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Bulgarian Opposition Rallies In Anger At Yeltsin Comments

Prague, April 2 (RFE/RL) - Thousands gathered at a rally in Sofia Tuesday protesting Russian President Boris Yeltsin's recent comments that Bulgaria could potentially sign an integration agreement with four former Soviet republics.

Ivan Kostov, leader of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), called on socialist Prime Minister Zhan Videnov to make "a clear and categorical" rejection of Yeltsin's offer. Kostov said the integration agreement amounts to "a USSR-TWO pact."

The five-year, 28-article treaty was signed in Moscow last Friday by Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. It creates a community of integrated states whose territory stretches from the Polish to the Chinese borders. It envisages the creation of a common market for goods, services, capital and labor and the development of joint transport, energy and information systems.

UDF spokeswoman Nadejda Mihailova told the Sofia rally today that Videnov's initial silence on Yeltsin's offer to join was "frightening."

Meanwhile, UDF parliamentary leader Jordan Sokolov told the national assembly that the incident shows the governing socialist party is "a threat to Bulgaria's national interests."

Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev and opposition forces claim Videnov has had secret dealings with Moscow about signing the agreement. They say Videnov's government also has displayed a "submissive" attitude to Russia's foreign initiatives.

Videnov's government has denied participating in secret talks. And socialists in the parliament today tried to downplay Yeltsin's remarks by calling them a "personal opinion."

Majority speaker Krassimir Premianov, of the socialist party, told the parliament that Yeltsin's statements were "unaccetable for us." He accused Zhelev of using the occasion for his re-election goals and he warned the opposition that their protests might harm relations with Russia.

President Zhelev is an anti-communist who has made membership in the European Union and NATO the top priorities of his administration.

But yesterday, Videnov's government said that it was trying to balance its foreign policy priorities between the EU and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Videnov, a former communist, represents the last generation of Bulgarian elites to be educated in Moscow during the Soviet era. In contrast to Zhelev's efforts, Videnov has never registered any intent to join NATO. He has accepted Russian military aid in the form of 100 free tanks that Moscow would have otherwise destroyed to meet requirements of the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe.

Analysts say the most telling recent example of Videnov's Moscow orientation was his refusal to send Foreign Minister Georgi Pirinsky to Prague last month for talks on NATO membership with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. While 10 other potential NATO countries in eastern and central Europe sent their foreign ministers, Videnov's representative to meet with Christopher was a deputy minister.

Stefan Savov, of the opposition People's Union, emphasized to the parliament today that out of all of eastern and central Europe, Bulgaria alone was mentioned by Yeltsin as a potential member of the integration agreement.

Savov said that if Videnov and socialist Parliamentary Speaker Blagovest Sendov do not clearly deny that they've encouraged Yeltsin's remarks, "we will have all reasons to believe that there is a case of high treason here."

Videnov and Sendov made separate visits to Moscow in February and March. After Sendov's meeting with Yeltsin, the Russian President announced that Bulgaria supported Russia's negative stance toward NATO's proposed eastward expansion. Sendov denied making any such comments to Yeltsin and blamed the media for the incident.