Bulgaria's Iraq Dilemma

Siding with the US on Iraq may suit Sofia's short-term interests, but could threaten its long-term goal of joining the European Union.

Bulgaria's Iraq Dilemma

Siding with the US on Iraq may suit Sofia's short-term interests, but could threaten its long-term goal of joining the European Union.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Driven by its ambition to join NATO, Bulgaria has cautiously joined the list of countries that have aligned themselves with the Bush administration on Iraq.

But on the eve of the conflict, despite having confirmed its support for the United States-led war, Bulgaria's name was missing from the first list of the "coalition of the willing".

Official explanation for the delay said it reflected lack of coordination between the government and its representatives in New York. The media speculated, however, that President Georgi Purvanov, a socialist and an opponent of the war, put pressure on the government to withdraw Bulgaria's name from the list.

Early in February, parliament had already voted to allow US planes use of Burgas airport, on the Black Sea.

The speculation about the president was incorrect, though it drew attention to the question of how united Bulgaria was in support of Washington.

Since June 2001, a centre-right government, led by former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, leader of the National Movement for Simeon II, NMSII, has ruled in tandem with Purvanov of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP.

In the early days of the Iraq crisis, the socialists urged Bulgaria to support the US. But as a deep international rift unfolded, they shifted their ground. A few weeks ago, the president came out against the war, saying it lacked the support of the United Nations, the European Union and NATO. The premier, who is more pro-American, has so far refrained from criticising the president.

The right-wing opposition, the Union for Democratic Forces, UDF, has inconsistently and unconvincingly attacked the NMSII-led government over US policy. Like the BSP, it has been trying to encourage anti-war sentiments by appealing to the threat to national security.

Public opinion here remains divided. Some object to the war in Iraq and America's use of force in principle, while others defend US policy as pro-active and as a guarantee of future stability and economic prosperity.

Most people in the media, academia and business believe support for the US is equivalent to future NATO membership for Bulgaria, which they see as a pre-condition for entry into the EU. Leading journalists, university lecturers and new businessmen are anxious about the outcome of the war but convinced the risk is worth taking.

Others are more cynical and believe the government is blindly following American policy, driven by the hope of receiving a reward from the US and a role in Iraq's post-war reconstruction.

Such views are mainly heard among BSP supporters and sympathisers. They have traditionally been sceptical about NATO membership, arguing that joining the alliance and supporting the US will damage national sovereignty and make more enemies abroad than friends.

The media is more sharply divided than the politicians or the public. While the dailies Dnevnik and Sega and the weekly Kapital put arguments for and against the war in a balanced, critical manner, the tabloids play the nationalist card, raising speculation about a possible Iraqi attack on Bulgaria and the danger of strikes by extremists.

Regardless of divisions inside the government and among the public, Bulgarians appear united around NATO membership, which they are convinced will guarantee security and stability and encourage foreign investment, boosting economic prosperity.

Yet by pursuing NATO membership they may be losing sight of the broader implications of the Iraq crisis, as it divides Europe and America and jeopardises EU enlargement.

Bulgaria proclaimed its firm support for the US in the Iraq crisis in February, from its position as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. But this was before the diplomatic game at the UN had started. Like most countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Bulgaria could not then have predicted a major crisis was about to erupt, splitting Europe and inevitably damaging NATO.

By failing to support the US, Bulgaria risks its future role in NATO. But to join the opposite camp at the Security Council would mean supporting Russia, which has not been on Sofia's foreign agenda for some time.

For five years, Bulgaria has worked hard to shed its image as a former Soviet satellite and build a new image as a Western-style democracy.

The country's short-term plan is to become a full NATO member in 2004 - it signed accession protocols last week.

Washington and London have actively supported Bulgaria in its aims. Their involvement in the reform of the military is established and well under way through training programmes, consulting and professional advice. The country's military elite is becoming fluent not only in English but also in complex civilian and military cooperation mechanisms that NATO requires.

Supporters of the alliance are highly active and well-organised in Bulgaria through the Sofia-based Atlantic Club, which serves as a meeting point and information exchange centre for journalists, experts, business and PR services.

Foreign minister Solomon Passy, who founded the Club in 1991, today is the driving force behind Bulgaria's pro-US position on Iraq. He passionately believes in the rightness of US policy, maintaining it will lead to the liberation of the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein and Iraq's demilitarisation. "We all remember the hesitancy of the allies who were not sure whether to attack Hitler. They could have prevented so much," he recently told the media.

But although siding with Washington may be desirable at this particular moment, distancing itself from the "hard core" of EU members who distrust the US may have damaging consequences for Bulgaria in the long term. The country's future depends on international relations that demand cooperation between Washington and Brussels.

Bulgaria's ambition to become an EU member by 2007 means its future trade in goods and services will be orientated firstly towards Europe. Now, the country - and the rest of the continent - must hope that the war will end swiftly and successfully with a minimum cost.

But Bulgaria will also soon be reminded that it lies in the heart of the Balkans and is geographically and historically connected to Europe. It cannot afford to follow Donald Rumsfeld into a lasting conflict with the "old Europe", centred on Germany and France.

Bulgaria's long-term foreign policy and national security interests lies within NATO, but only alongside cooperation with Europe and within EU structures. Its broader interest is to help Brussels persuade America to see an enlarged union as an ally rather than a stooge. It will need luck to succeed in its aims.

Milena Borden is a London-based Balkan analyst.

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