President Bush yesterday said he did not know whether Russia's proposal to relocate a U.S. missile-defense system to Azerbaijan was "technically feasible" and offered Serbia possible rewards if it agreed to make Kosovo independent.
On the last day of an eight-day, six-country swing across Europe, the president visited Bulgaria, a reward for the small nation's deployment of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq and for allowing the use of four military bases.
As on the previous day during a stop to Albania, Mr. Bush was greeted warmly by the thousands of Bulgarians who stood along his motorcade route and packed a city square to see him. The president made all the right moves — laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier, greeting Bulgarian soldiers just back from duty in Afghanistan and Iraq and wading into a crowd for handshakes and hugs.
"We have accepted our responsibilities to help defend freedom against terrorists and extremists, and it's hard work. And I thank the people of Bulgaria for understanding the stakes, the true challenges of the 21st century," said Mr. Bush while standing alongside Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov.
The U.S. missile system — a military radar installation in the Czech Republic and 10 missiles in Poland to protect NATO allies from an attack by a rogue nation such as Iran or North Korea — came up again yesterday, with Mr. Bush voicing doubts about a Russian proposal.
At the Group of Eight summit in Germany last week, President Vladimir Putin surprised the White House by offering a radar site controlled by the Russian military in Azerbaijan as a replacement for the two Eastern European sites.
"And I said, 'That's a good idea, I don't know how — whether it's technologically feasible, I'm not an expert. I've got experts in my government, however, who could analyze your proposal,' " Mr. Bush said in a joint press conference.
While Moscow fiercely opposes the U.S. plan, fearing the missiles are aimed at Russia, Mr. Parvanov, as leader of the once-loyal Soviet ally, sought a middle ground.
"Bulgaria should not have to choose between the friendship between the U.S. and the friendship with Russia," he said.
Mr. Bush also held out a carrot to Serbia, which opposes independence for the Kosovo province. He said the Bulgarian president had offered an idea that "I agree with, and that is, is that as we seek independence for Kosovo, we've also got to make it clear to Serbia that there's a way forward, maybe in NATO, maybe in the EU, and definitely in better relations with the United States."
In the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, thousands lined the cobblestone main street through Nevsky Square as an honor guard played both countries' national anthems. The two presidents inspected a line of Bulgarian troops wearing white coats trimmed in red and navy pants tucked in high black boots.
Mr. Bush then worked a crowd of locals, reaching in to shake hands. Later outside the press conference, he eagerly approached another curious gathering — the third time in two days that he has done something he rarely does at home.
c This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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