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Bulgaria: Stability Pact Chief Criticizes Sofia Over Visas

The head of the Balkan Stability Pact has reacted with strong words to Bulgaria's threat to withdraw from the regional development group over a visa disagreement with the European Union. He told reporters yesterday in Paris that Sofia's stance is unhelpful.

Prague, 16 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Balkan Stability Pact coordinator Bodo Hombach has criticized the Bulgarian government over its threat to withdraw from the Pact because of the European Union's visa regulations.

Hombach said yesterday in Paris that the threat of the Bulgarian government to withdraw from the pact is what he called "inappropriate" and "unproductive."

"This reaction of the Bulgarian government, I think, was an emotional, reflex reaction because of the imposition of the visa conditions. They wanted to make a threat. It was unhelpful. It was inappropriate. I think they think this is the kind of thing that gets an audience in Europe. But this is not the way to deal with each other. And it is unproductive."

The Bulgarian government has demanded that Brussels introduce what Sofia calls an "unconditional and non-discriminatory visa-free regime" for Bulgarian nationals who want to visit the EU.

The EU had been discussing the visa issue with the Bulgarian government. But Hombach says the Bulgarian threats have derailed that process.

In addition to withdrawing from the Stability Pact, the Bulgarian government has also threatened to delay the planned closure of the Kozloduy nuclear power plant. The EU has already given aid to the country to be used to shut down the plant's Soviet-designed reactors.

The Balkan Stability Pact is operated under the auspices of the EU. It is attempting to foster peace and economic stability in southeastern Europe by helping to finance infrastructure developments and promoting regional cooperation in the Balkans.

Bulgarians who want to travel to EU member countries must now stand in long lines at EU embassies to obtain visas. The tougher restrictions also have been adopted by leading EU candidate countries as they attempt to harmonize their laws with those in Brussels.

Humiliated by the tough travel restrictions -- which also apply to Romanians, Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians -- Bulgarians have launched a series of protests ranging from street demonstrations to the threats by public officials.

Hombach said he thinks Sofia's threat to pull out of the Balkan Stability Pact is the result of what he called "domestic political considerations" in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov says Bulgaria should be included on a list of countries allowed visa-free access, and that the visa-free regulations should enter into force unconditionally.

Kostov says Bulgaria must defend its national interests by preparing for a strong foreign-policy response in case visa restrictions are not lifted. He says Bulgarians will not allow themselves to be treated as what he calls third-class Europeans. He says Sofia is merely asserting the rights of Bulgarians by demanding the fulfillment of promises already made by Brussels.

Bulgaria started accession talks with the EU in March after receiving praise for its efforts on democratic reforms, the transition to market economics and fighting organized crime.