Bulgaria's Political Realignment: NATO and EU Stakes
,br>Featuring: Ambassador Elena Poptodorova, Bulgarian Ambassador to the U.S.

Forum co-hosted with the Center's Southeast Europe Project and East Europe Studies Program.

Bulgarian Ambassador Elena Poptodorova discussed the political aftermath of the June 25 parliamentary elections, emphasizing the impacts on the future of Bulgaria's NATO commitments and impending European Union (EU) accession.

The parliamentary elections failed to establish a ruling majority to govern Bulgaria. The Socialist Party (Coalition for Bulgaria) led with 34% of the vote (83 of 240 parliamentary seats), followed by the outgoing ruling party, the center-right Simeon II National Movement, with 22% (53 seats). The Movement of Rights and Freedoms, dominated by Bulgaria's ethnic Turkish minority, amassed 14% of the vote (33 seats), followed by the nationalist group Ataka with 8.75% (21 seats) and the Union of Democratic Forces with 8.33% (20 seats). The two other parties exceeding the 4% threshold were the right-wing parties Democrats for Strong Bulgaria and the Bulgarian People's Union.

President Georgi Parvanov on July 18 presented the socialists with a mandate to form a coalition government, hoping such a coalition would be comprised of the three leading parties. The rise of Ataka was the greatest surprise in the elections, stated the ambassador. Within a span of just two months, the party was launched and able to garner more than 300,000 votes. Known for its radical platform and strident opposition to EU accession reforms, Ataka's electoral strength was cause for political concern in Bulgaria, stated the ambassador, who added that the party itself is riven by internal dissent over the EU accession process. Some Ataka leaders are adamantly opposed to accession, alarmed by the perception that Bulgarian sovereignty is being forsaken, while others insist that Bulgaria re-negotiate to obtain accession treaty terms superior to those currently in place.

Moving to the international arena, the ambassador stressed "the good news is that there will be continuity in Bulgaria's strategic orientation." She explained that the three leading parties agreed to maintain as utmost priorities Bulgarian accession to the EU, scheduled for 2007, and transatlantic cooperation within NATO as the most important strategic objectives of a new government.
Regarding EU accession, the ambassador stressed that there are urgent political commitments that demand serious transformation within Bulgaria. According to an EU council report, five areas that require legislative reform are judicial reform, corporate regulation, professional services, environmental protection, and agriculture. Some changes, requiring constitutional amendments, may prove especially difficult to achieve.

A new government must secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority, or 170 votes in a coalition government, in order to pass the necessary legislation to keep Bulgaria on track towards scheduled EU accession. The ambassador also hinted at the possibility that intra-EU tensions and outstanding internal disputes following the rejection of the draft EU constitution by French and Dutch citizens might result in the one-year delay of Bulgaria's accession.

Regarding Bulgaria's military contributions in Iraq, the ambassador remarked on pre-election statements by socialist party leaders regarding troop withdrawals. She explained that Bulgarian troops would be stationed in Iraq until the end of 2005, as previously agreed upon by the former government with the UN Security Council and other international bodies. Although Bulgaria may eventual withdraw all its troops, it will not withdraw from the coalition in Iraq, but will remain a committed partner through new, transformed missions.

The issues of NATO basing and repositioning U.S. troops are still being negotiated. The Bush administration has delivered a draft agreement, and all indications point to a determined effort by all sides to conclude negotiations as quickly as possible.

Bulgaria will benefit from a NATO presence not only economically and through added foreign investment, as concerns most Bulgarian citizens, but also geopolitically and strategically. As one of NATO's newest members, and in light of recent alliance restructuring and realignment planning, Bulgaria is positioned to build new infrastructure to achieve network-enabled capability, interoperability, rapid deployability and superior mobility. These efforts are also based on Bulgaria's own Strategic Defense Review (SDR), undertaken previously to establish priorities for reorganizing and modernizing the Bulgarian armed forces.

Ambassador Poptodorova acknowledged that the current situation in Bulgaria carries some difficulties, and many issues that will greatly impact the future direction of the country remain unresolved, pending the conclusion of negotiations with both NATO and the EU. Bulgaria is up to the task of demonstrating the needed political will and professional expertise to take on such challenges, she remarked. Hopeful that a three-party coalition would soon be announced, the ambassador reiterated her confidence that Bulgaria would enter the newest phase of its history not only as a full European and trans-Atlantic partner, but as a global actor, as well.