Bulgaria - the Neglected Balkan Trouble Spot

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On the streets of Peoria, mention Bulgaria and stares may be as blank as those that once accompanied "Bosnia" or "Chechnya." Post-cold-war turmoil in heretofore unpronounceable locales has replaced the neatly bipolar confrontation with Soviet-style communism that ordered Americans' world view for two generations. But in recent weeks, another trouble spot has come into view: a Balkan state of fewer than 9 million people teetering on the precipice of internal conflict. And, although Bulgaria is still not on many Americans' radar screens, its problems affect us.

Bulgaria's instability is interwoven with American interests in a stable Southeastern Europe - a region that has seen genocidal war in the former Yugoslavia, omnipresent danger of conflict between Greece and Turkey, nationalist tensions affecting Macedonia, and resurgent authoritarianism in Albania.

But as prior episodes in this century made clear, tensions that lead to war in the Balkans can't be isolated in that peninsula. Whether to contain conflict or to fight wider wars resulting from Balkan conflicts, human and financial resources from the streets of Peoria have been used when threats to European peace aren't addressed early and forcefully.

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Bulgaria's present unrest is dangerous to Bulgarians, to Europe, and to the US. But Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, is not Belgrade. Press attempts to portray events in these two cities as similar confuse Western publics and obscure the accurate views needed by policymakers.

Reasons for tensions

Bulgarian tensions have several underlying causes, none of which have anything to do with perceived defeat in war ( la Serbia) or with nationalism in the virulent Serbian sense. Instead, the roots lie in (1) economic collapse, (2) public fear of crime and disgust with corruption, (3) a substantial drop in the popularity of the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), even while it retains the parliamentary majority won in 1994 national elections, (4) the arrogance of now-departed BSP Prime Minister Zhan Videnov, and (5) the resort to street protests and incitement to violence by the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) when the BSP insisted on trying to form a new government rather than scheduling new elections.

Once again, as with so many other tensions in post-communist Europe, the population's socioeconomic security has been the driving force behind change or turmoil. Democracy has a tough time in insecure environments, and the US and Western organizations committed to promoting democracy must understand a simple notion very soon - democracy is security-dependent. No security, no democracy.

In Bulgaria, thus far, virulent right-wing nationalists have not succeeded in masquerading as democrats, as in Serbia. No Vuk Draskovic or Zoran Djindjic has appeared in Sofia to offer CNN-appropriate rhetoric to generate sympathy in Western capitals. Neither have there been any deaths in Sofia, and property damage has been minimal. Sofia's demonstrations have been smaller and less orchestrated than in Belgrade.

Much unlike the case with Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, the BSP itself successfully maneuvered to remove Mr. Videnov and to outflank his principal communist-era supporters. BSP moderates undertook a politically courageous effort to find a way out of the crisis - a fact neither understood nor credited in the West.

Sofia's governmental vacuum is seen in conflicting statements from ministries and government spokesmen. The presidency, a national security council, and the Army are holding the country together while members of parliament - fearful of gathering because they may present another target of opportunity to mobs - struggle to find a way out of the crisis. Yet even the presidency is in transition. A new and young president, Petar Stoyanov, was inaugurated last week. But the Bulgarian presidency has a constitutionally limited role and Stoyanov is too new to the post to assert full authority despite his large electoral victory last fall. Unless politicians coalesce around a compromise solution soon, the role of the Army may increase.

On Jan. 10 and 11, key UDF personalities, including former Prime Minister Filip Dimitrov, advocated surrounding BSP lawmakers in the parliament building, an action that amounted to hostage-taking. They encouraged a crowd of protesters to prevent Interior Ministry police, backed by the Army, from escorting the MPs out of the building in the middle of the night. This led to warning shots and injuries among both protesters and MPs. The latter ran for buses, the windows of which were broken by bricks and stones thrown by the mob.

There could be worse to come unless (1) the UDF backs off from efforts to use mob pressure or a general strike to destabilize political life, (2) President Petar Stoyanov accepts the constitutional mandate of the BSP to try to form a government, albeit one that includes nonparty ministers, and (3) the BSP agrees to an accelerated timetable for elections, until which a BSP-led cabinet, primarily composed of nonparty technocrats, would govern.

Prospects for the region

Despite its absence from Americans' daily digest of world news, Bulgaria can't be forgotten or excluded. A clear potential exists in Bulgaria for substantial instability and accompanying violence. The reversion of this region to a turbulent backwater would be dangerous for the US, our European allies, and NATO. These considerations alone should compel our attention and action.

Neither should we ignore the desire of most Bulgarians to be part of the Western system and enjoy the peace and prosperity experienced by Western Europe.

*Daniel N. Nelson is president of Global Concepts Inc., an international consulting firm, and professor of International Studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

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