In March 2003, on the way from the airport to the downtown of Bishkek, a huge sign surprised me: “Kyrgyzstan – the Switzerland of Central Asia”. It should be easy to work on a World Bank assignment in a country that wants to see itself as some sort of Switzerland, I said to myself. In the Balkans as well, entire countries – at least Macedonia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Montenegro – as well as towns, villages and squares (for the sake of tourism advertisement) surname themselves “Switzerland”. In my country, in Bulgaria, “Switzerland” as an ideal is everywhere, too. It stands for a policy promise or a political ideal, if not for a government program like the one implemented a decade ago in Kyrgyzstan. Like any ideal, it has attractive, at times disappointing, at times funny but always nice and distant connotations.

When Bulgarian politicians try to be “Swiss”, they unfortunately usually end up Bulgarian. The attribute “Swiss” helps them to sell a reform to the public, but the implementation remains chaotic and ends up in full contradiction to the original principles. Advocated as a Swiss-style reform which everyone would appreciate, the Bulgarian government has amended the pension system, for example, introducing in 2004 the so-called “Swiss rule”: All people in retirement age were assigned to diverse professional categories by law, according to which they would receive a defined minimum monthly pension payment, adjustable to inflation. Both these categories and the minimum insurance thresholds have ever since been upgraded annually by government decree. When the economy was in decline, however, as it happened in 2009 after eleven years of 5 to 6 percent GDP growth, or when inflation was negative, as between 2010 and 2014, the thresholds were moved up instead of down, as the said “rule” would have implied. At other times, the rule was abandoned as well, though in a different manner. In 2007 and 2008, for example, the economy grew by 6 and 7 percent respectively (and inflation was hovering at about same levels), but the pensions were adjusted by 25 and 27 percent. Then some politicians jumped to advocate a “restoration of the Swiss rule”. The result however was to be expected – the deficit of the state pension fund has now risen to about 8 to 9 percent of GDP per annum and there are voices calling for a nationalization of private pension savings. Is this “Swiss style”? Certainly not.

The promise to convert Bulgaria into a “Switzerland of the Balkans” has been present in all electoral campaigns since 1989, sometimes combined with a promise that “if my party wins, Bulgarians will be rich enough to spend summer vacations in Greece”. Only recently, however, the political leaders have begun to really and seriously study the Swiss political order and now attempt to replicate it with more boldness and less folklore. In 1989, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, all Bulgarians were true believers in democracy. Nobody doubted that democracy would be omnipotent in bringing about prosperity. We wanted to introduce democratic referenda as a key participatory technique in order to prevail in public life, just like in Switzerland. The relevant law, somewhat complicated, was finally adopted in 2008. Since then, it has been tried out a few times at the municipal level and once at the national level.

My old friend Julian Popov, who briefly served as Minister of environment and water, wrote one day: “There is something about Switzerland that makes us think this is how things should be in Bulgaria”, and published a book on the matter, “English Bulgaria or the Switzerland of the Balkans” (2004). In 2005, I translated “Tolerance and Free Trade: the Case of Switzerland”, Victoria Curzon-Price’s (2005) few-page brilliant summary of Swiss history and polity, for the Bulgarian public. In 2010, a Macedonian author published virtually the same book about Macedonia.) In 2011, another friend, Georgi Vasilev, a Swiss banker and investor of Bulgarian origin, after years of disappointment with the manners in his home country, financed and established a political partyin order to try and change things for the better. The party brought in Swiss advisors, campaigned on eliminating the financing of political parties out of the fiscal budget, organized debates on institutions and has become the most educated and sympathetic contestant in Bulgarian political life. Alas, it did not do well in the general elections.

Even if he was unsuccessful as party leader, this friend of mine is very successful with his investments in the Bulgarian wine and logistics industries. He doesn’t stand alone. Switzerland, his new home, holds the ninth place as a foreign investor in Bulgaria with investments amounting to a cumulated sum of 1.2 billion euros over the past twenty years, which corresponds to about 1 percent of the total cumulated FDI. In the year 2012 alone, Switzerland was the third biggest investor in Bulgaria. By the way, Bulgaria holds the world record in annual FDI, with 30 percent of GDP in 2007 and 2008. After 2009, however, due to the global financial crisis, the FDI evaporated and shrank to no more than 3 to 4 percent of GDP per annum.

The Swiss investments bring quality and thus make a difference. In mid-1990s, Nestlé bought the largest chocolate factory in Bulgaria and turned into a success. In 1993s, a Swiss grant and training program gave birth to the first bio-milk operation, Rodopa Milk. ABB is key green-field investor, since 1998 it has built four factories in Bulgaria and employs 1,800 workers. Holcim has five business operations; Liebherr employs no less than 1,500 workers. In a ranking of countries as employers, Switzerland, with 1 percent of the total accumulated FDIs, is the third or fourth most important foreign employer in Bulgaria. Whatever the background, fancy or real and pragmatic, Switzerland is an inspiration.

Related articles in our series on “Why Switzerland?”:

Why Switzerland is a “special case” and cannot be a model for other states (Jonathan Steinberg/ University of Pennsylvania und Cambridge)

False Modesty (Richard W. Rahn/ Cato Institute and Institute for Global Economic Growth)

The Swiss love for small things (Alberto Mingardi/ Istituto Bruno Leoni)

Those Swiss again! (Franz Schellhorn/ Agenda Austria)

Warum der Schweizer Föderalismus besser ist als der deutsche (von Detmar Doering/Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit)

Darum Schweiz (Karen Horn/Humboldt-Universität Berlin und Friedrich A. von Hayek-Gesellschaft)

Where Switzerland? (Wolfgang Kasper, professor emeritus of economics)

A Country in good working order (Razeen Sally, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore)

Learning from Switzerland an Schwyz  (Oliver Hartwich, The New Zealand Initiative)

Federal theology and property commons (Carlo Lottieri, professor of political philosophy at the University of Siena, Italy)