Eastern Europe

Bulgaria and NATO's Push East

NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe US General Joseph W. Ralston and Bulgarian army Chief of Staff General Mikho Mikhov
NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe U.S. Gen. Joseph W. Ralston (R) and former Bulgarian army Chief of Staff General Mikho Mikhov (Photo: AFP).

Anyone who has ever driven a Trabant—that inglorious symbol of former East Germany—knows one thing for sure. This unprepossessing, smelly, noisy caricature of a vehicle can put many of its Western counterparts to shame when it comes to climbing steep, bumpy roads in winter. As such, the hardworking Trabant is the perfect symbol for Bulgaria’s recent struggle to secure NATO membership.

The bells of Sofia’s imposing Alexander of Neva Cathedral rang for 15 minutes when, in Prague on Nov. 21, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson listed Bulgaria (alphabetically) as the first of seven former communist states to receive a membership invitation. Champagne flowed on the streets and in the plenary hall of Parliament. It all looked like a happy ending to a long and tortuous story.

Foreign correspondents in Sofia have seized the Trabant-NATO analogy. The proverbial bone-shaker was the vehicle in which Robertson’s predecessor, Manfred Woerner, was driven around the capital in June 1991—when the Bulgarian Parliament resolved to pursue NATO membership. Woerner’s driver was none other than Solomon Passy, the chairman of the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria, a non-governmental organization formed in 1990 to lobby for NATO membership. A year earlier, Passy had shocked the communist majority in Parliament with his motion that Bulgaria join the Western alliance. The young lobbyist had nerve and vision, since the Warsaw Pact was then still in effect. A decade later, In a nice twist of fate, it was Passy who, as Bulgaria’s foreign minister, became the first to receive the coveted invitation to join NATO.

Passy’s mission to secure Bulgaria’s membership in NATO was fraught with obstacles to the very end. Just when the curtain was going down on the “Soviet Missiles Soap Opera,” a new drama took center stage. On Oct. 20 in Syria, CIA agents intercepted a shipment of Bulgarian-made tractor components that had a possible dual use as spare parts for armored personnel carriers. The trucks transporting the equipment were allegedly poised to cross from Syria to Iraq. The dual-use shipment was described in documents as an export of civilian goods, with a Syrian company named as the ultimate recipient. The producer was the Targovishte branch of the state-owned Terem ordnance and military repairs factory, and the export intermediary was Rodeos Investment, a company registered in Washington D.C.

The arms-smuggling scandal hit the national and international press just 10 days ahead of the Prague summit, throwing Bulgaria’s invitation to join the alliance into question. “There could be no bigger hurdle to Bulgaria's accession to NATO than finding Bulgarian arms in Iraq,” the independent Novinar observed on Nov. 13. Journalists joked that the Bulgarian intelligence services were the last to learn about the illicit deal. The government, however, acted with resolve. Terem chief executive officer Vlado Vladov was fired, and arrests of top company managers followed. Parliament is considering a bill to tighten control over the arms trade.

Defeatist notes in the media quickly gave way to sober analyses of the implications of the affair. Dubbing it “a tempest in a teacup,” the mass-circulation Trud (Nov.14) saw the scandal as a pre-emptive strike that was meant to expose and neutralize certain arms dealers. “Mighty economic circles” had been plotting to destabilize the government right after the Prague summit, the daily wrote, quoting “a well-informed source.” Respected political analyst Ognyan Minchev, writing in the same edition of Trud, saw the long arms of the same anti-NATO forces who fanned hysteria over Bulgaria’s failure to destroy Soviet-era missiles last summer behind this scandal. He warned that such kinds of provocation would not cease with the receipt of the NATO invitation.

“The current government light-heartedly restored to power cohorts of officers and collaborators of the former state security forces, who are intimately connected with the repressive global network of the Soviet Empire, now a Mafia mutant. It gave them a clean bill of health through an unprecedented closing of the totalitarian files. It secured a most comforting environment for the semi-legal business activity of their economic groups…of which the arms trade is the most lucrative sector,” Minchev recalled with emotion. On the opposite page, one of his antagonists, Dimiter Ivanov, countered that the scandal was a case of “arm-twisting.” Its aim, argued Ivanov, was to press the government to sell its military-industrial complex to NATO members at cut-rate prices, and thereby to oust the competitive Bulgarian arms dealers from their markets. Ivanov formerly presided over the notorious State Security Organization’s 6th Department, an undercover domestic spying agency dedicated to cracking down on dissident political activity.

On the question of Bulgaria’s successful NATO bid, responses in the press ranged across the spectrum from optimistic to cautionary to downright pessimistic. With all political parties finally united behind the pro-NATO and EU banners, polls show that public support for NATO membership has hit a plateau since the beginning of 2001: Two-thirds of all Bulgarians are “for,” while some 30 percent are “against.” The nay-sayers’ chief arguments are that membership will further aggravate the country’s financial woes, and that NATO only serves the interests of the world’s most powerful countries. Also, warned the Nov. 16-22 edition of the conservative business weekly Kapital, the pro-NATO majority could quickly dwindle if faced with a direct military involvement like the one in 1999, when the government consented to the use of Bulgarian air space for NATO strikes against Yugoslavia.

Bulgarian politicians are finding it difficult to make the case that NATO membership, which is expected to become effective in early 2004, will bring any short-term material benefits to the country. But because of its location, Bulgaria is expected to receive aid to help it implement NATO’s three new strategic goals: to fight international terrorism, drug trafficking, and Islamic fundamentalism. Moreover, adherence to NATO member states’ requirements such as sustainable democracy, a functioning market economy, ethnic stability, the recognition of international borders, and civilian control of member countries’ defense forces will raise Bulgaria’s rating for future investors, argued Euro-Atlantic integration advocate Prof. Dragomir Draganov in the Oct. 8 edition of Trud. “Historically, NATO has not allowed undemocratic development in its member states,” veteran TV journalist Ivan Garelov wrote in the Nov. 18 edition of the same paper. Moreover, Garelov wrote, Bulgaria’s membership in NATO would stabilize the country’s mercurial political scene much like the 1997 Currency Board stabilized the Bulgarian currency after the hyperinflation of 1996-1997. Henceforth, Garelov wrote, Bulgaria will enjoy “less sovereignty but more stability.”

Others disagree, suggesting that NATO membership will not change the status quo in Bulgaria. Writing in the online magazine (Nov. 11), Ivan Atanasov pointed out that in its zeal to secure the invitation from NATO, Bulgaria let political considerations prevail over real preparedness. “We cannot join NATO with our completely corrupt system of government…which could sell NATO secrets as easily as it betrays the interests of its people,” Atanasov argued. In his opinion, NATO membership is a “bitter touchstone” that could derail Bulgaria’s march toward a larger goal: European Union membership.