A row over the appointment of a top prime ministerial intelligence advisor this week has highlighted once again the weakness of Prime Minister Saxe-Coburg's government. Meanwhile, it has also raised concerns over the premier's judgement, as the country prepares for important mayoral elections - and future NATO membership.
In a last-minute move designed to deflect mounting criticism from both within Bulgaria and abroad, General Brigo Asparuhov, Prime Minister Saxe-Coburg's personal choice for the role of advisor to and co-ordinator of Bulgaria's intelligence services, announced on October 15 that he would not serve in his newly appointed post.
The general's announcement came after uproar over his communist-era past. He had previously worked 27 years for Bulgaria's state security apparatus, a time-span taking his career with them back into the murkiest days of the old regime.
The prime minister's decision to appoint him to such a sensitive position was greeted with outrage by critics, who pointed out that the former Warsaw Pact general would now be closely involved in Bulgaria's final preparations for joining NATO.
Despite claiming that the appointment of special advisers lay outside the public sphere and was his personal prerogative, the prime minister did not waste any time in accepting the general's decision shortly after it was made public.
To make matters worse, the day before, Asparuhov had given up his seat as a parliamentary deputy for the Socialist Party in order to serve as the prime minister's liaison. Saxe-Coburg then let it be known that the general would serve as intelligence advisor for one day only before being transferred to another position.
The premier's decision to appoint Asparuhov had also drawn heavy criticism from abroad. According to the respected daily Dnevnik, at the NATO ministerial meeting in Colorado Springs earlier this month, NATO General Secretary George Robertson told Nikolai Svinarov, the Bulgarian defence minister, that, if appointed, every effort had to be made to ensure that General Asparuhov was not given access to sensitive classified material.
The Dnevnik article went on to say that Lord Robertson had cautioned this because of the general's former associations with Bulgaria's communist-era state security services and in all likelihood members of the Russian intelligence community.
The NATO chief was not the only foreign official to openly question Asparuhov's dubious past, either. In late September, James Paradew, the US Ambassador to Bulgaria, warned in a prepared statement that the prime minister's support of the general's candidacy could have a negative impact on Bulgaria's foreign policy interests, and particularly on the nature of its relationship with its future NATO allies.
"The appointment of Asparuhov can affect the image of Bulgaria among alliance members," the statement read. "We recommend that the government consult fully with the NATO allies before going final with the decision."
The following week, the outgoing British ambassador to Bulgaria, Ian Soutar, also outlined his concerns in a demarche that was sent to Bulgaria's Foreign Ministry.
Referring to this internal document, Deputy Parliamentary Speaker and conservative opposition deputy Assen Agov then stoked fears within parliament by claiming that any impediment to Anglo-Bulgarian relations could result in the British parliament's refusal to ratify Bulgaria's membership of NATO. This played on the fact that in order to join the organisation, the applications of the six eastern European nations, including Bulgaria, must receive the unanimous approval of the current members' parliaments.
If 'building trust' is to serve as one of the guiding principles for NATO accession, the prime minister's selection leaves much to be desired in the eyes of the more conservative-minded permanent members.
To make matters worse, much of the local Bulgarian press could not hide its pleasure in reporting that other NATO members, such as the Netherlands and Italy, had also objected to the prime minister's initial support for Asparuhov's candidacy.
By late September, both sides of the political spectrum, in the form of the rightist Union of Democratic Forces and the leftist Bulgarian Socialist Party (UDF), were threatening to force the prime minister's hand by tabling a no confidence vote against the prime minister and his cabinet over the appointment.
Meanwhile, the appointment has also caused splits within the ruling National Movement Simeon II (NMSII) party. Two NMSII MPs resigned in protest when informed of General Asparuhov's possible appointment in mid-September.
"Being an anti-communist and a democrat I cannot work in partnership with a former officer from the previous State Security Services and a former MP for the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) - the successor to Bulgaria's erstwhile state-run communist party," said one of the MPs, Emil Koshloukov.
In the country at large too, Saxe-Coburg's government seems to enjoy precious little confidence. According to the director of the Bulgarian polling firm, Vitosha Research, the prime minister's popularity currently rests at a dismal 10%. This is hardly a good statistic for Saxe-Coburg with nationwide mayoral elections looming.
Yet in his defence, General Asparuhov pointed out in an interview on Bulgarian TV RFE/BTV on September 30 that there had been little complaint previously about his communist-era career, either domestically or abroad.
"In 1991," he said, "as head of Bulgaria's counter-intelligence unit, I had contacts with the Americans, their secret services and all the European secret services without exception, and the assessments of our joint work in those six years were excellent, and there are facts to prove it."
The general had been appointed chief of Bulgarian counter intelligence in 1991, after the fall of the communist regime, and had kept this position until 1997.
With many former Warsaw Pact states still characterised by the prevalence of old regime cadres in important positions - both in the political and business world - the controversy does reveal some telling inconsistencies. Romania, for example, is also expected to join NATO in 2004, despite some embarrassment within NATO circles over the fact that among members of the present Romanian intelligence community are former members of the secret police.
In addition, permanent members' concerns over possible leaks of vital NATO secrets to other foreign intelligence services - most notably Russia's - reveal a disturbing double standard. There is plenty of evidence that the trading of military secrets is not an exclusively former Warsaw Pact phenomenon - and is a point that makes some observers wonder whether some more trust-building might not be advisable on all sides before Bulgaria takes its place in the Atlantic alliance.