agency was recently expanded. By 2023, new activities will encourage Bulgarians to return from abroad. They will be provided with funds for renting an accommodation and for a babysitter, in case a kindergarten is not an option. Measures for integration of non-Bulgarian family members are envisaged. They will be supported in finding employment, as well as with other measures. There is already a trend of a steadily increasing number of returning students, and it is not uncommon for young people who have studied abroad to choose to realise their potential in Bulgaria.
The demographic situation is getting worse. Has the time come for Bulgaria, just like other EU countries, to start a birth-rate promotion program?
The birth rate in Bulgaria is declining and this process has been going on for several decades. Lately, an average of 62-65 thousand children are born each year. In terms of childbirth, the indicators of Bulgaria are similar to the EU average, which does not help us feel better. We use sectoral policies and take certain childbirth promotion measures to support families and birth rate. It is essential to protect the maternal and child health, for which the Ministry of Health works under special programs. For example, we are first in the EU in terms of length of paid maternity leave. If a woman returns to work prematurely, she gets 50% of her maternity benefit. We also provide family benefits in case of childbirth. The problem with promoting childbirth is complex, and experience has shown that financial assistance is not the key to overcoming the demographic collapse.
What should we expect in 2020 for the Bulgarian economy? Is there a way to impact the actual growth positively?
In the state budget for 2020, we have forecasted growth in our economy. However, unforeseen circumstances are also possible. Look at the effect of the coronavirus on China and on a global scale. We can say, however, that we have all the major factors for economic growth – an attractive tax policy, an increasing reduction in administrative burdens, supportive government instruments for serious investors and qualified workforce.
Are there mechanisms through which the economic activities can be more evenly distributed in the country
The state is looking for mechanisms to support the economy in the regions with slower development. This is the reason why we are creating industrial zones that are already proving their effectiveness and beneficial impact on the local economy. A targeted program under European funds is also included. Work is being done to improve the vocational training and skills of people in these regions. Among the new measures are financial incentives for people who have returned from abroad and who have started working in areas in the country that have lower remuneration levels than the national average.
You offer incentives for people who return from abroad. But does this not discriminate the Bulgarians in Bulgaria?
All of us who are living in Bulgaria are aware that we have a serious workforce shortage that is hampering the development of the economy, and this is affecting everyone here. We need to take measures to attract people from abroad – in the best-case scenario they should be of Bulgarian origin and actively participate in the labour market. Bulgarians, who have lived abroad for years, have no social environment and their own family “infrastructure” in Bulgaria and clearly need to be supported.
In March, Economy Magazine was co-organizer of a cybersecurity conference. How does the state administration, however, guarantee the security of the growing datasets of sensitive information?
The topic of cybersecurity is becoming more relevant due to the deepening process of digitalization of all activities. This is undoubtedly an important priority for the state. All factors for ensuring security must be provided, including high quality software products, reliable information networks, qualified specialists, storage of information in reliable structures. We are working hard on all these issues. Together with the technical aspects, we must also pay attention to the ethical dimensions. As part of the discussion on the draft of a new Code of Conduct for State Administration Employees, I made proposals to include texts on the ethical behaviour of state servants in cyberspace.
Your minimum program for 2020?
To ensure economic growth, cybersecurity and the prosperity of Bulgaria.