The View from Bulgaria: A Big Chance for a Tiny Country

 Sarafovo is a small village on the Black Sea coastline famous for its beautiful sand beaches.

 Sarafovo is a small village on the Black Sea coastline famous for its beautiful sand beaches. It is also noteworthy because it is one of two Bulgarian seaside resorts possessing its own airport--which has been placed at the disposal of the United States.  One can find young mothers pushing baby carriages at the gates of the closed airport, who claim to be nonpolitical, but who see this base as a possible threat for babies and to the forthcoming tourist season, which is the major source of income for the village. 

However, this picture is totally different in the rest of Bulgaria. Bulgarians watch with some suspicion the wave of pacifism sweeping the globe, comparing it with memories that are still fresh of a similar sort of propaganda they experienced during the period of communist rule.  Bulgarians, of course, do not support war in principle--the Balkans have had enough experience of the negative consequences of war-but Bulgarians are also more realistic as to what a dictator like Saddam really means and about the possible ways to remove him from power.  

So Bulgaria finds itself "enlisted" as a "hawk" along with several close U.S. allies, and this official foreign policy line is not openly rejected by Bulgarianpublic opinion.  Yet under the surface of an overwhelming media campaign in favor of U.S. action there is some disquiet among the populace.  The country is tired after a decade of regional wars which helped to impoverish the economy even more than corrupt politicians.   But, if Bulgaria suffered enormous losses as the consequences from the first Gulf War, now it looks forward to some recuperation.  It also assumes that strong support for the U.S. position will help to bring greater stability to the region.   

September 11 gave additional impetus to the notion that passive democracy looks like feeble democracy.  So, the debate in Bulgaria on whether to support the United States or "old Europe" (as labeled by Donald Rumsfeld put it) is influenced primarily by the calculus that while America deserves moral support, France and Germany might somehow harm Bulgaria's accession to the European Union.  At least, this is how it seems so to me. 

It appears that the historically pro-American right-wing opposition is keeping quiet at this point, while the left is feeling cut adrift within the "European space" and are stumbling. The "Vilnius Ten" creates a counterbalancing pro-American front within Europe, and the lack of any serious threats of retaliation on the part of "old Europe" has deterred the socialists from taking a more active stance vis-a-vis the United States--they prefer a slow, incremental approach.  (Within the last few months, for example, the president of Bulgaria has had three personal meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by demonstrations of extraordinary warmth.  Putin's visit coincided with our national holiday (March 3rd) which marks the date of the San Stefano treaty between Russia and Turkey that led to the independence of the modern Bulgarian state.  Yet, this line cannot distract the gaze of the majority which lies westward.)

So, Bulgarians, as well as the rest of "new Europe" place a great prize on peace but not as unconditionally as it appears "old Europe" does.  This does not mean that Bulgarians are somehow unconcerned about the evil consquences of war.  Such concerns manifested themselves in 1999 during the NATO action in Kosovo, which initially was very negatively received in Bulgaria.  Yet, as military action proceeded against Yugoslavia, public opinion went slowly in a different direction, from extreme anti-NATO sentiment to a moderate acceptance that the war was a necessary price to "unstop" Bulgaria's western borders and restore overland connections to the rest of Europe.  Today, we find antiwar feelings awoken (with great effort) mostly with fantasmagoric threats of possible Iraqi and Islamic terrorism. But such threats actually help to solidify the choice for war by providing the basis for action. An unbalanced statement of the Iraqi ambassador in Bulgaria who warned that U.S. bases all over the world (meaning Sarafovo as well) are possible targets of Iraqi retribution actually racheted up anti-Iraqi feelings, rather than generating antiwar sentiment.   

There is another factor for the quiescence of Bulgarian public opinion, which is important to note in order to complete the landscape. Bulgarians are sceptical about the weight their will has in current policy-making. In a country with an entirely proportional electoral system and no real forms of direct democracy people "unload" all their political power with the single (and usually negative) vote at election time.  

So, the behavior of the Bulgarian representatives at the United Nations (in expressing support for the United States) does not seem in any event an externally controlled action. The Bulgarian UN vote--assisted by the desire for a comfortable "home front"--could be a measured although adventurous shortcut to the top of a forthcoming new world order, especially considering the outcome of the unexpected development in Turkey (the parliamentary rejection for American usage of the bases). The Middle East crisis came as a great inconvenience, coinciding with  Bulgarian Security Council membership. Yet, it seems also a rare temptation for a tiny country.


The author is a lawyer and and the director of the European Law Centre in Sofia, Bulgaria.