Bush Winds up European Tour in Bulgaria

By Matthew Brunwasser

SOFIA: President George W. Bush arrived Sunday night in Sofia on the last stop of his eight-day European trip, visiting one of the United States\’ newest and most loyal European allies – where American soldiers are expected to arrive at new military bases in September.

The White House plan for Monday included a tour by Bush and his wife, Laura, of the cultural sites of the Bulgarian capital: the National Archaeological Museum, the National History Museum, for lunch, and a visit with students from the American University in Bulgaria. The visit includes no public appearances beyond that.

“I represent a country that really cares deeply about the human condition,” Bush said in an interview with Bulgarian National Television that was broadcast June 1. “And I bring a spirit of friendship to Bulgaria and its people.”

In addition to seeing the history, culture and natural beauty of the country, “the president wants to highlight Bulgaria as a success story in the Balkans,” a senior U.S. Embassy official said.

The topics of meetings with President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev will include the country\’s military modernization, bilateral economic relations, Kosovo, lifting U.S. visa requirements for Bulgarians and the Bulgarian nurses jailed in Libya, whom Bush has called on Tripoli to free.

Bulgaria is among the United States\’ most steadfast allies in “New Europe” and has consistently participated in the so-called Coalition of the Willing, maintaining troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and suffering 13 casualties in Iraq.

Bill Clinton\’s visit to Bulgaria in 1999 was the first and last here by an American president. Clinton\’s speech drew a crowd estimated at 30,000. At the time Bulgaria was an eager candidate for membership in NATO and the EU. It had just proved its loyalty to NATO by supporting the bombing campaign of its neighbor Serbia, as NATO forces sought to drive Yugoslav forces out of Kosovo.

The Balkan state has questioned the proposed U.S. missile shield in Central Europe because Bulgaria would fall outside the geographical scope of its defensive capabilities, along with the rest of the southern flank of NATO: Turkey, Greece and Romania.

“Our wish is not to find ourselves in a zone of unequal security,” Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin said at news conference last Tuesday. “Clearly this will be one of the questions we will discuss.”

“This is the most legitimate argument to criticize the missile shield,” said Ivan Krastev, of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia. “The idea of equal guarantees for all the member states of NATO is the principle of the alliance.”

Other EU member states want the shield discussed in a NATO context, Krastev said, and not on a bilateral basis between the United States and Poland and the Czech Republic.

“This argument gains a certain kind of respectability for Bulgarian foreign policy within the EU,” said Krastev.

Fears about Russia are not expected to figure prominently in the talks in Sofia, in contrast to Bush\’s meetings with leaders in Central Europe. Bulgaria is perhaps the most pro-Russian EU member-state, both historically and in terms of current public attitudes. The Bulgarian people were by far the most Russia-friendly among the 12 European countries included in the 2006 U.S. German Marshall Fund Trans-Atlantic Trends survey.

The U.S.-Bulgaria military cooperation agreement of April 2006 laid out plans for 2,500 U.S. soldiers to be based in Bulgaria on six-month rotations. The details of the facilities have not been finalized but are expected to include two air bases, a training ground and a storage facility.

“We see this as part of the process of the modernization of the army and enhancing the capacity of this army to interact on an operative basis with NATO and U.S. military units,” said Dimitar Tsanchev of the Foreign Ministry.