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Bulgaria: Socialists Sound New Foreign Policy Note

New leaders make it clear they will not tamely follow their predecessors’ policies on either Iraq or Europe.
By Albena Shkodrova

Bulgaria’s new Socialist-led government has moved fast to distance itself from its predecessor’s strong support for United States foreign policy, above all in Iraq.

This week, Ivaylo Kalfin, the new foreign minister, made it clear he favoured rejecting Washington and Baghdad’s request for Bulgaria to extend its deployment of its 400 troops in Iraq after December 31, the deadline for withdrawal set by the Bulgarian assembly on May 5.

Kalfin’s statement was accompanied by another surprising announcement, namely that a national consensus had yet to be reached on the establishment of US military bases in Bulgaria.

Both statements contrasted with the previous centre-right government’s firm backing for the US-led coalition in Iraq and for an American army presence in Bulgaria.

The new coalition government took office in August after the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, won 31 per cent of the votes, more than any other political party, in the general elections in June.

The BSP had to negotiate for months, however, to reach a working alliance with a Turkish minority party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, DPS, and with the former ruling National Movement Simeon The Second, NDSV.

The NDSV’s decision to join the new administration was widely seen as guaranteeing that it would not deviate from the established pro-European and pro-American line.

The new prime minister, Sergey Stanishev, also at first tried to convince Bulgarians that he would follow existing policies. He said Bulgaria would remain a predictable and reliable partner to the US in its involvement in Iraq.

Stanishev’s first foreign visit was to European Union headquarters in Brussels, which implied he remained committed to securing Bulgarian membership of the union on time.

To prove its commitment to the EU cause, the BSP also pledged to speed up the adoption of the new penal code, on which Brussels has insisted. It agreed to adopt the NDSV’s own draft proposals from June, dropping its earlier call for a new national debate.

But since these calming gestures and declarations, Stanishev and Kalfin have made it clear they have their own angle on both Iraq and the EU.

While parliament cut the number of Bulgarian troops from 480 to 400 and voted to end their mission in Iraq by the end of the year under BSP pressure, Stanishev had long declined to clarify his position on the deployment of Bulgarian troops.

Last week, he said Bulgaria needed to discuss the issue with international partners, adding that Washington had not requested any prolongation of the Bulgarian troops' mandate.

But at the end of last week, when Kalfin admitted he had received a request from the US and Iraq, the foreign minister expressed firm opposition. “We should not send new troops,” he said.

Another contradiction surfaced last week when both the prime minister and foreign minister branded as “rushed” the former foreign minister’s pledge to welcome US bases to Bulgaria.

Solomon Passy, who now chairs parliament’s foreign policy committee, had announced that three US bases would open in Bulgaria, housing 2,000 to 3,000 officers.

Kalfin, however, stressed that negotiations over the bases were still in their infancy.

Many media viewed this as surprising, as the NDSV had made the US military bases a priority issue while in government and had discussed it publicly for two years.

In addition, the new government has also signalled that it intends to revisit its approach to EU membership, which has traditionally been seen as one area where there is an established national consensus.

Stanishev recently said that Bulgaria needed to stand up more for its interests in the integration process.

And if the EU decided to postpone Bulgaria’s accession, the move would be “inconsistent” as Sofia had done as much as the ten new member states in terms of preparation membership, he argued.

None of this, of course, implies that the Socialist-led government is really about to embark on dramatic changes to Bulgaria’s foreign priorities, but rather reflects former communist officials’old-fashioned and naive approach towards international diplomacy.

Albena Shkodrova is IWPR/BIRN project director in Sofia.