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Iraq: Bulgaria, Philippines React Differently To Hostage Crises

  • Valentinas Mite

The Philippines and Bulgaria both deployed troops to Iraq. Both countries welcome warm relations with the United States, which is leading the Iraqi occupation. But when their nationals were taken hostage in Iraq, they responded in radically different ways. The Philippine government surrendered to the demands of the kidnappers and withdrew its troops from Iraq. But Bulgaria has refused to budge.

Prague, 21 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "I'm happy to announce that our long national vigil involving Angelo de la Cruz is over," Philippines President Gloria Arroyo said yesterday, announcing the resolution of a hostage drama in which her country withdrew its 51 troops in Iraq in exchange for the release of Angelo de la Cruz, a 46-year-old truck driver and father of eight.

The reaction of the Philippines leadership differed dramatically from that of Bulgaria, which has pledged to remain in Iraq despite the death of one Bulgarian hostage and the continued captivity of another.

Even as Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi earlier this month appealed for the release of the hostages, he made it clear his country would not leave Iraq.

"Bulgaria is a friend of the Arab nation. Bulgaria is a friend of the Iraqi people," Pasi said. "And our presence there, our presence in Iraq is in order to help the Iraqi people for the reconstruction of the country and for the good future of the Iraqi people."

The continuing wave of hostage incidents in Iraq have been a test for a number of national governments and political leaders. Often, their reactions depend on public opinion at home.

Julian Lindsey French, an analyst with Switzerland's Geneva Center for Security Policy, said the Philippine's decision to pull out was based on the country's more local Islamic conflicts. The Philippines faces a growing threat of Islamic militancy and is fighting the growing influence of extremist groups like Abu Sayaf.
"Our presence in Iraq is in order to help the Iraqi people for the reconstruction of the country and for the good future of the Iraqi people." -- Bulgarian Foreign Minister Pasi

"Obviously, the Philippines sits in an extremely delicate region where there are quite significant security tensions," French said. "There are also significantly large numbers of Muslims in the region. Add to that, perhaps, a certain strategic naivete on the part of the Philippines."

There are other possible reasons as well. Arroyo, just elected by a narrow majority, is eager to increase her domestic approval ratings. Had de la Cruz been killed by his captors, her popularity could have suffered a serious blow.

Arroyo on 20 July defended her decision, saying de la Cruz is a symbol for the 8 million Filipinos who have left their homeland for hard and often dangerous work abroad.

The situation is different in Bulgaria, a new NATO member and EU hopeful.

Bulgarian truck drivers Georgy Lazov and Ivailo Kepov were kidnapped near Mosul on 8 July. Lazov was killed last week; Kepov's fate remains unknown.

A day after Lazov's death, the Bulgarian Parliament overwhelmingly voted to back the continued presence of national troops in Iraq. Roughly 485 Bulgarian troops are operating in south central Iraq under Polish command.

Ivan Krastev, program director at the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, said Bulgaria's political elite is united on the issue of the country's presence in Iraq.

"In none of the corners of the Bulgarian political establishment -- even for a short time -- has anybody has been discussing even the possibility that the Bulgarian government policies could be changed by actions like this [kidnapping]. Just the opposite, I believe, Krastev said. "The Socialist party, which generally has been very critical of the Bulgarian involvement in Iraq, now has basically greatly strengthened its support for the [continuation] of the Bulgarian contingent [in Iraq]."

Krastev said Bulgarian membership in NATO is a strong factor behind Sofia's position. Despite the fact that Iraq is not a NATO operation, Krastev said neither the elite nor the broader public is eager for the West, and particularly the United States, to think of Bulgaria as a weak newcomer.

"There is a NATO [membership] impact," Krastev said. "There is a fairly strong perception inside the Bulgarian political elite that if after the first [sign of] pressure the Bulgarian government basically yields to terrorists, Bulgaria could not be a reliable NATO partner -- and this is going basically to destroy Bulgarian credibility with the NATO partners."

At the same time, however, Krastev admits that Lazov's killing has sent ripples of doubt through Bulgarian society. Still, it is not enough to prompt the kind of public outcry and troop withdrawal seen in the Philippines.

"Of course, there is a general disapproval of any type of involvement of the Bulgarian state in anything that [seems] very far away -- and this is how Iraq is perceived by the majority of Bulgarians," Krastev said. "But the crisis, the hostage, didn't produce any type of basic challenge to the governmental policy."

At the same time, Bulgaria is seeking a broader international response to kidnappings like those in Iraq.

Pasi, who is currently serving as chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), on 20 July called on the international community to develop a code of conduct for responding to hostage crises.

He said kidnapping is a crime that requires a coherent and unified global response, adding: "We have seen from our own bitter experience that taking hostages has become the weapon of preference for terrorists in recent years."