Disarming Bulgaria's Short- and Medium-Range Missiles

The Soviet Missiles Soap Opera

Soviet SCUD in Afghanistan, 1989 (Photo: AFP)

Eight months after the Bulgarian parliament gave a go-ahead to the destruction of the country’s Soviet-made short- and medium-range missiles by Oct. 30, no one is sure if the disarmament process will be completed before the crucial Nov. 21-22 NATO summit in Prague, where Bulgaria expects an invitation to join the alliance. Political strife and incompetence, civil protests, and technical obstacles are forcing daily changes to the dismantling schedule.

“The saga of the SS-23, SCUD, and FROG missiles threatens to eclipse any Latin American soap opera which rivets the average Bulgarian pensioner to the TV screen,” observed the editors of the independent conservative weekly Kapital (Aug.10-17). Voices from across the political spectrum in Bulgaria, from the hard-core anti-NATO activists of the Bulgarian Socialist Party to the right-wing Union of Democratic Forces, have made their views on this controversial issue public. But as Kapital’s editors concluded, “The only result of the raging verbal tornado is the feeling of a droopy government and swelling confusion, fed by the contradictory and often meaningless statements on the issue.”

Though it has reached fever pitch recently, fervor over Bulgaria’s missiles has been brewing for over a decade. Since 1990, the United States has pressured Bulgaria to do away with its arsenal of over 100 SS-23, SCUD, and FROG missiles, the last of such weapons remaining now in the countries of the defunct Warsaw Pact. The 188-mile range SCUD and the 40-mile FROG are outdated by today’s standards, but the mobile and highly accurate SS-23, with a range of more than 188 miles, is considered a viable threat.

Modeled using Stealth technology, the SS-23 cannot be intercepted by radar. It can be equipped with a cluster warhead containing 95 projectiles or a single nuclear warhead. Bulgaria, however, has always denied the possession of nuclear weapons. In an interview with Sofia’s conservative Standart News on Aug. 12, retired Gen. Simeon Petkovsky insisted that the nuclear warhead-carrying devices for all SS-23s were destroyed in 1991. 

From 1990 until 2001, two Socialist premiers, the late Andrey Lukanov and Jean Videnov, and their right-wing counterparts, Philip Dimitrov and Ivan Kostov, resisted all U.S. offers to scrap the Bulgarian army’s power of deterrence. (Kostov, who was the head of government from 1997 to 2001, agreed to disarm the FROGs and SCUDs but said no to the destruction of the SS-23s on advice from military experts.) The current government of the former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha took a U-turn last December after the U.S. Embassy made it clear that unwillingness to destroy the missiles would block Bulgaria’s entry into NATO. On May 31, 2002, the United States and Bulgaria signed a memorandum under which the U.S. government will pay for the operation, expected to cost several million dollars. The Bulgarian parliament ratified the document having reached a political consensus that keeping the missiles is costly, unsafe, and incompatible with the country’s new national security approach. The U.S. company Controlled Demolition Inc. was contracted for the job, and will monitor the entire process.

But the signatures had hardly dried on the contract when other problems arose. When word of the pending disarmament spread in June and July, protests erupted, including rallies, signing of petitions, and roadblocks near test ranges. They were sparked by environmental and health concerns, but some political parties were quick to take advantage of the unrest. Representatives of the ruling National Movement Simeon II (NMSII) and of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces accused the Bulgarian Socialist Party of inciting panic. Some commentators in the media speculated that obscure local mayors were seeking cheap popularity by riding the wave of protests. The fire was also fueled by nationalist anti-NATO stalwarts like Sofia’s nationalist Monitor, which indulged in rhetorical turns like “How much longer will we stand by and watch the bosses in Washington make fools of us?”

The scenarios suggested by protestors were nothing if not dramatic. Svilen Ivanov, a Kapital correspondent at the Zmeyovo test range near Stara Zagora, observed that participants in a public discussion voiced fears that blasts from the incinerated rockets might trigger major landslides or even an earthquake. Others drew an apocalyptic picture of 15 tons of leaking chlorine—twice the amount used during World War I—poisoning underground waters. According to Ivanov, local residents have borrowed such ideas from a chaotic media, where a horde of self-proclaimed “experts” is filling the vacuum left by officials. In an opinion poll conducted between July 29-31 on behalf of Kapital, only 5 percent of respondents said that authorities were doing their best to safeguard the security of Bulgaria’s people and environment.

The disarray was so great that even nonpartisan papers couldn’t hide their sarcasm. Political analyst Emil Raikov wrote in Sofia’s liberal daily Sega on Aug. 15: “While protests were heating up…Defense Minister Nickolay Svinarov went on a vacation to distant Portugal, as if he has nothing to do with all this.” A part of his duties was taken up by U.S. Ambassador James Pardew, who started touring test ranges, facilities, and cities.

The destruction started on Aug. 12 at the Terem military repair facility in Veliko Turnovo. Some 10 percent of the 1,500 parts of the three types of missiles have already been destroyed there, the conservative Mediapool e-zine reported on Sept. 1. The 24 engines of the SS-23 proved a tougher nut to crack. By the end of August, CDI and the Bulgarian military were still pondering the method of their destruction. Incineration was chosen as a less risky option than detonation, but a panel of experts warned that the burning of the missile engines would release dioxins into the atmosphere and pose health hazards. Cutting the engines by pressurized water jets was also contemplated, according to Sofia’s independent 24 tchasa (Aug. 30), but rejected on the grounds that the nearest facility where such an operation could be conducted is in Slovakia.

“The SS-23 missiles’ demolition must be conducted on the territory of Bulgaria and I believe the operation will start by Sept. 15,” Defense Minister Nickolay Svinarov said on Sept. 1. After meeting with experts from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Arms Control, Minister Svinarov, quoted by Mediapool, said that they had proposed a new method, which was a combination of methods used in other countries to destroy SS-23 missiles. He did not specify what exactly this mysterious method was, but ruled out controlled detonation or controlled incineration. For the first time he publicly hinted that the Oct. 30 deadline might not be met. The first cluster warhead of an SS-23 missile will be detonated on Sept. 10 at the Zmeyovo test range in the presence of civilians and the media, Bulgarian Army Chief of Staff Gen. Nickola Kolev announced on Sept. 1.

As the debate over disarmament intensifies, the lack of coordination between ministers, public opinion and political parties poses a serious risk: It “may bring a last-minute self-disqualification in our race toward NATO,” warned Kapital in its Aug. 17-24 issue. On Aug. 30, Mediapool issued a raft of difficult questions regarding the missiles: “Why didn’t the government hold consultations with other East European countries, who have already destroyed their Soviet missiles at an earlier date? Was it necessary to have mass protests in order for the ecological side of the issue to surface? Why did the authorities insist first that controlled burning is safe and then suddenly say it is unsafe? Why were Bulgarian experts summoned just when it became clear we are running behind schedule?”

As the debate rages on, however, there are some who are ahead of schedule—and making money. A soft-drinks company based in Stara Zagora has issued two new brands of soda, “SCUD” and “FROG,” which are enjoying huge popularity across the country.