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Crisis 1999
News Archive 1999

Sharpening Bulgaria's red-blue divide

Amid street rallies and errant bombs, Sofia maintains its pro-NATO stand. But some old partisans are ready to take to the hills.

By Georgi Koritarov in Sofia

An errant bomb landing on a Sofia suburb has intensified the sharp internal debate within Bulgaria over the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia. Yet the government has maintained its support for the war.

Recent street demonstrations recall the period of sustained rallies in Bulgaria two years ago, which led to a change of government. Then, as now, the political divisions echo the long-standing split within Bulgaria between the so-called red faction of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the blue reformists behind the United Democratic Front (UDF), which now forms the government.

At one rally, demonstrators sympathetic with the socialist opposition chanted: "NATO-fascists, world terrorists," and "NATO Out". Banners and posters declared: "Airspace corridor: to the central prison", or "Take the UDF, but not our sky."

Meantime, pro-government rallies have responded with similarly sophisticated slogans: "Red Rubbish", "Moscow's Agents," "Down with Milosevic".

Yet the issues facing Bulgaria are serious. While the country does have long-standing ties to neighbouring Serbia, the current government has charted a firm pro-western course, which it hopes will culminate in entry into NATO. Its complicated relationship with Macedonia--Bulgarian nationalists claim that Macedonians are ethnically Bulgarian--has always placed it at serious risk of becoming involved in any "spillover" of conflict from Kosovo. Its painstaking reconciliation with its own Turkish (Muslim) minority, following a pogrom during the late 1980s, could also be disturbed by a neighbouring conflict involving a the largely Muslim Kosovo Albanians.

More concretely, Bulgaria's geographic isolation, and the destruction of the bridges in Serbia over the Danube, have cut travel and trade to a poor country already struggling hard with its own economic transition. Export revenues are reported to have dropped 26 percent against last year, and growth in the Bulgarian economy is expected to fall by almost half, to 2 percent.

The increasing intensity of the NATO bombing has also ensured that Bulgaria has not been able to sit out the conflict. The NATO missile which landed in a Sofia suburb April 29--presumably after losing track of a Serbian missile radar site against which it had been targeted-- was the fourth to land on Bulgarian territory, although no one so far has been killed. The country has not, as yet, taken in many refugees, although its proximity to Kosovo makes it a potential recipient.

More importantly, only days after the recent bomb--which led opposition figures to claim that NATO was "bombing Bulgaria"--the parliament approved the request by NATO to allow limited use of the country's airspace for the campaign. (Bulgaria is a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace programme, though its request for early entry into the alliance was rebuffed.) The May 4 vote, which was 154 to 83, took place with several thousand pro- and anti-NATO demonstrators on the streets, separated by hundreds of riot police. "This is a good day for Bulgarian democracy," Prime Minister Ivan Kostov declared afterward. "It draws us closer to Europe."

Government ministers have strongly condemned the "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo by the Yugoslav forces. Yet even as suggested by statements such as Kostov's, the driving force on the issue, whether among the government or the opposition, is to chart the politically correct line. For the UDF, this means pro-NATO--taken as the symbol of foreign investment after the conflict is over. (There have already been calls for a post-war regional Marshall Plan.) For the opposition BSP, support for Yugoslavia, itself led by a Socialist Party, seems fuelled for the primary if not sole reason of simply opposing the UDF.

Perhaps as a result, politicians have not matched the passions of their argument with a clarity in their positions. Only a few days before the start of the bombing, for example, Kostov expressed serious concerns over the failure of the peace talks. "It seems the international community has no strategy," he said. "Any military operations in Yugoslavia without the agreement of Belgrade will lead to the collapse of the federation." Once the air strikes began, however, he expressed his full support, noting, "NATO air strikes aim towards the preservation of the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia."

Nadezda Mihailova, the young and usually collected foreign minister, became the focus of much derision when, in front of dozens of journalists, she had to call one of her deputies to explain exactly what kind of access is being offered to NATO aircraft. This only increased concerns that the government has failed to think through the strategic and diplomatic ramifications of the accord, with the opposition raising the spectre of Bulgaria's being a staging point for ground operations.

Yet the BSP has itself hardly been a model of clarity. Emboldened by polls suggesting that most people opposed the air- corridor agreement, it has stepped up its campaign against Bulgaria's links with the Western military alliance. Yet it has spoken only generally of support for Greek initiatives, while failing to enunciate clear policy alternatives.

Such confusions contribute to the range of curious views on display at the public rallies. At one anti-NATO demonstration, an elderly woman leaning on a stick argued, "It's time to begin armed partisan struggle." Asked what role she intended to play, she replied, "I will be at the head of a brigade."

Pro-government demonstrators are hardly more restrained--or coherent. "Milosevic is a monster. He must be murdered," said one outraged "blue" supporter. "If the Kosovo Albanians insist on independence, they could get out of Serbia, go to Albania, and have their independent state there."

Whatever the viewpoint, fuelled by the misguided NATO bombs and the government's rushed explanations, all Bulgarians are feeling an increasing sense of fear. The longer the crisis continues-- and the more military mishaps occur--the greater this fear will grow. While the politicians continue to exploit it to their own advantage, the Bulgarian people, without much clarity as to how or why, just hope the conflict will go away soon.

Giorgi Koritarov is a reporter in Sofia for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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