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Bulgaria's Stabilising Influence
When the Bulgarian parliament first discussed joining NATO 12 years ago, few took the plan very seriously. But this week in Prague, Bulgaria was among seven new eastern European states invited to join the alliance. Bulgaria and Romania will also be the first two ex-communist Balkan countries to join the Atlantic club.
Bulgarians see membership of NATO as a symbol of their admission into the community of Western democracies. This is important for Bulgaria, as it is not slated to join the European Union in 2004 alongside the other five applicants - Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - but hopes to do so in the next wave in 2007.
Bulgarians expect NATO membership to improve their dire economic situation by encouraging foreign investors, who look for such guarantees of political stability. It is expected to boost Bulgaria's relations with its neighbours, Greece and Turkey, both alliance members, increasing military cooperation between them.
Bulgaria, in common with Romania, suffers from endemic corruption and has a bloated Soviet-style military structure that has not been reformed despite the efforts made since 1999 to restructure the armed forces under NATO's membership action plan, MAP.
NATO membership enjoys cross-party support in the country. Backers are not confined to the ruling National Movement Simeon II, the coalition that took power two years ago, and which owes much to the right-of-centre United Democratic Forces, UDF, which governed from 1997 to 2000. Bulgaria's socialists have translated their former filial admiration of the Soviet Union into moderate nationalism but claim to support NATO as much as the right.
The biggest credit for Bulgaria's successful application belongs to Solomon Passy, foreign minister since 2000 and a partner of the royal premier, Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha. Ambitious for Bulgaria to develop as a western democracy and unapologetically pro-American, Passy has campaigned for NATO since the early Nineties. The Prague summit is likely to mark the high point of his political career.
Sofia can expect a significant role in the alliance, bridging the gap between member states in central Europe and Turkey - the alliance's only Muslim member state.
Bulgaria is an important foothold for NATO in the Balkans as it shares borders with Serbia and Macedonia, an area of ethnic tension that has proved a fertile breeding ground for organised crime and political extremism. NATO membership will encourage Bulgaria to promote stability in both countries.
In the past, Sofia has had a thorny relationship with Macedonia, stemming from its historic claim that the Macedonians are really Bulgarians.
This attitude has changed since the Nineties, when a new generation of politicians emerged. Ivan Kostov, the former prime minister and UDF leader, was adamant that a modern democracy could not be governed by outdated historical ideas. Since the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria has carefully avoided pursuing nationalistic goals in this area and has supported Western intervention in Macedonia.
NATO membership will strengthen Bulgaria's resolve to keep out of the conflicts in Kosovo and Serbia. Sofia supported the alliance's air war against the latter in 1999. During the communist era, Bulgarians admired Yugoslavia for standing up to Moscow and today they sympathise with Serbia and its problems. But when it comes to Balkan initiatives, Sofia will only act with western backing.
At the same time, security is the country's biggest headache in relation to Macedonia and Serbia. Its western borders have been seriously destabilised by the conflicts there and illegal arms smuggling has become a lucrative business in Bulgaria. The business has enriched numerous private firms, many of which are staffed by former communist security service personnel.
A few days ago, the government admitted the state-owned plant Terem in the north-east had illegally sold military spare parts to Syria. The tabloids were quick to claim that the manager who allegedly struck the deal was of ethnic Turkish origin, as is ten per cent of the Bulgarian population. In this way, a story about the illegal arms trade quickly mutated into a story about Muslim conspiracies in the Balkans.
Bulgarian modernisers hope that joining NATO will stimulate further military reforms. But membership alone is unlikely to depress the country's illegal arms trade. Sofia will need substantial external help if the Balkans is to become a safer place.
If the EU proceeds with plans to take control of European security concerns through the European Security and Defence Policy, ESDP, in cooperation with NATO, Bulgaria will have to show much more than political enthusiasm to be taken seriously.
The ESDP will require an increase in military budgets, as well as more intelligent defence spending and investment at both national and international levels.
Under the present government, Bulgaria's foreign policy has been solidly pro-American. In common with most eastern Europeans, Bulgarians admire America's entrepreneurial culture and are grateful it has supported NATO enlargement. However, NATO candidate countries hoping to get closer to Europe through the alliance will have to deal more directly with Europe in future.
The enlarged Atlantic club will forge a new relationship with Russia based on common concerns over the Balkans among others.
Sofia has maintained friendly ties with Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet block. At the same time, it missed the chance to reinvent itself as a bridge between Russia and the Balkans.
This is partly because of Russia's confused attitude towards the Balkans. Moscow often declares it has interests in the area but has not formulated exactly what are they in the new political and military environment.
However, Russia has not objected seriously to Bulgaria's entry into NATO. As an alliance member, Sofia will not greatly affect Moscow's relations with the West.
The alliance and the US have already developed direct relations with Russia through the NATO-Russia council and other cooperative agreements.
Life in Bulgaria will not change much after the Prague summit, as the foreign minister warned this week on national radio. But NATO membership will please most citizens who hope it will raise their country's profile and give foreign investors greater confidence to do business in their country.
Milena Borden is EU Enlargement and Security Project Coordinator at the Federal Trust, a London-based think-tank.
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