As many as 3500 American troops may soon be based on Bulgarian soil as leaders from both nations near the finalisation of an agreement that would allow the US access to Bulgarian military facilities.
A council of Bulgaria’s ruling coalition government, including Sergei Stanishev from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), Simeon Saxe-Coburg of the National Movement Simeon II (NMSII) and Ahmed Dogan from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), met in late March to discuss the remaining details of the negotiation process and decide what was in the best interests of the country.
The discussion comes after a strengthening in Bulgarian-US relations over the past few years. The two nations have consented to a common agreement for defence and security co-operation – part of which involves the current issue of the joint use of military bases on Bulgarian soil.
Bulgaria has previously supported US and NATO missions around the globe, including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the government bowed to public and political pressure and withdrew its combat troops from Iraq at the end of last year, a contingent of Bulgarians has since returned to the war-torn country in a military police role to help guard a refugee camp.
In conjunction to shared use of military bases, broader co-operation is also moving ahead in terms of military infrastructure, modernisation of the Bulgarian army and the development of the defence industry.
As part of the modernisation process, the US has agreed to pay for the use and maintenance of the facilities it would potentially occupy under the terms of the new agreement, along with investing in the military infrastructure there.
In statement to the press earlier in the month, US ambassador to Bulgaria John Beyrle indicated that NATO would be spending over 30.86m euros for the construction work on the bases that will host US troops. The potential for an influx of investment and jobs in the towns near the proposed facilities is expected to have a significant effect on the local economies.
So far, the talks have centred on two different sites, the Bezmer airfield located near the central Bulgarian city of Yambol, and the Novo Selo firing range in the north-west corner of the country. A third base is also being considered, with an airfield at Graf Ignatievo near the city of Plovdiv being mentioned as possibility meeting US requirements.
While most of the local population near the proposed sites are in favour of the plan because of the economic benefits, not everyone is as enthusiastic about the possibility of a US military presence in Bulgaria. The nationalist Attack Party, which holds around 10% of the seats in the national parliament, left the legislature this week and took to the streets to protest the agreement. Attack and other Bulgarians have raised concerns that allowing US troops into their country could make them a target for retaliatory terrorist strikes.
After three rounds of negotiations dating back to October last year, the head of the parliamentary defence committee, Angel Naidenov, told the local press that almost 90% of all issues had been clarified but the final stage of the process had yet to be completed.
The subject of US forces based in Bulgaria was initially broached back in 2003, but only recently has a co-operative agreement come close to fruition. While the two NATO allies have recently agreed in principle to the deal, a few sticking points remain to be hammered out.
One major bone of contention is the condition of access to the facilities in question. US military officials have insisted on full access to the bases while Bulgaria has asked for a guarantee that they would not be used for purposes without its consent. In addition, Washington’s negotiators have taken the position that any American who violates the law while on Bulgarian territory should fall under US jurisdiction and therefore be subject to US laws. The Bulgarian contingent has disagreed with this opinion and negotiations are still ongoing to resolve the issue. Another unresolved issue involving the sovereignty of the shared areas pertains to whose flag will fly over the bases in question.
Although no specific deadlines have been set for concluding the negotiations, both sides would like to see the deal completed by the time US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Bulgaria in April.
The Bulgarian bases are part of a larger strategic shift in US policy away from the traditional European facilities used to house large numbers of troops towards smaller, more flexible bases further east. Romania has already weighed up the pros and cons and last year reached an agreement with Washington to allow US forces access to its bases. Now it seems that, despite reservations, Bulgaria will follow suit.