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Bulgaria: Sofia Seeks U.S. Assurances Of Future NATO Membership

Washington, 17 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Bulgaria's new Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mikhailova is in Washington this week seeking a commitment of support for Bulgaria's future membership in NATO.

Mikhailova says her government regrets that Bulgaria will not be among the first countries to be invited to join the alliance at a summit in Madrid next month.

But she told a group of policy experts Monday that "at Madrid, Bulgaria should be specifically mentioned among the interested countries which the United States will help prepare for membership."

Mikhailova raised the issue later at a working luncheon with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright but got a disappointing reply for Bulgaria, as well as Romania and other countries pressing for early NATO membership.

Albright told reporters that the U.S. is opposed to naming countries for the second wave of expansion at the Madrid summit. "It is not the inclination of the U.S. to name other countries," Albright said, adding that the U.S. is in no hurry to designate potential candidates for the second wave of expansion.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns separately noted that the U.S. is "very prudent" about specific designations and was the last NATO member to make public last week which countries it supports for the first round of expansion.

President Bill Clinton has said the U.S. favors only three countries -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- as first round candidates.

Most of America's NATO allies want to include Romania or Slovenia or both in the first group of new NATO members. Almost no one has mentioned Bulgaria.

Mikhailova has already accomplished a good deal of her three-day mission in Washington by bringing her country's aspirations to the notice of U.S. policymakers.

Burns said Albright was "very impressed" with Mikhailova and hopes Bulgaria will continue to make progress within the NATO Partnership for Peace program of cooperation with non-NATO members so that one day it may be a serious candidate.

Burns strongly emphasized that there would be another wave of NATO expansion. He said it would not be proper to allow only one wave because that would not take into account continuing democratization in central Europe that will enable other countries to meet the test of NATO membership and join the alliance.

"There are many countries which are future possible candidates, including Bulgaria," he said, adding that America will use all its influence to make certain the second wave of expansion takes place.

Explaining America's reluctance to name names, Burns said NATO decisions are made by consensus and that he doubts agreement on which candidates to accept for a second round of expansion could be reached in time for Madrid. The summit there is set to begin in three weeks on July 8 and 9.

Mikhailova put forward persuasive reasons why the process of expansion should continue. She pointed out that Bulgaria borders on Turkey and Greece and that enlarging the alliance in a southeasterly direction would, in her words, "provide for territorial and strategic continuity, as well as additional guarantees against latent risks."

Mikhailova said "It is important to have a geographically balanced approach to NATO enlargement to minimize the risk of establishing grey zones on the continent."

She called for "equal treatment of aspiring members from the Black Sea region without unfounded discrimination."

Referring obliquely to neighboring Romania's NATO aspirations, Mikhailova said her country is "ready and willing to join the Alliance not in competition but in cooperation with other candidates."

Asked about Bulgaria's democratic and market reforms, one of the criteria for assessing readiness for NATO membership, Mikhailova said democratization is now irreversible in her country and her government is "strongly committed to speed up and finalize the changes Bulgaria urgently needs."

Mikhailova represents a coalition of the United Democratic Forces which came to power in landslide national elections in April.

She said the government has the trust of the public and widespread support that will help tide it through coming months of painful economic adjustment.

She said top priorities for the government are currency reform and accelerated large-scale privatization.

Mikhailova said Bulgarians are aware of the hardships the reform program will bring but are prepared to pay the price. She said more than a quarter of the national budget is being allocated for social services and a safety net for those who will be hit hardest when the reforms get under way.