U.S. President Bill Clinton left Bulgaria early today after a brief visit during which he encouraged Bulgarians to persist in reforms and in seeking integration with the West. RFE/RL correspondent Anthony Georgieff sends this report from Sofia.
Sofia, 23 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In a speech before thousands in Sofia's Alexander Nevski Square, U.S. President Bill Clinton late yesterday encouraged Bulgarians to continue with economic and political reforms. He also used the address to call for change in Bulgaria's neighbor, Yugoslavia.
Clinton spoke just after Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov, who acknowledged in his speech at the outdoor rally that the ten years since the fall of communism had proved more difficult than anticipated.
"Now, ten years on, things look very different than they were in '89. We all, who had lived under communism for 45 years, who spent 45 years under this humiliating system, anticipated the change so impatiently, with such hope and joy that we burdened this change with too many hopes and expectations -- more than it could bear. Today, ten years on, we Eastern Europeans realize that the change has proved more difficult, more painful, and slower than we could have imagined. The unification of Europe has proved to be a colossal project, which cannot be accomplished by a single generation."
Stoyanov told the crowd that communism was slower to fall in Bulgaria than in other nations in Central Europe. But he said democracy, respect for human rights, and a free market had now firmly taken root in Bulgaria.
Clinton, in his address, also made reference to the frustrations among many Bulgarians over the difficulties faced in making the transition to democracy and free markets. He suggested there is a need for patience and realism.
"The struggle for your constitutional democracy was waged not for paradise, but for possibility. Not for a perfect world, but for the chance to build a better world."
A large impetus to Clinton's visit was the support offered by the Bulgarian government for NATO's recent military campaign against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo crisis. In his speech, Clinton took the opportunity to direct a message to the people of Serbia.
"We must give all the people in this region a unifying magnet that is stronger than the pull of old hatreds that has threatened to tear them apart over and over again. Your neighbor Serbia should be part of that bright and different future. I am told that during the recent war you could actually hear some of the bombs falling in Serbia from this square. Tonight, I hope the people of Serbia can hear our voices when we say, if you choose as Bulgaria has chosen, you will regain the rightful place in Europe Mr. Milosevic has stolen from you, and America will support you, too."
During the visit, Clinton met for an hour of talks with President Stoyanov. The Bulgarian president later said he would be willing to support the deployment of NATO military bases under the Partnership for Peace program. The issue had been given some prominence in Bulgaria's press during the weeks preceding Clinton's visit. There are no immediate plans to open up U.S. or NATO bases in Bulgaria, but Stoyanov asserted that, if asked, Bulgaria should answer "yes."
Clinton also discussed the controversial issue of the Kozloduy nuclear power plant with Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov. Clinton argued the position the U.S. shares with the G-7 and the EU that Bulgaria should immediately decommission the plant because of safety concerns. Kostov said that Bulgaria cannot afford immediate closure because the power plant is crucial to the country's economy.
Clinton left Bulgaria early today and flew directly to Kosovo. It had originally been expected that he would make a stop in the Macedonian capital Skopje before traveling on to the Serbian province. But that stop did not take place and the reasons remain obscure.
Macedonia's Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski flew in to Sofia late last night and had an early-morning meeting with Prime Minister Kostov, but apparently did not meet with Clinton. Kostov today said Georgievski wanted to make known his opinion that there was a pressing need for Western nations to follow through on implementing assistance promised under the Southeastern Europe Stability Pact.