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Anxious Bulgaria Looks On

Bulgaria's worst nightmare threatens to become reality as fighting escalates in Macedonia
By Ivan Krastev

The impact of the Macedonia crisis is already being felt in neighbouring Bulgaria. The 'radical Albanian factor', branded the new source of regional instability, is on everyone's lips. Government and media criticism has finally shifted away from the traditional bogeyman - former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian nationalism.


Bulgarians are deeply afraid the violence around Tetovo could escalate into civil war, destroying the international community's efforts to maintain peace in the region.


A mass influx of Macedonian Slav refugees would undermine Bulgaria's recent economic and political stability. This in turn could scare off foreign investment, especially if the fighting spreads beyond Macedonia's borders into neighbouring states. Anxiety is high. There are fears of something akin to the second Balkan war of 1913, when Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia came to blows over the partition of Macedonia.


The Bulgarian president Petar Stoyanov got off on the wrong foot. His early offer of staunch support for Skopje, including the provision of Bulgarian troops, met with a frosty reception in international circles. The British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, ran an article highlighting Sofia's aggressive pre-second world war policy towards Macedonia.


Bulgaria's political leaders are treading carefully, conscious an election is just around the corner.


Prime Minister Ivan Kostov made clear Sofia takes the crisis seriously, immediately organising a trip to Skopje to meet his Macedonian counterparts. The trip was interpreted as a show of solidarity with Ljupco Georgievski's coalition government.


Ties between the two countries were normalised in March 1998. A special relationship was set up between ruling United Democratic Forces, UDF, and Georgievski's Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, VMRO. The Bulgarian prime minister, however, made no effort to meet the main Macedonian opposition party, the Social Democratic League of Macedonia, SDSM, which the UDF views as anti-Bulgarian.


The crisis next door could have a damaging effect on the Bulgarian political scene. The country's political agenda could easily be reshaped with some smaller political parties, such as the Bulgarian VMRO, pushing a more overtly nationalist policy in the hope of garnering more votes.


Bulgaria's two main political parties, the UDF and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, have said repeatedly that the crisis in Macedonia will not alter their pro-European, anti-nationalist politics. But with parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for June and autumn respectively, there is growing concern the pressure to win votes could tempt politicians to exploit the crisis for short-term political gain.


The elections look likely to be a closely fought affair. The Macedonia issue is a wild card, which for the time being at least appears to be benefiting the government. The UDF has made some capital out of scaring the Bulgarian public with the prospect of Macedonian-style instability.


Opinion polls indicate the public has greater confidence in the government's handling of foreign policy than its treatment of social and economic problems at home. Hence opposition accusations that the administration is exploiting the Macedonia situation to distract voters from allegations of corruption surrounding its failings on the economic front.


There appears to be a consensus among Bulgarian political leaders that the country would do best to avoid any "concrete" involvement in Macedonia. Most ordinary people rule out military intervention, the subject doesn't even come up for discussion.


The Macedonian parliament's announcement that it would decline offers of troops from neighbouring states was almost universally welcomed. Bulgarians harbour no ambitions of getting their hands on parts of Macedonia. Far from it, most are eager to stay as far away as possible from the crisis. The situation in Macedonia is seen as hurdle in the way of Bulgaria's entrance into the EU.


The government and opposition parties agree that what is most needed right now is a coordinated international response. Stoyanov's offer of military support should be seen as an attempt to bring pressure to bear on the international community to act more decisively, rather than as an indication of any presidential desire to become militarily embroiled in the crisis.


Ivan Krastev is director of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia


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