- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2003

SOFIA, Bulgaria. — For anyone who has traveled in Europe, it will come as no secret that the further east you go, the friendlier people become toward Americans. In these days of tension between certain European and American politicians, it can in fact be a relief tomeeta friendly face on the other side of the Atlantic.

So, when the Bulgarian governmentlast week enthusiastically celebrated the 100th anniversary of friendship between the United States and Bulgaria, it was almost startling — sad though it is as a commentary on the state of transatlantic relations.

Several days of events surrounding the anniversary on Sept. 19 included the top political leadership of the country, as well as six American ambassadors to Sofia. It culminated Friday evening with a nationally televised concert of American and Bulgarian music as well as statements from President Bush and President Georgi Parvanov. To hear the music of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Miller intermingled with Bulgarian folksongs may well be a once-in-a- lifetime experience.

A small Balkan nation of just over 8 million people, once deep behind the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria has recently found itself the object of unusual levels of attention from Washington. Bulgarian Prime Minister — and former king — Simeon Saxe-Coburg took a strong line of support for the United States in Iraq. Bulgaria voted with the United States in the U.N. Security Council and has sent 500 troops for the postwar force in Iraq, out of a standing army of about 5,000. Bulgaria also has troops in Afghanistan.

The country cooperates with the United States, allowing the use of its airbases, and has strategically important seaports on the Black Sea. In the war against terror, the threat derives from the south and east, which is why Gen. Jim Jones, supreme commander of NATO in Europe, is very sensibly looking at a relocation of American military assets to the new members in Eastern and Central Europe. (Bulgaria is set to join NATO next year.)

Now, all this goodwill is of somewhat recent vintage. Bulgaria, formerly a good Soviet ally, was slow to reorient itself after the fall of communism in 1989. Years of Socialist rule in the 1990s delayed economic and democratic reforms. Sentiments toward Washington reached a low point in the summer of 1999, when the United States accidentally hit Bulgaria with a missile during the war against Serbia — this, at a time when Bulgarians were already suffering economic consequences of the war.

Another sign that relations may not be entirely smooth was the big new story in Sofia last week, the nomination of former Soviet-era intelligence operative Brigo Aspharuhov to special coordinator of the Defense and Interior Ministries. This is clearly a monumentally bad move on the part of Mr. Saxo-Coburg, which ought indeed to be discouraged by Washington.

Furthermore, allegiances in Bulgaria can shift. For this small nation dominated by the Ottoman Empire for centuries and later by the Soviet Union, national survival is the priority. As the saying goes here, “Bulgarians used to be the best friends of the Russians, now they are the best friends of the Americans.” Judging by popular sentiment, which reflects high hopes for European Union (EU) membership in 2007, Bulgarians may next become the best friends of the Europeans.

And the fact is that Central and Eastern European countries have for the past year found themselves between a rock and a hard place, squeezed between the EU, which they want to join for economic reasons, and the United States, to whom they look for support for membership in NATO. The war in Iraq, in particular, has tested their loyalties. In February, ten of these nations signed a letter in support of American policy in Iraq. For this, they got a stinging rebuke from French President Jacques Chirac, which they, in turn, deeply resented.

How to stay on good terms with both the Washington and Brussels can be a huge challenge, a diplomatic tightrope walk. Says Ognyan Minchev, director of the Bulgarian Institute for Regional and International Studies, “Healing the transatlantic rift is a matter of survival for us.”

Ultimately, though, it has to be recalled that we are now on the same side in world affairs, and that both the United States and Bulgaria stand to benefit from their relationship. “The main point is that shared civilizational values and goals will make our relations good and predictable. We used to live in a completely different world. That all changed 14 years ago,” says former President Peter Stoyanov. This is a promising way of looking at Bulgaria’s new path.

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