Prague, 18 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- In a major turnaround, Bulgaria's interim government yesterday announced that the former communist country wants full membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The announcement, made by President Petar Stoyanov in a nationally broadcast address, ends Bulgaria's status as the only former Eastern bloc state which had not sought admission in NATO and is sure to raise the attention of officials in Russia, already wary of the alliance's eastward expansion plans.
It was the first time since the collapse of communism in 1989 that any Bulgarian government has unamibiguously declared the country's desire to join NATO, and is particularly noteworthy because Bulgaria was the closest to Moscow of any of the former Soviet satellite states. Until now, only the President and Parliament had supported Bulgaria's accession to NATO.
Parliament, in 1993, adopted a declaration stating Bulgaria's desire to join the alliance. However, the former ruling Socialists then came to power and were at best ambivalent about joining NATO because of traditionally warm ties with Russia. But with yesterday's declaration adopted by the new caretaker government, all Bulgarian institutions -- the President, Parliament and government -- have now said "Yes" to NATO.
According to the Bulgarian news agency (BTA), draft preparations advancing Bulgaria's desire to join the alliance have already been entrusted to the foreign and defense ministers.
In his address, Stoyanov said the decision responds to the desire of the prevailing majority of Bulgaria's citizens who, in his words, "feel inseparable from the free world." The declaration also aims to qualify Bulgaria for membership nomination at a NATO summit in July. At that meeting, NATO is widely expected to extend admission offers to front-runners Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
The Bulgarian government's announcement also coincides with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's 11-day trip to nine world capitals during which she will discuss NATO expansion plans. Albright, who meets Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov in Moscow on Thursday, is also expected to urge Russia to agree by NATO's July summit on a charter defining a special relationship with the alliance.
Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Primakov said an agreement with NATO will not be of any interest to Russia unless its concerns are recognized. Primakov told NTV television that Russia must be enabled to participate on the basis of "consensus" in making NATO decisions touching on its interests. He said the so-called security document should also include provisions for the transformation of NATO into a political rather than military alliance. In Primakov's words, "the eastward expansion of NATO without any commitments by the alliance would objectively result in the emergence of "new, very deep division lines in Europe."
But how will this latest development in Bulgaria be received in Russia? The Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria, Leonid Kerestedzhiyants, has contributed the first comment. He told Bulgarian state television that he trusted Stoyanov would be a guarantor of Bulgarian-Russian relations but that he thought Bulgaria's decision on NATO, as he put it, "should be thought over a little longer."
Kerestedzhiyants also said Moscow does not see any anti-Russian attitude behind the decision. He pointed out, however, that the decision can not go forward without any consequences at all. Asked if the consequences would be linked to strategic projects involving Bulgaria and Russia, he answered in the negative. He said projects, whether strategic or large-scale, express the two countries bilateral and mutual interests and have nothing to do with what he called military-strategic decisions.
Kerestedzhiyants added that whatever the consequences, Russia would try to make them "as small as possible."
Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov had a much stronger reaction. He told a news conference today in Moscow that the acute crisis in Bulgaria was what he called the "handiwork of forces hostile to Slavs." According to Zyuganov, these same forces are also hostile to the Orthodox church and are continuing to destablize and worsen the situation in the Balkans. As Zyuganov put it, "The third world war is actually beginning."
Zyuganov added that these so-called anti-Slav forces have decided to continue undermining Russia's geo-political role in the Balkans, expanding NATO to the East and fanning Russophobia in the Baltic states." And he said he hoped the people of former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria would prevent political conflicts from developing into fratricidal wars.
The only other oustide reaction to yesterday's surprise announcement by the Bulgarian government has come from Germany, whose ambassador today welcomed any country's desire to join NATO. Ambassador Peter Metzger said it was a long-standing German sentiment.
Back in Bulgaria, reaction has been widespread and, for the most part, positive.
Ivan Kostov, leader of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), characterized the move as "reasonable" in comments with today's Bulgarian Press. Stoyan Denchev of the ethnic party of Bulgarian Turks said the government's decision was "a good one" and should have been taken long ago. Denchev added that yesterday's decisive step by the government could only be seen as "positive" for the country.
Comments in today's leading Bulgarian press by representatives of the former ruling Socialists (BSP) were less favorable. Iskra Bayava, a member of the Socialist Party's Executive Bureau, said the decision should have been made by all the Bulgarian people and she suggested that a referendum may be needed. In Bayava's view, the Bulgarian people would perhaps prefer what she called "active neutrality." BSP parliamentarian, Professor Vladimir Topencharov, supported Bayava's view of a "militarily neutral" Bulgaria, adding that it was not right for a caretaker government to undertake such decisions. He said it would be a correct step by a cabinet elected by Parliament.
An editorial commentary in Novinar asks the question on many minds in its piece entitled "Was yesterday's step by the Sofiyanski cabinet a well-judged strategic move, or someone's sentimental yearning for NATO?"