Washington, 12 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S. President Bill Clinton was putting his signature to the paper Wednesday formally proposing American acceptance of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as the newest members of the NATO alliance, Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov was a few blocks away waxing eloquently about the deeper reasons Sofia wants to be next into the Atlantic alliance.
It is not just to go along with the "fashionable infatuation" in Eastern Europe lately of "let us go and join NATO," he told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington. "For us, it is a strongly motivated choice, a cultural choice, a choice of civilization and a strong wish to return to where we belonged 45 years ago and from where we were cut off by force."
Stoyanov, speaking without hesitation, said the people of Bulgaria see NATO not just as a security system -- even though that is it's most important function. Instead, he said, Bulgarians see the alliance as representing a whole set of values, including free markets, protection of foreign investment, protection of human rights, and the rule of law.
In a booklet prepared for distribution during his current American visit, Stoyanov said "we share the Atlantic values and we are determined to participate in their development and defense.
"This is our civilizational choice," he wrote. It is deeply motivated and final."
Bulgaria's hopes to be in the next wave of countries joining NATO was at the top of Stoyanov's agenda when he met with Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the White House Tuesday.
He said the best "music" to his ears was the comment from Clinton that Bulgaria's work in the Partnership for Peace program and enhanced dialogue with the alliance and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership council were "making Bulgaria the strongest possible candidate for NATO membership."
But this is only part of what Clinton and Stoyanov call "a new era" of U.S.-Bulgarian relations. It is central to the Southeast Europe Action Plan Clinton announced after their summit.
The plan aims to expand U.S. bilateral political, economic, military and civil cooperation with all the countries in Southeastern Europe as well as promoting much greater regional cooperation. A third part of the plan is for Washington to work both bilaterally and multilaterally, along with the European Union (EU), to "embed the countries of the region into the evolving architecture of European and transatlantic institutions."
Stoyanov said a central role being assigned to Bulgaria is to try to improve relations between Greece and Turkey. "We have a great stake in achieving durable stability in the region," said Stoyanov. "While it would be presumptuous to say that we act as a mediator between these two countries, we would like to contribute to the warming up, in any way and by any means we can."
Bulgaria, he said, is regarded as "an island of political stability" in the region and Sofia's efforts will be aimed at exporting this stability from Bulgaria to the rest of the region.
As for another, much larger, neighbor, Stoyanov said Sofia's push toward NATO is "by no means an act of challenge or defiance to any country, least of all Russia." Paradoxically, he said, NATO membership will make Bulgaria's relations with Russia "much clearer, much more stable and less ambiguous."
Russia does not have hostile relations with NATO countries, said Stoyanov. Moscow in fact refers to NATO members as friends.
"This is one reason why we would like to join NATO," he said. "This will improve even further our relations so that Russia will start referring to us as 'friend' without any reservations, as it does about the other NATO countries." Bulgarian officials and visitors attending the conference burst into applause.
Bulgaria is at the "very beginning of a very serious and major transformation," said Stoyanov. "We are aware of the difficulties lying ahead of us, but we are convinced we are on the right path and it will take us where we want to be, long and tortuous as it may be."
Stoyanov will continue to press Bulgaria's case for being the very next nation invited into NATO. He'll visit the Atlantic NATO Command headquarters in Norfolk, in the U.S. state of Virginia today before flying back to Washington for lunch with Albright and an afternoon meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen.