- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

SOFIA, Bulgaria The Bulgarians, never very good at lobbying the great powers or championing their causes on the world stage, had their own way of convincing NATO that they would be a worthy ally hard work.
Two weeks before the alliance is set to announce its second round of expansion since the end of the Cold War, NATO officials say there is consensus that Bulgaria, along with six other former communist states, will receive a membership invitation.
Of all the candidates, this Balkan nation of 7.6 million, which used to be the Soviet Union's most trusted satellite in Eastern Europe, has found it most difficult to find a Western mentor like its neighbor, Romania, has with France.
"So what we decided to do was to first become less of an enemy and then, as quickly as we could, a true ally of the West," Bulgarian Defense Minister Nikolai Svinarov told The Washington Times.
Politically, Bulgaria has been acting as a de facto ally since NATO's 1999 war with Serbia over Kosovo, when it offered the use of its airspace, Mr. Svinarov said.
It did the same soon after the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan began in October 2001. In addition, U.S. tanker planes that refueled combat aircraft used an air force base at its Black Sea port of Bourgas. Last winter, a Bulgarian platoon joined the multinational force in Afghanistan.
Militarily, the country has fulfilled all basic requirements for accession, NATO officials said in interviews at the alliance's Brussels headquarters. It is downsizing its armed forces from 100,000 to 45,000, with the military expected to become fully professional by 2010.
It has just destroyed nearly 100 Soviet-made SS-23, Scud and Frog missiles and adopted tough arms-trade laws. It is also spending well over 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, a key NATO condition, said Deputy Foreign Minister Lubomir Ivanov.
All this, current and former Bulgarian officials said, was a result of the realization that only hard work would achieve what diplomacy and close relations with powerful countries do for others.
"We are working really hard, and we are fully committed to becoming a NATO member," said Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. "We are a country of peace with all its neighbors that has contributed to stability in Southeast Europe."
But it took Bulgaria more than seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to unambiguously declare its orientation toward the West.
Former President Petar Stoyanov was the first politician to run an election campaign in late 1996 on NATO membership as a top priority. The government of Ivan Kostov, Mr. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha's predecessor, formally applied to join the alliance in 1997.
"Since then, I've been making the case that NATO membership is Bulgaria's civilization choice," Mr. Stoyanov said recently. "For us, the alliance is the best expression of trans-Atlantic cooperation."
The road to Prague, where NATO is expected to issue seven invitations on Nov. 21-22, was painfully hard, he said. The economy was in a shambles and organized crime and corruption were as widespread as unemployment. The country's military readiness was at best questionable.
Today, with help from international financial institutions, as well the European Union and NATO, the economic situation is much more stable, although living standards are nowhere near Western levels. Corruption is still deeply rooted in society, in spite of the official fight against it, said foreign diplomats in Sofia, the capital.
"The population is really frustrated by the continuing economic problems, the crime and corruption," one senior Western diplomat said. "The lack of a functioning, independent judicial system is another major hurdle. People get arrested for drug smuggling, and no one goes to jail."
Vessela Tabakova, a political scientist at the University of Sofia, said she is concerned that many Bulgarians have unrealistic hopes that their lives will almost instantly improve when the country becomes a NATO member.
"The government is doing little to explain to the people that membership carries serious responsibilities," she said.
In a peculiar way, while the drive to join NATO and the EU has had a positive effect on the economy, meeting some of the accession requirements has imposed a heavy social burden.
The high unemployment rate, which official figures put at nearly 20 percent, has been worsened by the tens of thousands of layoffs in the military. In many cases, those discharged are not at all prepared for the civilian job market.
But a growing number of ex-officers have found new employment through special centers established in 1999 to teach job interviewing and research skills, to advise on relocation and even put job-seekers directly in touch with potential employers.
"We also offer help on how to start your own business, because there is really no movement of the labor force in Bulgaria, and in some places setting up your own company is the only option," said Efrem Radev, director of the resettlement program.
He said that four centers with staff of 35 and dozens of regional representatives cover 139 cities. Half of the centers' trainees have found jobs so far.
Despite the serious economic and social problems still plaguing the country, Western officials see a basis of a stable allied state at the strategically important crossroads between Europe and the Middle East.
"The Bulgarians have a clear sense of identity, good social structures and a stable political system," the senior Western diplomat said. "There are no signs of ethnic tensions and no extreme parties. There is vigorous democratic political debate."
The most recent display of political passion came in public protests against dismantling the old Soviet missiles. Though people had no love of for the missiles, they feared environmental hazards, such as pollution and radiation.
The missile-destruction effort was temporarily suspended last month after a blast at a military plant injured four workers, causing worries that the process was unsafe.
But in a statement, the government said: "Overcoming some serious hurdles, Bulgaria destroyed the warheads of the missiles, guaranteeing safety and environmental protection."
The missiles' dismantling was seen by many Bulgarians as a bow to the United States, which insisted on it more than any other NATO member and helped pay for the process.
Bulgaria has also used its seat on the U.N. Security Council to score valuable points with Washington.
In a vote to support extending the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina in June, only two nations withheld support. The United States voted against the measure to protest the council's refusal to grant immunity to U.S. peacekeepers from the new International Criminal Court (ICC). Bulgaria abstained.
"That vote didn't go unnoticed," a State Department official said.
Mr. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha said there was obviously no consensus in the council and his country "didn't want to take sides."
U.S. officials say they are satisfied with public support for NATO membership in Bulgaria, another factor the alliance is considering as it makes its final decision on enlargement.
About half of Bulgarians are in favor of joining NATO, said Mira Yanova, executive director of MBMD, one the country's premier polling organizations. The level of support has dropped about 6 percent since last spring and about 15 percent since the summer of 2001, mainly because of people's economic desperation, as well as the uncertainty of NATO's future, she said.
Mr. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha said an invitation in Prague would be a well-deserved reward for nation that has worked tirelessly and yearns to see its efforts recognized.
When he went to see President Bush at the White House in April, Mr. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha warned that NATO's failure to invite Bulgaria could result in an anti-Western backlash.
"Some may even say that our relationship with the East is more reasonable, as in the old days of communism," he said.

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