Bulgaria Won't Budge

Bulgarian army honour guards carry one of five coffins of Bulgarian soldiers killed in Karbala on December 30, 2003. (Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP-Getty Images)

The Bulgarian dailies are full of reports of warnings by the al-Tawhid group to turn Bulgaria “into pools of blood” alongside Poland, unless the two countries withdraw their troops from Iraq. The 485 Bulgarian peacekeepers perform police duties in the Shiite holy city of Karbala under Polish command. Despite a deadly bomb attack on the Bulgarian base last December, and the kidnapping of two Bulgarian truckers in Iraq in late June, Bulgaria has vowed not to budge.

The Islamist militant group al-Tawhid, claiming to be the "European cell of al-Qaeda," is more than a “one-day wonder, which shines with reflected light.” The phrase was coined by Arab expert Boyan Chukov and relates to the mushrooming terror groups in Iraq that flaunt their alleged affiliation with Bin Laden or Zarkawi.

Members of al-Tawhid have passed through the Balkans in previous years and some have recently been arrested in Germany, Bulgarian intelligence officers told the press.

The Bulgarian papers have been covering the tightened security arrangements around potential terrorist targets in Bulgaria and report that most of the politicians say that a premature withdrawal from Iraq is unthinkable.

The Bulgarian press concurs that the creation of an Iraqi statehood is the prime target of the terrorists, because even weak, but functioning institutions will strangle them sooner or later. Therefore the extremists’ only hope is to wreak havoc inside Iraq and intimidate the U.S. allies in order to cause the breakdown of the coalition. And since they have succeeded in forcing the withdrawal of Spain and the Philippines, now they are encouraged to try the same trick on Eastern Europe, editors say. And they warn against playing down the threat.

"There is a point in being scared and an attack may well be inevitable. All who claim the opposite are helping the terrorists," comments the independent Standart News on July 22. The article goes on to say, "The terrorists…will strike in countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria because we are absolutely helpless.”

Elaborating on why Bulgaria is so vulnerable, the Standart News stresses that firstly, the small country has a 20,000-strong Arab community, and very few are on any police, communal or business records. Secondly, the Bulgarian intelligence and counter-intelligence networks are in shambles following 15 years of politically motivated restructuring. Thirdly, the police force is so demoralized and corrupt, that it can hardly be expected to protect the citizens in case of an attack.

To make matters worse, Standart News concludes, the sites that are most attractive to terrorists in Bulgaria are so poorly built and secured, that they might just as well display “You are welcome, Al-Qaeda!” billboards.

Standart News also reports that with such threats in sight, national security expert Tsvyatko Tsvetkov urgently calls for a creation of a crisis headquarters to tackle all Iraqi-related matters. Tsvetkov points out that Bulgaria should not withdraw from Iraq now, but urges the government to formulate a precise strategy and time frame for our presence there.

"The blow will be outside Bulgaria," predicts professor Nansen Behar, head of the Institute of Social and Political Analysis in an interview for the independent mass-circulation Trud on July 22. Behar believes that "modern terrorism is an economic battle between old and new financial groups involved in drugs and arms trafficking.” Professor Behar also advises that the Bulgarian media should not follow the Qatar-based TV station al-Jazeera, and “stop fanning tensions in the troubled Bulgarian society.” He claims that terrorists are monitoring the Bulgarian press very carefully for information that may help their plots.

Such criticism of the media’s conduct seems to be justified to some extent. Bulgarian tabloids have certainly overreacted with the hostage drama, aggressively approaching relatives of abducted truck drivers Ivailo Kepov, and Georgy Lazov, and publishing poster-sized pictures of crying family members, as well as continuously running photographs of the hostages tied and kneeling, taken from an al-Jazeera broadcast.

Lazov’s death was officially confirmed a few days after al-Tawhid sent a tape to al-Jazeera television that showed a similar looking man in an orange jump suit being beheaded.

Kepov’s fate is still not clear, though the Bulgarian media quoted a spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, who said that the trucker’s body had been found.

“The tragic incident took us by surprise and …was drowned in media hysteria, funereal clichés and patriotic blabber, when what we needed was a sober and serious discourse,” journalist Lyuboslava Ruseva writes in the conservative Dnevnik on July 15.

But to their credit, Bulgarian journalists have been keeping a close watch on all diplomatic blunders in the handling of the hostage crisis. Foreign minister Solomon Passy, who is of Jewish origin, was lambasted not for passivity (the pun was intended), but for his hyper-activity. “Passy made a lot of unnecessary moves,” journalist Vladimir Dvoretsky reported in Novinar on July 17. The report went on to say, “His desire to be…a front-man at any cost may be good for an army commander, but not for a minister of foreign affairs. The signals that Passy sent to the Arab-Muslim community (like holding the Holy Quran in front of the TV cameras when pleading for the release of the hostages) were doomed to be counterproductive.” Dvoretsky also noted “Passy, at the outset of the hostage crisis categorically stressed that the policy of Bulgaria will not change under any circumstances, thus closing the door for negotiations with the terrorists.”

The lesson Bulgarians are taking from this is that we are no longer living “in an air-tight capsule” and may have to pay a price for our freedom and civilized choices. What hampers us still, according to social anthropologist Harlan Alexandrov in an article in Sega on July 16, is “our primitive bonds of vulnerability and sympathy for the victim, coupled with our sluggishness to stand up for a common cause.”