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Comment: Bulgarian Parties Overlook Key US Army Deployment Gains

Politicians fail to spell out the true benefits of America’s plans to make use of the country’s military bases.
By Vessela Tcherneva

With parliamentary elections slated for June, Bulgarian parties across the political spectrum have sought to make capital out of the planned stationing of American troops in the country – but all appear to have overlooked the real significance of the proposed move.

The political point-scoring was sparked by the visit to Bulgaria last week of the commander of United States forces in Europe General James Jones who inspected a number of bases that Washington might use to redeploy some of its forces in western Europe.

The US State Department and Congress is to decide in the coming weeks about the move, part of a strategy of reassigning troops, formerly used to counter the Soviet threat, to south-east Europe where they are better placed to help support American military engagement in the region and the Middle East.

Washington is considering a handful of bases in Bulgaria and Romania, both of which joined NATO in April last year. Under the plan, the sites - which would continue to belong to the host countries – are to be used for training activities, rapid deployment operations and the storage of equipment and hardware.

Bulgaria and Romania - whose governments have yet to agree to the US plans - are favoured for the American redeployment because of their proximity to trouble-spots in the Balkans and the Middle East.

In Bulgaria, Washington is currently considering two military airports, one army training facility and a naval base on the Black Sea to accommodate its troops.

The general’s arrival came just a few days after the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, fired the opening shot of the parliamentary election campaign when it said that it would withdraw the country’s 500 or so troop contingent from Iraq should it triumph in the ballot.

And the BSP and its rivals in government are now vying with each other over the pros and cons of the anticipated deployment of American troops, clearly with an eye to making some political capital out of the move in advance of the elections.

The BSP protested, warning that having US soldiers on Bulgarian soil could trigger terrorist attacks both at home and against the country’s troops overseas, in particular Iraq – a thinly veiled expression of anti-American sentiment.

The BSP actions predictably proved to be popular amongst the electorate as there has been growing public discontent about Bulgaria’s participation in Iraq after five Bulgarian troops were killed and two civilians kidnapped and murdered last year.

Centre-right opposition parties along with the ruling National Movement Simeon the Second party, meanwhile, declared their support for American interest in Bulgarian military bases. Their main reason - also cited by BSP party leaders - is that the presence of the US troops in the country would encourage foreign investment and infrastructure improvements in the regions they eventually deploy.

The points made by the BSP and its rivals have some substance but are overplayed.

There may be a risk that the American military deployment here could provoke extremists into action, but the BSP failed to set this against the regional security shield US troops would provide.

Similarly, there is some truth that there will be a financial and regional development dividend from the stationing of the US soldiers on Bulgarian soil, but not as much as has been suggested because the Pentagon foresees the transfer of a relatively small number and won’t be building the kind of giant bases it has in Germany, which resemble middle-sized American towns.

It was telling that politicians failed to focus on arguably the key benefits of American deployment here – the strengthening of regional security at a time when pockets of ethnic violence remain a real threat to stability; and the inevitable improvement in the Bulgarian army’s NATO compatibility as a result of joint training with US forces and access to ultra-modern military technology.

This suggests that political leaders are more concerned with scoring points in the run-up to the elections than explaining to the public the real strategic benefits of the proposed US move – the latter being the more mature position NATO partners would have expected of Bulgaria.

Vessela Tcherneva is programme director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia.

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