Bulgaria Moves from Backyard to Frontline

Bulgarians were not expecting that some of them would die in action alongside coalition forces in Iraq long before they could join NATO.

Six Bulgarian soldiers were killed and 27 wounded in a major suicide attack in Iraq late December. Around 500 Bulgarian troops currently support coalition efforts to establish peace in post-war Iraq.

The attack caused considerable stir among the Bulgarian public. It was decided to list the names of the dead soldiers on a memorial in central Sofia together with Bulgarian victims in the two world wars.

Bulgarians were shocked as the Italians were after they faced a similar loss. But the difference was that the Bulgarian public was not ready to deal with the negative consequences of military action, not least until it had become a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Some Bulgarian soldiers who had volunteered to join coalition forces in Iraq have now deferred their decisions. But Bulgarian troops will continue to serve in Iraq.

Deputy minister for defence Ilko Dimitrov who undertook an investigation into the death of the soldiers said such incidents cannot always be avoided. But he said the ministry will improve training in anti-terrorist operations.

Movement into NATO is now being speeded up. Newly elected NATO secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced just days after the bombing that the seven new NATO members will be admitted in a matter of weeks, not months. The seven are Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Chairman of the Bulgarian parliament Prof Ognian Gerdjikov has mentioned April 4 as a likely date for Bulgaria after parliament votes in new legislation. He also says the Bulgarian public should have more realistic expectations of Bulgaria’s membership in NATO.

But after years of isolation, the Bulgarian government could have gone a few steps too far in pushing its luck with public opinion. Foreign minister Solomon Passi has suggested in the financial weekly Pari that the location of a new NATO base close to a seaside town would attract more tourists.

NATO is planning several new military bases in Bulgaria. The government considers these good business and a new strategic opportunity. But several experts at a recent conference held in London on NATO’s transformation warned of potential public resistance to NATO.

Large anti-demonstrations were held a year ago against war on Iraq. The government will need to take a closer look at implementation of NATO priorities in Bulgaria, the experts said.

Defence minister Nikolay Svinarov has meanwhile announced a further 2.5 billion dollar investment in modernisation of the Bulgarian army and its equipment, fulfilling another NATO requirement.

De Hoop Scheffer, like his predecessor Lord Robertson wants to keep up the pressure on NATO’s European members to improve their military capabilities and keep up defence spending. He said he favoured a greater role for the European Union (EU) in defence provided it is backed by a common foreign policy and does not conflict with NATO.

Bulgaria’s membership of NATO will be its first tangible success also on the bumpy road to the EU.

The gap between short-term policies and long-term interests in Europe was the key reason for Bulgarian accession to the EU to be scheduled to 2007 (along with Romania) rather than May 1 this year.

In the initial EU enlargement plans Bulgaria had been included in the first group, which will now include Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. But the Bulgarian economy now satisfies EU accession criteria.