Yugoslavia's Eastern Front

Bulgaria's pro-Western policy is met by a threat of war from Serbian extremist Seselj. But while ready to accept NATO troops, Sofia tries to play a regional diplomatic role.

Yugoslavia's Eastern Front

Bulgaria's pro-Western policy is met by a threat of war from Serbian extremist Seselj. But while ready to accept NATO troops, Sofia tries to play a regional diplomatic role.

Last weekend, most of the Sofia press shocked its readers with uniformly sharp and anything but leisurely headlines. The front-page news was that Yugoslav Vice-Premier Vojislav Seselj has threatened to declare war on neighbouring countries that have offered their military bases and territory to NATO in the event of an offensive in Kosovo. Bulgaria is on his list.

Of course, such a military threat from the leader of the Serbian extreme nationalists may be more revealing about Serbia itself than any real military strategy. But neither could it be understood as an official statement or any kind of ultimatum from Belgrade. Such histrionics have a familiar place in Balkan politics.

Nevertheless, Seselj's words do provide an unwelcome reminder of the potential tensions that could arise between nationalist Serbia and its neighbours, especially in the context of continuing crisis in Kosovo.

Yugoslavia, of course, remains the major threat of regional instability, and curbing the crisis there is demanding increasing commitment from Atlantic and European organisations and states. In this context, Bulgaria, as a regional player, has sought to engage in active diplomacy over Kosovo rather than remain passive or take sides outright.

The day before Seselj's threats, Bulgarian Foreign Minster Nadezda Mihailova conferred by telephone with her French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine. Reportedly, Vedrine, who was a co-chairman of the conference on Kosovo at Rambouillet, asked Mihailova to ensure that Bulgaria mediates as an "active neighbour" to convince Serbs and Albanians of the need for a settlement for the disputed province.

Such a role would hardly be new for Bulgaria. Several weeks ago, just hours before the Serbian parliament approved the participation of Belgrade at the talks at Rambouillet, Mihailova arrived in Serbia for talks with Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic. She reminded him that Sofia supports a peaceful settlement of the Kosovo crisis. But she made clear that if diplomatic efforts were unsuccessful, Bulgaria would support any other actions undertaken by the international community to ensure a settlement. The euphemism was hardly subtle.

The background for such statements is the draft framework agreement between Bulgaria and NATO. According to the document, NATO forces could, if necessary, pass over Bulgarian territory in pursing a mission in Kosovo. But Bulgaria has made its position clear for some time, for example, laying out its position at the meeting of Balkan countries in Anatoliya, Turkey, last autumn. Nevertheless, diplomatic relations with Belgrade have remained constructive: at the Anatoliya meeting, for example, Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov played an important role in convincing then-Yugoslav premier Momir Bulatovic to sign the joint declaration.

The most serious risk from Seselj's loose war-mongering is that it could be taken up by the Bulgarian opposition, the Socialists, as an argument against the NATO framework agreement when it comes before parliament, which is expected to happen sometime next week. But the Socialists' position has shown considerable inconsistency in their Balkan policy. For example, at first party leader Giorgi Purvanov declared that the recent Bulgarian-Macedonian agreement to settle the language dispute is a "tough political compromise" for Bulgaria , one which could be risky.

A couple of days later, however, it seemed that the party had completely forgotten the position of its leader and issued a statement offering official support for the agreement with Macedonia. Such contradictions would undermine any protest the party might make against allowing NATO forces on Bulgarian soil.

The question of NATO troops for Kosovo is not limited to Bulgaria, however. It has also raised difficulties for Romania. Recently, the Bulgaria and Romanian presidents, Petar Stoyanov and Emil Constantinescu, respectively, signed a joint letter to Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. It called on Belgrade to accept NATO forces as peacekeepers in Kosovo if there is an agreement following from Rambouillet. Macedonia, which has an established role as a staging point for NATO forces in Kosovo, has been given a fresh feeling of confidence by the recent Bulgarian-Macedonian agreement on language.

But Skopje also faces tense dilemmas. [See Iso Rusi, 'Macedonia Simmering," Balkan Crisis Report 1.] For the moment, all of Serbia's neighbours seem to be hoping that an agreement for Kosovo, including NATO troops in the province, will be signed-regardless of the hot air blown out by Vice-premier Seselj.

Giorgi Koritarov is a reporter in Sofia for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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