US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in town this week, alongside a number of other high-ranking NATO leaders. The visit demonstrated how rapidly Bulgaria's relationship with the West has changed in recent years - and its growing importance in US security plans.
Bulgaria is now a full member of NATO and a US ally, sending troops to Iraq and preparing to play host to a contingent of American soldiers in the near future. It was precisely this continuously changing role of the Balkan country that was on the agenda at the informal NATO summit. Running from April 27 to 30, the summit saw Bulgarian officials meet their international counterparts in a warm-up for the impending NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, in November.
The informal meeting was attended by 34 international delegations, including Rice and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hop Scheffer. Because the meetings are informal, they are intended to stimulate open discourse without any political commitment on a variety of issues facing the 57-year-old alliance, including the role of NATO in international peacekeeping and the evolution and transformation of the coalition.
In addition to the NATO event, a ceremony with Rice and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin in attendance on Friday marked the official signing of a treaty between the two counties permitting US troops to be stationed at three bases in Bulgaria.
But not everyone is happy about Bulgaria's cosy relationship with the West. Russia, for instance is not comfortable with the US military presence in what it has historically considered its own backyard, and voiced its concerns on the opening day of NATO meetings in Sofia.
Moscow has also expressed its displeasure with the ongoing negotiations between NATO and two more aspiring former Soviet states - Georgia and Ukraine.
Closer to home, members of Bulgaria's own government have denounced the imposition of US forces on Bulgarian soil. The ultra-nationalist Ataka party, led my Volen Siderov, has drafted a bill demanding a referendum on the bases.
Although Siderov failed to submit the legislation in time to be voted on, he has stated his intention to the press to present the document to Scheffer. In addition, he and the other 14 deputies affiliated with his party have called for protests against the deal during the US secretary of state's visit.
BGNES new agency reported that one Ataka rally held last Friday lasted from 1.00 pm until after 8.00 pm as nearly 2000 supporters met in a Sofia park before marching to the fortress-like US embassy. At the rally, Siderov told the crowd, "This is not only a protest of the Ataka party, but of all honest Bulgarians who are outraged at Sofia's servility to the 'Big Brother', the United States. US military bases on Bulgarian territory are not acceptable."
Siderov has previously stated that he believes the US will use the bases to launch attacks on other countries, which would cause Bulgaria to become a terrorist target.
According to a Reuters report, a recent poll found that 60% of the Bulgarian respondents oppose the bases, which would bring tens of millions of dollars of investment to the country.
Military matters were not the only thing Secretary of State Rice talked about while in Bulgaria though. Other topics included Bulgaria's bid for EU membership in 2007 and the crisis over the arrest in Libya of five Bulgarian nurses in 1999.
The meeting came amidst a number of news stories last week speculating that Bulgaria's bid for EU accession could be delayed for another year because the country had not shown enough progress in fighting corruption and organised crime. Rice also called upon Libya to release the nurses, who have been held on charges of intentionally infecting Libyan children with HIV. "The Bulgarian nurses have been too long in captivity," said Rice to the press. "This is a humanitarian case and it is time for them to come home."
She then added, "We know that Bulgaria is making the necessary reforms, especially in the area of rule of law, and we strongly support Bulgaria's efforts towards EU membership."