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Bulgaria: MIG Close To Deal On Jets

Moscow, 27 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian company which builds MIG fighter planes is expressing confidence it can clinch a multi-million dollar military aviation deal with Bulgaria.

The deal involves delivery of 14 advanced MIG-29 fighters to Bulgaria, as well as establishing a joint venture there to repair and modernise MIGs already serving in the air forces of East and Central European countries, and elsewhere.

"The talks have already entered the final stage", said Valery Zotov, spokesman for Moscow-based VPK MAPO which designs and manufactures MIG planes. Zotov told an RFE/RL correspondent in Moscow that MAPO's strategy planning, information and marketing chief Alexander Ageev is currently in Sofia, where he is hammering out what Zotov described as the few remaining details with Bulgarian authorities. Negotiations have been underway for more than a year.

The deal appeared to encounter a potential setback last month when Bulgaria's interim government voiced the country's strong desire to enter NATO. The general assumption in recent years is that countries planning NATO membership are more likely to buy western defence equipment than Russian arms.

But Ageev and other senior MAPO officials have repeatedly stressed that possible NATO membership should not discourage Russia's former Warsaw Pact allies from buying MIGs, since entire squadrons of these fighters are already operated by such a prominent member of the NATO alliance as Germany. The Luftwaffe inherited them from the former communist East Germany on unification.

Under the terms of the proposed deal, Bulgaria would use a Russian government loan of $450 million to pay for the 14 MIG-29SM jets, as well as for development of the modern international service centre in the city of Plovdiv. The service centre would be built on the basis of the existing Aviotechnika plant.

The loan is yet to win formal endorsement from the Bulgarian parliament, but MAPO officials are confident that this will be forthcoming, saying the money is being offered on very favourable terms, including a grace period before repayment begins. In all, the Bulgarians would have more than a decade for repayment from the date the contract is signed.

"We think that this is a favorable deal, but only parliament can approve the borrowing", Reuters quoted Bulgarian deputy defence minister Simeon Petkovski as saying on Tuesday. "We need the planes, but we have agreed only in principle," he said.

According to Zotov, the Bulgarian military have ordered an advanced, modified version of the twin-engine MIG-29S, designed SM -- of which there are reportedly only two squadrons currently in service in the Russian air force. Dubbed Fulcrum-C by NATO, the MIG-29S is capable of engaging two targets simultaneously and can carry more than 8,000 lb of various ammunition. The Bulgarian SM version, unlike the S, will be capable of attacking both ground and naval targets with high-precision air-to-surface missiles, Zotov said.

Our correspondent reports that it's not been disclosed how much of the Russian credit would be used to pay for the 14 aircraft, and how much would be allocated for development of the Aviotechnika plant.

Expansion of that long-established plant would create thousands of new jobs in Bulgaria. Aviotechnika used to repair MIG fighters of the former Warsaw Pact allies for decades, and Zotov said it wants to offer its overhauling services to these countries again. He said Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia are among those considered likely to accept this offer.

Earlier this week an RFE/RL correspondent in the Bulgarian capital Sofia quoted MAPO strategic planning director Ageev as saying it's foreseen that the revamped Aviotechnika plant would also handle MIG overhauls from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. He said there are only two other such plants presently operating outside Russia, one in Germany and the other in Malaysia.