AIM: start

WED, 10 OCT 2001 23:08:57 GMT

Sofia Sides with Anti-Terrorism Coalition

AIM Sofia, October 3, 2001

After Bulgaria granted the U.S. permission on Sept. 25 to send transport aircraft through its air space as part of its anti-terrorism operations, a growing number of ordinary people and politicians are asking whether this new commitment is a guarantee of national security.

This question seems almost inappropriate in the wake of the attack on the U.S. on Sept. 11, when it turned out that even the most powerful and best protected country in the world is helpless when faced with terrorism. If the U.S. is unable to give guarantees, what can other countries do? No one feels secure even at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, and how can one then feel secure in the Balkans, or in Bulgaria -- what can it expect in the event of a terrorist attack, especially when no one dares to make such promises? Nevertheless, the political decision was unanimous. It is still interesting to compare reactions of about a year and a half ago, when Bulgaria provided air corridors to NATO aircraft for air strikes against Yugoslavia. Although that decision was also unanimous, the debate was more heated and the number of opponents much higher.

Politicians today are acting differently, as are ordinary people. Maybe because, as Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi put it, "Terrorism is the worst plague and right now it and civilization are at war and no one can be neutral."

According to Bulgarians this is perfectly all right, but once Bulgaria has given free access to its skies other demands might follow, they say. Even though it is not yet a fully-fledged NATO member, Bulgaria is actually an ally of NATO, and, especially, of the U.S. This being the case, maybe Bulgaria is at war itself?

Furthermore, it is not clear whether the anti-terrorism coalition will request some concrete help from Bulgaria. It is not even clear whether the corridors granted by Bulgaria will be used at all. "For the time being we will send no troops to support NATO operations. But the Bulgarian armed forces are ready to participate in NATO operations if Parliament gives its approval," said Bulgarian Defense Minister Nikolai Svinarov. The cabinet will pose no problem -- all its members said without dissent that "we will act as NATO allies from the beginning to the and of the anti-terrorism campaign."

Will Parliament still be unanimously in favor if participation of Bulgarian armed forces is requested? It seems highly unlikely that it will act in the same manner as it did on Sept. 21 when it issued a declaration confirming Bulgaria's readiness to offer assistance and logistic support to NATO during its passage through the country, in line with an existing agreement. The declaration was supported by 158 votes in favor and one against, which never happened in the past.

Given that the thrust of the anti-terrorism campaign is aimed at certain parts of the Islamic world, one should consider the position of Muslims in Bulgaria. Bulgarian Mufti Selim Mehmed said Muslims support Sofia's decision to act as NATO's ally although some Islamic countries could be targeted. "Bulgarian Muslims condemn terrorism, but they are against terrorism being described as entirely Muslim," he said.

Bulgaria's position is generally the following: full support is being extended to the anti-terrorism campaign on condition that every NATO or U.S. request is debated separately. If, however, the participation of Bulgarian armed forces in concrete operations ends up on the agenda the debate is hardly likely to go smoothly.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party has said that this should be completely ruled out. The public generally shares this view. According to a poll taken by Gallup, 21 percent of the people support the participation of the Bulgarian armed forces in anti-terrorism operations, while 66 percent are against.

Siding with the anti-terrorism coalition Bulgaria is likely to expose itself to a terrorist counter-attack. According to George W. Bush, failure to support the coalition would have been tantamount to siding with the terrorists. That would have been the end of its plans to join NATO and the EU. Politicians have decided that such security risks are a lesser danger.

Ordinary people, however, are not so certain. Some 56 percent of Bulgarians fear that terrorist acts in the U.S. could lead to armed conflict, the results of a survey taken by the Noema polling agency show. Slightly over one-third of respondents fear a possible world-wide economic crisis or a wave of terrorist attacks, and 51 percent believe that Bulgaria could be a possible target (49 percent disbelieve this).

Many fear that the Kozloduj nuclear plant could be one such target. Experts, on the other hand, are certain that this is the least likely terrorist objective. They say facilities flying the U.S. flag -- embassies, consulates, diplomatic residences, U.S. cultural centers, universities and colleges, vehicles, etc. top the list of potential targets.

Facilities owned by the U.S. and Israel, such as various missions, companies, commissions, societies, should be included as well. Last but not the least are the planes of Balkan Airlines, which is still Israeli-owned.

The tightest security measures have not eliminated all fears. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack no one's safety is guaranteed,particularly if one is on one side of the invisible barricade.

Plamen Kulinski