SOFIA, BULGARIA — If you told Kostadin Kostadinov 10 years ago that Polish, Czech, Hungarian, and Turkish NATO troops would be passing through Bulgaria in 1999, with orders to protect Muslim ethnic Albanians in Yugoslavia, he would have thought you were crazy.
But last Saturday afternoon, the retired accountant was among a small crowd of spectators waiting at a busy intersection in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, to catch a glimpse of the Turkish contingent bound for Kosovo to join the NATO-led peacekeeping force, or KFOR.
The mechanized battalion of 1,006 military personnel included a road convoy of 52 vehicles carrying tanks, equipment, and soldiers, and six rail convoys with the rest.
The historical symbolism in the unprecedented geopolitical lineup in Kosovo is striking, bringing together former enemies among the Warsaw Pact and NATO countries, as well as Turkey and former subjects of the Ottoman Empire.
Polish and Czech NATO troops passed through Romania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia last week bound for Kosovo, and Hungarian NATO troops are expected soon. In addition, at NATO's request, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary temporarily closed their airspace to Russia over the weekend, until a dispute over the Russian deployment in Kosovo was settled Monday.
It is an irony that today's bitter ethnic strife in the Balkans could lead to a mending of old prejudices, as southeastern European states aspiring to NATO membership learn to swallow their hatred of former oppressors. The alliance may become a crucible, melting down ancient rivalries to forge a stronger Europe.
"We need to forget about the past for a better future," says Mr. Kostadinov. "Since we will join NATO, we must allow NATO troops to pass."
More than a century before Columbus sailed for the New World, Ottoman Turkey was a global superpower. At its height, the empire spanned three continents, from Vienna to Baghdad and Casablanca to Cairo, ruling for more than 500 years.
At its peak, Ottoman civilization was among the most sophisticated in the world, tolerant of different cultures, religions, and races. But in the 19th century, it tried to stem decay by brutally crushing its Balkan subjects. It was only in 1908 that Bulgaria gained full sovereignty from Turkey. Macedonia and Albania were not independent until 1912.
But in Tetovo, Macedonia, ethnic Albanian residents welcomed their fellow Muslim Turks like heroes. The Turkish force plans to be completely operational in Kosovo today. The force will initially patrol the southern border region with Albania and Macedonia, where few Serbs live.
But NATO officials remain concerned about the potential blowup that could follow any violent incident between Turkish soldiers and Orthodox Christian Serbs. Many Serbs regard the province of Kosovo as the cradle of their culture, which they trace back to the Serbian defeat at the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389. Ottoman Turkish forces were the victors.