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Bulgaria: Economic And Social Reforms Remain A Top Priority

Sofia, 7 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria's Prime Minister Ivan Kostov says Bulgaria's top priority is to implement fundamental reforms, and later to seek membership in the European Union (EU) and NATO. Kostov was interviewed in Sofia yesterday by RFE/RL.

Kostov assumed office in May, and leads the Alliance of Democratic Forces (ODS), center-right government.

The Bulgarian Prime Minister says his top priority is to privatize large, loss-making state enterprises within two-to-three years," regardless of the costs involved." He says, "Eight years the Bulgarians have paid an increasingly heavy social price. But, while other former Communists states have reaped the benefits of the free market, the Bulgarians have got nothing."

About the overwhelming number of Bulgarians who now live under the official poverty level, Kostov said his government was going to propose what he called serious social-assistance programs to help the poor. In this effort, he said, Bulgaria is likely to continue to rely heavily on Western humanitarian aid.

Another area, which needs dramatic improvement, is the health sector, the Prime Minister said. At the moment, patients are required to bring with them everything they need for hospital treatment, from food and sheets to syringes and cotton pads. Some doctors, Kostov said, prey on patients, demanding kickbacks for simple operations. And, he said, there have been cases of death because of medical negligence. Kostov said the health sector is "in ruins," but hopes it will gradually improve with the introduction of a Western-style health-care system and the fight against corruption, These, he said, are the other top priorities for his government.

On relations with Russia, which in recent months have chilled partly due to a controversial gas import deal, Kostov said he seeks "civilized" behavior, which would enhance the common interests, while taking into account mutual differences. For example, he said, both Bulgaria and Russia want free trade, but differ on policy issues such as Bulgaria's membership in the EU and NATO.

Kostov says Russia wants Bulgaria to maintain what he called neutrality, and not pursue NATO membership. "But neutral of what?" asks Costive, pointing out that his country cannot afford to be neutral , like Switzerland, As Bulgaria is not as rich and self-sufficient. "Why should Russia have excellent relations with current NATO members such as Germany and France and not with Bulgaria?" asks Costive.

Concerning the so-called 'language dispute' between Bulgaria and (the former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonian, Costive said "certain circles" in Macedonian want to export their domestic problems abroad. "I understand Macedonian's President Quire, and even Serb's President in their native languages quite well. They understand me, too, and this is OK," said Costive. And he added the Macedonians had the right to speak whatever language they choose. He says Bulgaria does not want to import the Bulgarian language there, neither has it requested that Skopje "officially" recognized the existence of the Bulgarian language.

At issue between Macedonian and Bulgaria, is whether the Macedonians are a distinct people or simply a branch of the Bulgarian nation. The dispute has lasted for well over 100 years, and has linguistic, historical, and territorial aspects. The current Bulgarian position is to recognize Macedonian independence and statehood - but not to recognize that a Macedonian nation exists.

Bulgaria's foreign policy agenda is dominated by seeking membership in both NATO and the EU, Kostov said. But, he said, the country does not want to enter - in his words - "in a wheelchair."

"We must reform first - and gain membership later," said Kostov, and added, membership in NATO might come easier than full membership in the EU. But the Bulgarian Prime Minister warned, if his country was left out of the enlargement process, it would fall into a new "gray zone." And, this, he said, might endanger the security and welfare of the region and the continent.

Kostov was asked to look back on why Bulgaria has fallen prey to chaos eight years after Communism as an ideology was discredited across Eastern Europe. A professor of economics, Kostov said his country became Southeastern Europe's laggard, due to the failure of most post-Communist governments to address economic changes seriously. He made reference to the Socialist former government of Zhan Videnov, which was forced out of office by street protests in February. But Kostov asserted no one should be specifically blamed for the country's current crisis, as it was dictated by "a combination of objective conditions: a strong Communist Party, a weak democratic tradition and a conservative population."

According to Kostov, Bulgarians even now are not yet ready to embrace reform en masse, as they seek to preserve whatever little they had of the old-style, social-security net. While Socialism as an ideology is disgraced, he said, many Bulgarians still feel they have too much to lose.