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Bulgaria: NATO, EU Membership Top Goals Of New Government

The Bulgarian parliament has approved a new government headed by the country's former king -- Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz examines the new cabinet and the goals set out in a coalition agreement that joins the former king's movement with ethnic Turks in the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

Prague, 25 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today is the first full working day of Bulgaria's new government. It is composed of a cabinet led by the country's former king that includes technocrats and Western-educated economic specialists as well as ethnic Turks and socialists.

Parliament yesterday formally approved Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha's government following elections last month that brought exactly half of the 240-seat legislature under the control of his political group, the National Movement Simeon II. A coalition accord with the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms also has given Saxe-Coburg-Gotha support from another 21 deputies.

In his address to parliament yesterday, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha outlined the three main goals for his coalition government. "The main priorities of this [coalition] agreement are accession to and full membership in the European Union and NATO, a decisive fight against corruption, and rapid and sustainable economic growth." Saxe-Coburg-Gotha said membership in NATO and the EU are the most vital national aims of Bulgaria. He said all ministers in his government will concentrate on the reforms necessary to achieve membership in both the alliance and the EU.

The new prime minister also pledged Bulgarian support for NATO's ongoing involvement in the crisis regions of the former Yugoslavia. He said his backing of a NATO role in the Balkans will be done in a way that maintains good relations with Bulgaria's neighbors and with Russia.

Newly appointed Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi told RFE/RL this week that his ministry will initially focus on obtaining an invitation by the end of next year to join NATO. Pasi formerly headed the Atlantic Club, a non-governmental organization that has lobbied extensively for the country's accession to NATO.

Pasi says the government will not reverse its position on the issue:

"The main priority is receiving an invitation in 2002 for NATO membership. Everything the ministry does will be working toward this priority."

Saxe-Coburg-Gotha told parliament yesterday that he hopes Bulgaria will receive an invitation to join the alliance during a summit of NATO leaders in Prague in November of next year. He said he wants Bulgaria to formally join NATO by the end of 2004.

Further economic reforms are necessary for Bulgaria to receive an invitation to join the EU. Two London-based economists who supported Saxe-Coburg-Gotha during his election campaign have been given the top economic portfolios.

Nikolai Vassilev has been appointed as a deputy prime minister and economy minister. The 32-year-old Vassilev headed Saxe-Coburg-Gotha's pre-election economic team.

Vassilev recently gained prominence within a government-organized forum of young Bulgarians who have been working abroad. He has worked as an emerging-markets analyst for several Western firms that are involved in international capital markets -- including Lazard Capital Markets, UBS Warburg, and SBC Warburg Dillon Read.

Vassilev studied finance, economics, and business in the United States, Japan, and Hungary. His pledges for speedy reforms include completing the privatization process within two or three years. About 90 percent of Bulgaria's state firms already have been sold off. Still to be privatized are the state telecommunications company, tobacco firms, and one of the country's largest banks.

Vassilev also has said he will introduce exemptions from profit taxes for companies that reinvest their earnings in ways that improve their productivity.

Finance Minister Milen Velchev has worked as an emerging-markets investment banker at Merrill Lynch in London. He has said that Bulgaria needs more active management of its foreign debt and would benefit from issuing Euro-denominated government bonds.

In his speech to parliament, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha detailed his plans to stimulate foreign and domestic investment through the principles of market economics. He also pledged to maintain Bulgaria's IMF-backed currency board until the country joins the EU.

The currency board, which was created in 1997 in a move that brought the country from the brink of economic collapse, pegs the lev currency to the German mark. It also prevents the central bank in Sofia from issuing new money in order to support loss-making state companies or other debtors.

Under the coalition agreement of the new government, the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms has taken two senior cabinet posts. Mehmed Dikme is the minister of agriculture and forestry, while Nezhdet Mollov is a minister without portfolio.

The appointment of two former communists from the Bulgarian Socialist Party as deputy prime ministers has attracted the attention of political analysts. Kostadin Paskalev will be responsible for regional development, and Lidia Shuleva will take on the portfolio of labor and social policy.

The move was surprising because the Socialists have not formally signed any coalition agreement with Saxe-Coburg-Gotha's movement. Socialist deputies yesterday abstained as a bloc from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha's confirmation vote. But six of the 41 socialists in parliament supported the new prime minister's cabinet choices.

All 50 deputies from the Union of Democratic Forces, or the UDF, voted against the confirmation of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as prime minister. They also voted as a bloc against the new prime minister's cabinet appointments.

The UDF is the center-right party that had controlled an absolute majority in the previous parliament. Its deputies said yesterday that they oppose the inclusion of Socialists in the new cabinet.

Nevertheless, the UDF largely agrees with the economic and foreign policy goals of the new government. UDF deputies have said they want to play the role of a constructive opposition.