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Writing from the perspective of someone on the scene during the time in question, the author traces changes that have resulted in the development of good bilateral relations between Washington and Sofia after decades of strain. — Ed.

Bulgarian Political Development, 1989-2003

“The Bulgarian-American relationship, somewhat adversarial in the early 1990s. . . has warmed considerably since 1997 and is today one of both mutual trust and respect.”

This article briefly describes the political development within Bulgaria from Todor Zhivkov’s loss of power in 1989, through the installation of former King Simeon II as prime minister in 2001, to Bulgaria’s role in the 2003 war against Iraq. This period includes the rise and fall of eight different Bulgarian governments composed of elements from the far left, the far right, the center, and various combinations of all three. With the demise of communism, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) changed its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and dominated the political scene. Opposition to the BSP came primarily from a coalition of parties known collectively as the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) openly supported by Western governments, agencies, and departments.

Regardless of which political party led parliament, throughout this period the GOB remained fixed on two goals: secure membership in NATO and in the EU. To assist with the former, the GOB joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace, it supported NATO operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, it supported the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, it supported the U.S. government’s War on Terror, and it supported the “Coalition of the Willing” against Afghanistan in 2002 and against Iraq in 2003. Additionally, the GOB approved locating the headquarters for a multilateral peacekeeping force for Southeastern Europe on Bulgarian soil. To assist EU ascension, the GOB became a member of the IMF and the World Bank and it joined the Central Europe Free Trade Association. The return of former King Simeon II, Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha, marked a significant political event in Bulgarian history. The Western educated, Simeon formed a political party 2001, won a plurality in the 2001 parliamentary election, and became prime minister, a position he still holds at this writing in 2003. The political and economic relationship between the U. S. government and the GOB is growing and deepening, due in large part to the air, ground, and naval facilities the Bulgarians have made available for U.S. and coalition forces to use. The U. S. government can count on the support of the GOB in matters vital to America’s national interest as long as those interests do not conflict with one of Bulgaria’s principal goals — ascension to the EU.

Col. Handley in class A uniform.

On 9 November 1989, General Dobri Dzhurov, the long-serving Bulgarian minister of defense, with support from Georgi Antanasov, the premier, and Andrei Lukanov, the minister for foreign economic relations, orchestrated the end of the thirty-five-year reign of Todor Zhivkov as Bulgaria’s head of state and as general secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP). Petar Mladenov, the foreign minister for the previous seventeen years, lent his support to the palace coup, but as the designated Zhivkov replacement by the co-conspirators, he could not be implicated in it. For this reason, Mladenov flew to China on 5 November to meet with his PRC counterpart. He would not return to Bulgaria until 10 November when the politburo proclaimed him the new General Secretary of the BCP. On 9 November, the politburo met to discuss the growing democratic revolutions in other Warsaw Treaty countries as well as events in Bulgaria itself. Todor Zhivkov, as expected, recommended the politburo create a new politburo position for his son, Vladimir. When the politburo failed to approve this new position, Zhivkov did exactly what General Dzhurov suspected he would do: He resigned. In at least five previous crises over the previous thirty-five years, when the politburo seemed to doubt the general direction Zhivkov wished to take the country, he offered his resignation and suggested the politburo find someone else to handle his responsibilities. On every occasion, the politburo refused to accept his resignation and begged Zhivkov to continue to lead the nation, agreeing to support whatever position Zhivkov deemed appropriate. With Mladenov’s proxy in hand, General Dzhurov went to the politburo meeting with four of the nine votes he needed to accept the resignation he felt certain would come. All he and the others had to do was to convince one more politburo member that it was time for a leadership change. They succeeded. The politburo voted five to four to accept Zhivkov’s resignation. Zhivkov, a politburo member, did not vote. On 16 November, Mladenov convinced the Central Committee to remove Zhivkov and his four supporters from the politburo and to place Zhivkov and his second-in-command, Milko Balev, under house arrest in order for an investigation to determine if the two men should be charged for any criminal activity while they held office (Thompson 2002, 443). [On 7 December 1990, the Bulgarian government indicted both men on charges of “gross embezzlement” and “abuse of power.”Convicted of these charges on 4 September 1992, Zhivkov received a seven-year prison sentence while Balev received two years. On 21 February 1996, the Bulgarian Constitutional Court voided the sentences against Zhivkov and Balev and dismissed the case. Although Balev completed his sentence in 1994, Zhivkov had been allowed to serve his sentence under house arrest due to his poor health. In early 1998, Zhivkov joined the Bulgarian Socialist Party and died in August of that year, one month prior to his eighty-seventh birthday. (See also “Bulgaria,” Encyclopedia of World History, 2002; “Background Note: Bulgaria,” DOS, 2003; “Prosecutor,” BTA, 1996; “Todor Zhivkov,” The History Guide, 2001; and “Bulgaria: Human Rights Development,” 1992).

The Bulgarian government, now directed by General Secretary Petar Mladenov, prepared to hold, in early 1990, the first multi-party election in Bulgaria since World War II. On 15 January 1990, the National Assembly approved a change in the constitution revoking the monopoly of the Communist Party. On 3 April 1990, the National Assembly elected Petar Mladenov as Bulgaria’s president. That same day, the ruling Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) officially changed its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), yet the “new” Socialist Party held all the physical and financial assets of the “old” Communist Party. Opposition forces from some thirteen different parties had joined together previously on 7 December 1989 to form the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). Additionally, two other parties not associated with either the UDF or the BSP announced they would participate in the upcoming election. The Bulgarian Agrarian Peoples Union (BAPU) allied itself with the former Communists who did not want to become Socialists, while the Movement for Human Rights and Freedoms Party (MRF) represented approximately one million of the eight million Bulgarians considered ethnically Turkish. These party organizations then began a public debate on when to hold elections, with the better organized BSP arguing for the earliest possible election date while the UDF wanted as much time as possible to get organized. Finally the BSP proposed March 1990 and the UDF countered with October 1990. All of the parties eventually agreed on June.

As the parties began to work to develop and increase their support, the UDF concentrated on the younger population in the urban cities, while the BSP worked the various traditional institutions reluctant to change: the elderly, the rural poor, the military, and anyone in a position of trust and responsibility that might lose this position should the UDF come to power (Thompson 2002, 443-445; “Bulgaria, CIA World Fact Book, 2002). The American government, far from simply observing and reporting on these election results, became a participant on behalf of the UDF. With the encouragement and support of the Department of State, U.S. Ambassador Polanski attended UDF functions, gave speeches in support of UDF candidates, and assisted the UDF in securing funding for computers, paper, ink, and other technical and non-technical items required by the UDF to run an effective campaign.

As the author witnessed while participating as a UN observer, the June 1990 Bulgarian election was a messy affair. Bulgarian politicians had not campaigned for any election since before World War II. For the most part, Bulgarian politicians were not all that certain exactly what to do. We saw instances of what could best be described as “kissing hands and shaking babies,” as opposed to “normal” events in a Western-style election. Numerous examples of election problems came to light. For example, the BSP was certain of support from the professional officer and NCO military members, but considerably less certain of support from the troops. Thus, to ensure the UDF did not get the support of the rank and file military, the vast majority of the Bulgarian military forces (army, navy, and air force) found themselves on some type of forty-eight-hour military training exercise that took them away from their installations and prevented them from getting to any voting station. In other instances, units were marched to a voting station where their votes could be observed. Each voting station consisted of a four-foot square, with wood on three sides and a curtain over the fourth side. The wooden walls covered an area from about three feet off the ground to a height of approximately eight feet. A small nine-inch shelf extended around the inside of the voting station on three sides, with the BSP ballets always on the voter’s immediate left, the UDF ballots always on the right, and the other two parties ballots on the wall directly in front of the voter. A collection of twenty to thirty people, usually men, sat in a row of chairs inside the building housing the voting booth and carefully observed, and recorded, where each voter stood in relationship to the known location of the ballots. Additionally, there were numerous instances of intimidation of ethnically Turkish voters both by BSP toughs, as well as election officials. Regardless of the many problems, the UN and other government and non-government agencies monitoring the procedures throughout the country declared the election largely “free and fair.”

The personnel within the U.S. embassy in Sofia had a very good grasp of events in the urban centers of Bulgaria, but they had less information on the happenings in the rural areas. Regardless, embassy personnel remained very positive in their collective assessment of the expected election outcome, predicting the UDF probably would win a clear majority of at least fifty-one percent, but if this did not occur, the next government at least would be a coalition of UDF and the MRF. The results disappointed, if not humiliated, the embassy staff. The BSP managed to win a clear majority of fifty-two percent while the UDF secured only thirty-six percent of the vote. The Agrarians won a minimum of seats by taking four percent of the vote, the minimum required by a party to have any representation in the National Assembly. The Movement for Human Rights and Freedoms Party (MRF) showed considerable strength for an ethnic party, winning eight percent of the vote, but they did not have sufficient support to form a coalition with the UDF (“Elections in Bulgaria,” 2002). To the deep chagrin of the Washington, the current Socialist Party, all previously Communist Party members, had a clear mandate to run the Bulgarian government. Of all the Warsaw Pact nations that had experienced the wave of democratic revolutionary fever in 1989, only Bulgaria replaced a Communist government with a Socialist one. The other countries of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and even Russia embraced, if only for a short time, a pro-democratic party. The remaining Warsaw Part countries, Romania and Poland, initially changed from one “one-party” system to another “one-party” system (the National Salvation Front and Solidarity, respectively), but in time they both developed multi-party structures. U.S. officials in Sofia were at a loss to explain why the Bulgarian people would place their trust in former communists, now socialists, rather than the democrats of the UDF.

Prior to the June 1990 election, an incident occurred that adversely effected the new BSP-led government of Petar Mladenov and eventually brought about his resignation. While viewing a pro-democracy UDF sponsored demonstration of some 50,000 Bulgarians in Sofia in mid-December 1989, Mladenov turned to one of his general officers standing about three feet away and jokingly commented something to the effect of, “Well, I suppose it’s time to send in the tanks.” To this, the general laughed and replied, “Oh no, it’s not that bad yet. We can wait a while.” Both men then laughed and continued to watch the demonstration. At no time did anyone in the government alert the Sofia-based T-72 equipped tank brigade that the government needed its services. (The author was standing behind and within arms reach of both men during the exchange.) This “joke,” picked up on a UDF operated videotape, did not play well for Mladenov when a local news station aired it that evening on Bulgarian television. Rather than acknowledge the words were spoken in jest, Mladenov claimed he never uttered them and accused the UDF of fabricating a lie to discredit him and to frighten the Bulgarian people. The UDF sent the tape to Switzerland for independent confirmation of its allegation. When the Swiss affirmed Mladenov’s comment on 7 July 1990, Mladenov had no choice but to resign, which he did that same day (see also Thompson 2002, 444).

The author (center) in Bulgaria on a field trip. At right, U. S. air attache Michael Masterson. At left, an attache from the French embassy.

Thus in early July 1990, the Bulgarian people found themselves with a BSP-dominated government led by Andrei Lukanov as prime minister, but with no president and no one willing to accept the position. The BSP solution was to co-opt the UDF by convincing the UDF to join the BSP in a grand coalition. The BSP believed a coalition government would enable Bulgaria to start down an economic road to recovery, without Bulgarians holding the BSP accountable for the pain of the transition to a market economy. Negotiations to form such a government, considered vital by the BSP, resulted in the BSP offering the UDF not only the presidency of the country, but all cabinet positions with the exception of defense, interior, and foreign relations. Dr. Zhelyu Zhelev, leader of the UDF, accepted the presidency of Bulgaria on 1 August 1990, but the UDF continued to balk at the idea of participating in a coalition government (Thompson 2002, 444).While Bulgarian politicians discussed the local issues of this small Balkan country, Operation Desert Shield, the build up to the coalition war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, began one week after Zhelyu Zhelev accepted the Bulgarian presidency. For the next several weeks, various interim ministers of the new interim government contacted the U. S. embassy in Sofia to determine what, if anything, Bulgaria could contribute to the war against Iraq. Finally, on 20 September 1990, the UDF announced its refusal to participate in the grand coalition and the BSP formed a cabinet with Andrei Lukanov again as Prime Minister. The BSP-led Bulgarian government also wanted to join the coalition against Iraq. It had several objectives in mind: first, coalition membership guaranteed friendly support from the Americans for the GOB to join other international institutions and on 25 September 1990, with U. S. government support, Bulgaria became a member of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (“Bulgaria,” Encyclopedia of World History, 2001). Second, coalition membership helped the GOB in its quest to eventually ascend to membership in both NATO and the EU, goals espoused by both the UDF and the BSP. Third, prior to its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq had purchased two billion dollars worth of Bulgarian munitions, especially land and sea mines, and promised to pay for them in oil shipments but had yet to ship any oil. Bulgaria wanted the oil it was promised and thought, as it turned out incorrectly, that by joining the coalition the other coalition members would honor the Iraqi debt.

On 15 November, the Bulgarian national assembly garnered more U. S. government support when it voted to drop “People’s” from the name of the country and changed the name to the Republic of Bulgaria. Although Lukanov announced a plan for a transition to a market economy, his government met considerable opposition from student demonstrations, general strikes (legal since 6 March), and a boycott of parliament by the opposition parties, all protesting the new economic transformation policies and the former Communists implementing them. This collective opposition to the government forced the resignation of Lukanov on 29 November. On 20 December, a new Grand National Assembly approved a transitional coalition government led by an independent political entity, a former judge named Dimitur Popov. The new grand coalition government included members from the BSP, the UDF, and the BAPU, with Zhelyu Zhelev remaining in the office of President (Thompson 2002, 444-445; “Elections in Bulgaria,” 2002).

The National Assembly in Sophia, Bulgaria.

The Grand Coalition government continued to search for ways to provide Bulgarian participation as a Gulf War coalition member. The first Lukanov government had approved American transport aircraft overflight of Bulgarian airspace. The second Lukanov government and the succeeding Popov government continued to support these overflights, although each government charged the Washington approximately $150,000 a month for the privilege. In order to gain recognition as a coalition member, the GOB offered bottled spring water, Black Sea hotels for “rest and recreation,” hospitals, a sapper (engineer) unit to clear mine fields, a CBR decontamination unit, and mine-sweepers to clear mines from the Gulf of Hormuz. Although the U.S. Department of Defense found several of these proposals acceptable, none made it past Department of State scrutiny. Desert Shield evolved into the air war phase of Desert Storm on 17 January 1991, which then became the ground war phase on 24 February and ended 100 hours later on 28 February.Bulgaria had yet to satisfy State’s requirements to enter the war as a coalition member; it appeared, thanks to State’s objections, they had missed this opportunity. Having received no overflight payments for six months, the Bulgarian government inquired of the U. S. embassy in Sofia if the U. S. government planned to honor its financial commitment to Bulgaria and if so, when. By early March 1991, Washington concluded that if the GOB waived these overflight changes and continued to allow coalition aircraft to overfly Bulgarian airspace without charge for another year, the U. S. government would recognize Bulgaria as the thirty-third Gulf War Coalition member. Both the minister of defense, who had originally approved the overflights, and the minister of transportation, now responsible for the overflight charges, agreed to waive the charges and Bulgaria joined the coalition. (For additional information on this subject see the author’s article “Bulgaria and the 1990 Gulf War Coalition” in American Diplomacy, July 2002).

For the next several months little economic or political progress occurred in Bulgaria. The coalition that produced a Grand National Assembly remained deeply divided on how to get Bulgaria moving down any road of economic recovery. Most Bulgarian political leaders agreed Bulgaria had to transition to a market economy, the non-pejorative word for capitalism, but few could agree on how or how fast. The UDF, with U. S. support, wanted to institute market economy ideas and programs immediately. The UDF expected the transition to be painful but relatively short, perhaps four or five years, much like the transition in Poland. The BSP, however, wanted as little pain as possible, much like the Russian model, even if this meant stretching out the transition process for twenty or more years. The inability to resolve this basic difference brought about another set of elections in October 1991 and for the first time since the East European pro-democratic revolutions of 1989, Bulgarians elected a noncommunist government which appointed a completely noncommunist cabinet (“Elections in Bulgaria,” 2002).

The UDF won the October 1991 election over the BSP by one percentage point but it could hardly claim to have a mandate from the Bulgarian people to implement drastic changes. The UDF carried thirty-four percent of the vote, while the BSP received 33% and the MRF again captured nearly eight percent of the total vote. The remaining twenty-five percent of the vote went to a number of small parties, none of which garnered the required four percent minimum to hold seats in the National Assembly. UDF leader Filip Dimitrov formed a cabinet composed of UDF and MFR members and took office on 8 November. In January 1992, the National Assembly elected Zhelyu Zhelev, the former UDF leader appointed to the presidency in 1990, to a subsequent five-year term as president. The new UDF/MFR government operated as ineffectively as any previous BSP government or coalition government. One of its few accomplishments, over the strong objections of the BSP, was the government’s adoption, on 9 April 1992, of a decree restoring private ownership of land and property previously nationalized by several communist regimes between 1947 and 1962 (“Bulgaria,” Encyclopedia of World History, 2001). By early November 1992, the UDF/MFR government fell from power, not to be replaced until 30 December by a new government put forward by the MFR of mostly non-party personnel, or technocrats, led by the economist Lyuben Berov. Eight of the fourteen cabinet members were not members of Parliament (“Elections in Bulgaria,” 2002; Thompson 2002, 445).

On 2 August 1993, the Berov government successfully approved and implemented a plan to privatize over 500 state enterprises. The Berov government succeeded somewhat better than previous governments, seeing the acceptance in 1994 of Bulgaria in the Partnership for Peace program, a junior NATO organization for aspiring NATO members. This government of technocrats lasted until 17 October 1994 when President Zhelyu Zhelev dissolved parliament, appointed Reneta Indjova as premier of an interim government, and called for early elections. The BSP won an absolute majority in the December 1994 elections and the thirty-five-year old, Soviet-trained hard liner, Zhan Videnov, became premier. In 1995, Videnov earned the wrath of the population when his government tried to reintroduce collectivization for farmers, but the Constitutional Court overruled the government, holding that the act violated private property rights (Thompson 2002, 446). Additionally, many Bulgarians believed that BSP leaders were responsible for the 2 October 1996 assassination of Andrei Lukanov, a long-term BSP functionary but a severe and vocal critic of Premier Videnov.

For the presidential election of 3 November 1996, the UDF selected Petar Stoyanov, a little known lawyer, to run for president in place of Zhelyu Zhelev, now considered an “insider” by most Bulgarians. Stoyanov ran against his BSP rival, Ivan Marazov, and defeated him. Stoyanov accepted the office of president on 22 January 1997 (“The People’s President,” 1999). The Videnov government fell in February 1997 when a populace alienated by the party’s failed, corrupt government demanded its resignation and called for new elections. Stoyanov appointed a caretaker cabinet and the GOB officially applied for NATO membership on 17 February 1997. This caretaker cabinet served until parliamentary elections were held the following April. The April elections resulted in a landslide victory for pro-reform forces led by a new United Democratic Forces coalition made up of the former UDF, the People’s Union, and several smaller parties. The new UDF won an absolute majority of fifty-two percent. Along with the UDF, four other parties held seats in Parliament — the BSP with twenty-two percent, the MRF with nearly eight percent, a new Euro left Party with almost six percent, and another new party, the Bulgarian Business Bloc, with five percent. Ivan Kostov, the UDF leader, became premier in May 1997, forming the eighth Bulgarian government since 1989 (“Bulgaria Country Commercial Guide FY 2001,” DOS and DOC, 2002; “Elections in Bulgaria,” 2002; “Bulgaria Political Environment,” 2000).

Premier Kostov, even with an absolute majority, formed a center-right coalition and governed relatively effectively for the next four years. The Kostov government made significant accomplishments in addressing and correcting the problems left by Bulgaria’s previous seven governments. In May 1997, Parliament overwhelmingly adopted a National Concord Declaration to establish reform priorities. In June, banking rehabilitation began with the selection of a National Bank Managing Board. In July, the government concluded a $510 million standby agreement with the IMF to help pull the country out of economic crisis, and it established a Currency Board that pegged the Bulgarian lev to the German mark, thus establishing financial stabilization. In October, the Bulgarian Stock Exchange opened. That same month Parliament acted to regulate and protect forest land, to compensate owners of nationalized property, and to settle a fifty-year-old border dispute with Turkey. Premier Kostov received praise from U.S. and European officials for his economic reforms, for putting Bulgaria on the right track to secure NATO and EU membership, and for addressing crime and corruption (Bulgaria Country Commercial Guide FY 2002,” DOS and DOC, 2003).

During Kostov’s term in office, U.S.-Bulgarian relations steadily improved. Secretary of Defense William Cohen visited Bulgaria first in July and again in October 1997 to discuss Bulgaria’s preparations for NATO membership (“Atlantic Club,” 1999). Bulgaria conducted a Free Trade Agreement with Turkey in July 1998 and that same month it joined the Central Europe Free Trade Association (CEFTA), linking it economically with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. EU members viewed the CEFTA as an important step for Bulgaria’s later ascension to the EU. In September 1998, Bulgaria became the host of a multilateral peacekeeping force for southeastern Europe with its headquarters in Plovdiv. This headquarters includes forces from Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Romania, Macedonia, and Italy. When fighting broke out in Kosovo in March 1999, Bulgaria supported the NATO position, giving NATO forces permission to transit Bulgaria and offering logistic support (“What did the Bulgarian Government Accomplish,” 2001; Shalamanov 2000; Krastev, 1999).

President Stoyanov made a state visit to Washington on 10 February 1998 to discuss with President Clinton Bulgaria’s efforts to meet both NATO and EU ascension requirements. In October 1998, First Lady Hillary Clinton visited Sofia, followed by President Clinton’s visit to Sofia the next month. President Clinton was the first American president ever to visit Bulgaria. Premier Kostov went to Washington in March 2001, becoming the first head of government from central Europe to meet with President Bush and the new administration’s top government officials (“Bulgaria Country Commercial Guide FY 2002,” 2003; “U.S.-Bulgarian Partnership for New Era,” 1998).

Although Premier Kostov accomplished much internationally for Bulgaria, to include settling all of Bulgaria’s outstanding debts by December 1999, the truism held that all politics is local and many Bulgarians resented his austerity plans. With over twenty percent of the population still unemployed in January 2001, and after the closure of numerous unproductive state enterprises, creating even more unemployed, Bulgarian voters decided they wanted someone or something different. In April 2001, two months before the scheduled parliamentary elections, former King Simeon II, Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha, returned to Bulgaria and established his political party — the National Movement of Tsar Simeon II (SNM). Although he personally did not run for parliament, he promised that if his party won, he would transform Bulgaria in 800 days by attracting foreign investment, cutting taxes, and eliminating government corruption. His party failed to capture a majority of the 18 June vote, but it did take the most votes, with nearly forty-three percent of the electorate willing to give the former king the opportunity to succeed. The UDF, under Kostov, gained eighteen percent of the vote, while the Coalition for Bulgaria, which included the BSP, took seventeen percent, and the MRF again garnered close to eight percent. Simeon, the first monarch to gain power in Europe in an election since Louis Napoleon some 150 years earlier, became prime minister of a new SNM/MRF coalition (“Bulgaria: Country Background Report,” CRS, 2000; Thompson 2002, 446-447; “Bulgarian Elections,” Pravda, 2001″; Petrov, 2001).

Five months after the election for the national assembly, Bulgaria held its separate election for president. Parliamentarians serve for four years, while the president serves for a maximum of two five-year terms. Polls put President Stoyanov at a fifty percent approval rate, believed by political watchers sufficient for him to win his second term. Voter turnout of forty-one percent, the lowest since 1989, brought some surprises. Stoyanov secured thirty-five percent of the vote, while his perceived main challenger, Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev, received only nineteen percent, failing the make the run off. Surprisingly, the BSP candidate, a forty-four-year old historian named Georgi Parvanov, gained thirty-six percent of the 11 November vote forcing a run off between himself and Stoyanov on 18 November. With fifty-five percent of the voters turning out, the overall results remained unchanged. Parvanov received fifty-four percent of the vote to forty-six percent for Stoyanov. For the first time since 1990, a leader of the Socialist, formerly Communist, party became president of Bulgaria. In his first address, President Parvanov asserted his determination to secure NATO and EU membership for Bulgaria and to work with the government of Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha (“Socialist Leads,” BBC, 2001; “Bulgarian Presidential Elections,” 2001; “Elections in Bulgaria,” 2002 and 2003).

The Bulgarian government’s support of the U. S. government and its fight against terrorism came swiftly after the 11 September 2001 attack on American soil. Shortly after this event, Bulgaria turned over to the United States a military airfield near the Black Sea port of Varna for use by members of a new U.S.-led coalition. This base currently houses some 200 American servicemen. Additionally, when the GOB learned that weapons and munitions from Bulgarian arms manufacturers had been sold to questionable regimes, it took prompt action to close down the factories, reducing foreign arms sales by ninety percent before the end of the year. The Bulgarian parliament unanimously approved, on 14 November, a GOB agreement to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan by unconditionally offering Bulgarian airspace, as well as all of Bulgaria’s ports and land-based military facilities. The Bulgarian defense ministry even refurbished several airfields and placed them at the disposal of coalition forces. Bulgaria dispatched a small military contingent to Kabul to assist as peacekeepers in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, while maintaining a small military force supporting NATO operations in both Bosnia and in Kosovo (“Bulgarian Parliament,” 2001; Young 2001; Anderson 2003; Belinda 2003; Chiriac, 2003).

On 21 November 2001, U.S. KC-135 “Stratotankers” previously based at Souda Bay, Greece, and Incirlik, Turkey, deployed to an airfield near Burgas to form the 351st Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron. The United States deployed support assets to the airfield from the UK’s RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath, from Germany’s Ramstein, Spangdahlem, and Rhein Main air bases, and from Aviano, Italy. Due certainly in part to its support of the War on Terror, as well as other ongoing military operations, Bulgaria, as well as six other countries, received an invitation in November 2002 to join NATO when the alliance met in Prague. The invitation starts the process, but all nineteen member states must approve each country’s ascension individually. All seven nations are expected to join NATO prior to the start of the next NATO summit meeting in May 2004 (McCullough 2001; “Romania and Bulgaria,” 2001; Tomiuc 2002; Donovan 2003; Jahn, 2003).
As events developed in late 2002 and early 2003, the GOB supported every effort made by Washington to force Iraq diplomatically to comply with sixteen UN resolutions concerning disarmament and weapons inspections (“The Government Submits,” 2003). On 7 February 2003, the Bulgarian parliament approved the continued use of the Sarafovo airfield near Burgas for U.S. operations against Iraq and authorized the deployment of a 150-person CBR unit to Kuwait in support of a coalition operation. On 19 March, Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha addressed the Bulgarian people to explain why diplomatic efforts had failed to secure UN consensus on appropriate action to take to ensure Iraqi disarmament; he stated that Bulgaria would support what President Bush termed “the Coalition of the Willing.” On 8 May, the Senate in Washington unanimously approved Bulgarian NATO membership, following similar action by Canada and Norway (Gotha, 2003; McCain, 2003; Porteus, 2003).

The Bulgarian-American relationship, somewhat adversarial in the early 1990s due primarily to the Bulgarian people’s insistence in preferring “socialists” over “democrats,” has warmed considerably since 1997 and is today one of both mutual trust and respect. Bulgaria expects to play a major role in NATO in the coming years, as well as in the War on Terror, by providing the training grounds and permanent bases required for many of the air, land, and naval elements of U.S. personnel currently stationed elsewhere throughout Europe. The current Bulgarian government of Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha, supported by Socialist President Parvanov, continually works for transparency and accountability. As the Bulgarian political leadership seeks to eliminate unemployment, inflation, land ownership issues, and the few remaining ineffective state enterprises, as well as to improve human rights, banking procedures, tourism, and trade with neighboring and regional partners, Bulgarians can expect an economically and politically secure future that should include full NATO membership in 2004 and EU membership in 2007.


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Republished by permission of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684.


Colonel Handley served twenty-five years in the U.S. army, including as Defense attaché in Sofia, Bulgaria. He earned a doctorate from North Carolina State University and currently teaches international relations at Pope Air Force Base and at Camp Lejeune, both in North Carolina.


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