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by John M. Handley

The military attachés at American embassies abroad play a vital role in the conduct of diplomacy. The author of this account served in Sofia, Bulgaria, in that capacity from 1988 to 1991. We take pleasure in presenting his account of actions taken in that relatively little known area of responsibility.Ed.

In all probability anyone reading this article is familiar with the events of 2 August 1990 that involved the Iraqi assault on and occupation of Kuwait and the U. S. response—to build a coalition with thirty-two other nations to oust Iraq’s forces from Kuwait. Of course, very few of us could list these thirty-two nations, much less specify what each did in the way to support Operation Desert Shield, the build-up to the offensive, or Operation Desert Storm, the actual assault. Desert Shield began on 7 August 1990 and transitioned into Desert Storm on 17 January 1991. This article addresses the efforts of one nation—Bulgaria—to become accepted as a coalition member.

Before actually addressing the coalition issue, I believe it could be helpful to provide some additional background information so one can place the Bulgarian government’s actions in perspective. Although previously referred to as the 16th Republic of the USSR, Bulgaria experienced a revolution of sorts in November 1989 following the wave of more democratic revolutions in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and even East Germany. One major difference between the Bulgarian revolution of 1989 and the other countries mentioned above was that Bulgarians did not oust the Communists in favor of Democrats, but rather the Communists simply disbanded their organization, changed the party’s name to Socialist, and retained power. Although elections in April and June of 1989 returned the Politburo-appointed “Socialist” president to power and gave the Socialist party a solid mandate of fifty-two percent of the vote, the new government was unable to act due in part to its efforts to co-opt the major opposition party, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) into supporting the Socialist position on economic development and due to the political problems faced by Socialist President Petre Mladenov. Mladenov, along with some Bulgarian general officers, attended a political demonstration in Sofia in December 1989 during which time Mladenov turned to one of the generals and jokingly said, “Maybe it’s time to bring in the tanks.” Both laughed and no one called for the tanks; however, Mladenov’s comment was captured on tape. When confronted by his words, the president denied he had said any such thing and accused his detractors of manufacturing the evidence. It took several months for European analysts to verify the authenticity of the tape. On 7 July 1990, one week after the signature countries dissolved the Warsaw Treaty Organization and one month before the launch of Operation Desert Shield, Petre Mladenov resigned as Bulgaria’s president. The Socialist Party, in its effort to move forward on economic and domestic issues, offered the presidency to Zhelyn Zhelev, the leader of the opposition UDF party.

Petre Mladenov
Zhelyn Zhelev

Although the U. S. Department of State (DOS) looked favorably on the Zhelev appointment, those DOS individuals responsible for monitoring East Europe in general, and Bulgaria in particular, harbored great distrust of Bulgaria’s largely Socialist government. The Bulgarians, oblivious to this distrust, began discussing a post-USSR world in which they would shortly see Bulgaria ascend to the EU, and even to NATO, should it still exist. As the weeks went by and the Desert Storm forces began to assemble, the Bulgarian government continually asked what it could do to assist. In September 1990, I received a message from the Department of Defense (DOD) in Washington asking me to coordinate “over-flights” of Bulgarian airspace by U. S. transport aircraft flying from Germany to Greece and from Germany to Turkey. I coordinated with the minister of defense (MOD) and the over-flights occurred without incident. The U. S. Embassy in Sofia and its small defense attaché office literally breathed a collective sigh of relief. After several such over-flights, the Bulgarian MOD and the U. S defense attaché established a procedure that resulted in daily over-flights as a routine operation. By the end of September, I received a bill from the Bulgarian government for approximately $150,000 for a specified number of C5A, C141, and C130 transport aircraft over-flights of Bulgarian air space. I forwarded the bill to my immediate superior in the Defense Intelligence Agency. I have no idea where the bill sent from there.

In the following months the over-flights continued while the Bulgarian government again asked what it could do to become a coalition member. The MOD offered to send a Bulgarian sapper unit to help de-mine the front line, since Bulgaria had sold the mines to Iraq in the first place. Initially there was considerable discussion by DOD and DOS on this offer and it looked like it was about to receive approval, but eventually DOD told me to inform the MOD that the coalition had its own de-mining experts in the form of French sappers and did not need his assistance. (The irony of this unfortunate decision lies in the fact that twenty-eight American engineers died in de-mining operations in front of the French forces.) The MOD next offered to send a chemical decontamination team. This suggestion received an initial approval, and the MOD selected a Bulgarian colonel to head a 100-man team. The team received their training and shortly before their dispatch to Saudi Arabia, DOD told me to inform the MOD that the coalition forces already had a working decontamination unit from Hungary and thus did not need the Bulgarian team. In the meantime, the over-flights continued and I continued to forward bills of approximately $150,000 a month for this privilege.

With the MOD unsuccessful in gaining coalition membership, the Bulgarian explored its other options. It initially offered to provide all the bottled water the coalition troops would need, but securing bottled water had already been given to another “coalition” member. It then offered to turn its first-rate, government operated hospitals over to the U. S. military to treat casualties, but DOD rejected this offer stating the flight to the U. S. Army’s 2nd General Hospital in Frankfurt was not that much farther than the flight to Sophia. Still searching for a role to play, the Bulgarian government offered to turn over to the United States up to five of the large hotels located in Varma on the Black Sea coast as recreation centers for coalition service personnel. DOD rejected this offer, stating that Poland had stationed a resort cruise liner off the coast of Saudi Arabia and coalition personnel would use this ship for recreation.

Time was running out for Bulgarian participation in the war effort. The 17 January 1991 coalition air attack transitioned into a 24 February ground assault that resulted in a 28 February cease-fire. The Bulgarian minister of defense made one more plea for involvement. He offered to send Bulgarian minesweepers to the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz to locate and destroy all the Iraqi underwater mines in the area. DOD instructed me to thank the minister for his offer, but to explain that Japan, with its own need for involvement, had already received this de-mining mission. By this time the U. S. government owed Bulgaria over $900,000 in over-flight assessments, and as far as I could determine, no one seemed very interested in paying the debt. Finally, in late February 1991, I received a directive from DOD to find out if the Bulgarian government really expected the USG to pay these over-flight assessments.

I arranged a meeting with the minister of defense and suggested he “offer” the over-flight assessments as Bulgaria’s contribution to the war effort. The MOD asked me what I was talking about. He knew of no over-flight assessments. He made some telephone calls and then suggested I make an appointment with the minister of transportation. I did so, meeting with him the next day.

The minister knew of the assessments and explained that this was just the normal way normal states conduct normal business. I explained that little was normal concerning Bulgaria’s efforts to become a coalition member and assist in removing Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Bulgaria had, in fact, provided considerable assistance to the coalition by authorizing these over-flights and Bulgaria had tried in vain to join the coalition in other meaningful ways. The ground war was over, but the U. S. DOD still would require over-flights for several months to come. It was not too late for Bulgaria to join the Gulf War Coalition if the Bulgarian government would waive the over-flight fees for both past and future over-flights pertaining to this war. The minister of transporation said he would discuss my proposal and “someone” would contact me shortly.

In early March, I received a telephone call from the same minister requesting a meeting. I went to his office and he informed me that the MOT had transferred to the MOD the decision of whether or not to assess the U. S. government a fee for over-flights of Bulgaria by U. S. aircraft since the aircraft involved were military and the Bulgarian government supported the military mission. The MOD made a two-part inquiry: In waiving all the over-flight fees, would Bulgaria really be considered a coalition member, and as such, would future victory celebrations include Bulgarian representation, assuming Bulgaria could afford to participate? I assured him the answer was “yes” on both counts. Subsequently, the Bulgarian government waived all U. S. military over-flight assessments from September 1990 through December 1991, an amount totaling ap-proximately $3,000,000.

Within a relatively short period, Newsweek carried an article describing the contributions of the thirty-three-nation Gulf War Coalition, including Bulgaria. The Bulgarian government seemed pleased with this and other “public” recognition by the U. S. government and the American media, and eventually accepted an invitation to send a small five-member Bulgarian military delegation to participate in a victory celebration held later in the year in Dallas, Texas. A few months after the Bulgarian general officer that headed this delegation returned home, the Zhelev government promoted him to lieutenant general and appointed him as the new minister of defense. Inclusion of Bulgaria as a Gulf War Coalition member contributed, if only slightly, to improved relations between Bulgaria and the U. S. government; however, the military-to-military contacts between Bulgaria and the United States improved significantly as a result of a short visit to Dallas and the positive effect this visit had on the new minister of defense.

At the root of it all was finding a means for Bulgaria to make a contribution to the Coalition effort—not an easy task.End.


The author retired in 1992 from the U. S. Army in the rank of colonel after a military career of twenty-seven years. Since retirement he has been a faculty member successively at East Carolina University and Campbell University in North Carolina. Col. Handley earned a doctorate in education at North Carolina State University.


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