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Bulgaria: Economic Issues Set To Dominate Clinton's Talks

U.S. President Bill Clinton has begun a brief visit to Bulgaria, where he is expected to thank Bulgarians for their support for NATO during the Kosovo crisis. Economic issues, many related to that crisis, are set to dominate talks.

Sofia, 22 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Amid what may well turn out to be the biggest security operation ever staged in the Bulgarian capital, U.S. President Bill Clinton has arrived in Sofia on a brief state visit. It is the first-ever visit by a U.S. head of state to the country.

Extraordinary security measures include the cordoning off of a large portion of Sofia's center, the banning of all traffic in the city center, and checks on pedestrians walking in the downtown area.

The U.S. president is expected to hold official meetings with both Bulgaria's President Petar Stoyanov and Prime Minister Ivan Kostov.

Kostov has said that he wants to discuss several economic issues with Clinton. The prime minister says his primary concerns are trade with the United States, the $2 billion debt owed Bulgaria by Iraq, the Balkan Stability Pact, and the need to reopen the Danube River. He also says he wants Clinton to offer Bulgaria "political guarantees" for its security. Bulgaria is seeking membership in the NATO military alliance.

Kostov says it will take years to feel the economic effects of the Stability Pact under which western governments have pledged to help the region rebuild following the economic disruptions of the Kosovo crisis. Kostov says that Bulgaria has not yet received the promised compensation for its losses stemming from the war in Yugoslavia. He says his country lost $600 million because of reduced exports.

Last week, the U.S. administration approved the release of $25 million in aid to Bulgaria to assist the transition to a market economy and to help make up for the losses incurred by the events in neighboring Yugoslavia.

Clinton is being accompanied on the visit by his daughter Chelsea. He is due to address a public rally today in Alexander Nevsky Square, where the first opposition rallies took place in 1989.

Most observers in Sofia agree that Clinton's visit is more one of courtesy than a practical one, fueled by a U.S. desire to recognize Bulgaria's help during the Kosovo crisis. The pro-U.S. daily Demokratsiya has dubbed an offer by Clinton to allow Bulgarian goods into the United States "almost tax-free" as a "gesture of gratitude" for Sofia's position on the Kosovo war. But the popular newspaper "24 Chasa" calls the initiative a "pat on the shoulder" and says it is not enough. The proposal must still be approved by the U.S. Congress.

Despite some grumbling over the extent of security measures, many Bulgarians seem to be welcoming the visit. Nearly half of the respondents in a recent opinion poll said it will have a positive effect on Bulgaria's development, and 44 percent said it will have a positive effect on the Balkans as a whole.

But according to Georgi Lozanov, a leading Bulgarian intellectual and a member of the country's Media Council, the U.S. president's visit to Bulgaria is mostly symbolic.

"I think that if there is any benefit from this visit it will be the feeling that we get a face-to-face experience of something that here is called a great power. Most Bulgarians have for many years talked about our life being determined by the great powers and not by ourselves ... some great powers that pursue great politics and their own interests, and have never directly stood side by side with our own politicians in the square or with the people who live in this place. This is a personal demystification of the great powers and their coming closer to our world here."

Clinton is due to leave Bulgaria early tomorrow on his way to the Macedonian capital Skopje. He will then travel on to Kosovo where he will visit U.S. troops serving in the international peacekeeping force (KFOR). Earlier stops on Clinton's current tour of Europe included Turkey, Greece and Italy.