- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

SOFIA, Bulgaria, March 1 (UPI) — Russian President Vladimir Putin Saturday began a three-day official visit to Bulgaria.

It is the first visit by a Russian head of state to the small Balkan country in 10 years and was planed to coincide with nation-wide celebrations marking the 125th anniversary of Bulgaria's liberation by Russian troops from five centuries of Ottoman rule.

It is expected however that the talks between Putin and his hosts, President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Simeon Saxcoburggotski, will focus on more contemporary maters, the Iraq crisis in particular.

Bulgaria is currently a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and has staunchly supported the position of the United States and Great Britain on Iraq.

Saxcoburggotski visited the United States last week at the invitation of President George W. Bush to discus the Iraq crisis and reaffirmed Bulgaria's support for the U.S. position.

Bulgaria has already granted U.S. requests for use of its airspace and the stationing of refueling aircraft on its territory in the event of an attack on Iraq.

Before the fall of communism Bulgaria was considered to be the closest ally of the Soviet Union but in the past decade relations with Russia have declined steeply with Bulgaria insisting that its priorities are membership in NATO and the European Union.

Nevertheless, Bulgaria's economy needs Russian raw materials and chemicals, particularly natural gas, petrol and fertilizers. At the same time the vast Russian market is a natural target for Bulgarian products and analysts expect that improved economic cooperation between the two countries will be a priority topic for Bulgarian officials.

In recent months many influential voices Bulgaria have called for a more balanced foreign policy, which would take into account Bulgaria's interest in an improved relationship with Russia.

Russia's desire for a greater role on the Balkans is well known and there is little doubt in the significance of Putin's visit to Bulgaria, coming as it does at a time of great international tension, a time when the Balkans are gaining added importance for the United States.

It remains to be seen if his hosts will be able to take advantage of Bulgaria's increased geopolitical importance to reap additional benefits both from the United States and Russia.

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