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Bulgaria: East Europeans Tread Fine Line Amid NATO Frictions Over Iraq

The friction between the United States and some of its European allies over how to deal with Iraq has put NATO hopefuls from Eastern Europe in a bind. These nations want to please the U.S. but also don't want to upset some of NATO's key European members, who oppose the tough U.S. stance on Iraq. Two of these nations, France and Germany, also happen to be among the pillars of the European Union, the bloc to which most Eastern European nations aspire. Recent comments by a French official on Bulgaria's position on Iraq show what a fine line the Eastern Europeans have to tread.

Prague, 14 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "If Bulgaria or other Eastern European countries give the impression that it is more important for them to cooperate with the United States than with Europe, namely with France or Germany, it is possible that -- not governments, but public opinion, which has not had its say on [the East Europeans] joining Europe -- that people will ask whether the Eastern Europeans' place is in Europe. That [maybe] they'd better join the U.S. instead of Europe. At that point, there will be a choice. Everyone must realize that," Francois Rivasseau, the spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said in an interview earlier this week with Bulgaria's private NET radio station.

Whether that was the intent or not, Rivasseau's remarks sounded like a veiled warning that Bulgaria's support for the tough U.S. position on Iraq could prove damaging to its drive for membership in the European Union.

Bulgarian officials were quick to dismiss any such concerns. France's ambassador to Bulgaria, Jean-Loup Kuhn-Delforge, also downplayed the controversial remarks. Speaking to RFE/RL yesterday, he reiterated that France continues to support Bulgaria's drive for EU membership, but also called for what he described as "European solidarity."

Ljubomir Todorov, a spokesman of the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, told RFE/RL that he does not see differences in principle between Bulgaria's position toward Iraq and the positions of other European countries. "The official position of the Republic of Bulgaria on the Iraq crisis has not changed, and the focus in [that position] is that no military action should be taken until all peaceful means -- political, as well as diplomatic -- have been exhausted," Todorov said.

Bulgaria is a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council.

Todorov described the recent French-German proposal for tripling the number of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq as interesting, but at the same time cautioned that new initiatives should not interfere with implementation of existing UN resolutions for Iraq to disarm. "We find that an interesting [proposal], and it corresponds with the Bulgarian position for the maximum efficiency of the inspections. At the same time, we believe that a [new] initiative should not sideline the whole thinking behind [UN] Resolution 1441," he said.

Todorov rejected Western media reports that Bulgaria and other Eastern Europeans have had to take sides amid recent tensions between NATO allies. He said he sees no future fallout from whatever displeasure Bulgaria and other NATO aspirants may be causing in "Old Europe." "'Old Europe and 'New Europe,' the U.S. and the EU include nations sharing the same values, the same vision, the same attitudes in principle. If there are nuances, they are a normal part, a normal component, of the democratic debate between free and sovereign nations," he said.

Joining the EU and NATO have long been Bulgaria's two top foreign-policy priorities. One of those goals is already within reach after NATO last year invited Bulgaria to join, along with six other candidates. Bulgarian membership in the EU is still far down the road -- in 2007, at the earliest.

Responding to a request from Washington, Bulgaria last week formally opened its airspace and a military air base in the south of the country to the U.S. in support of preparations for a possible war against Iraq.

Bulgaria said it will also send soldiers trained in countering the effects of chemical, biological, or nuclear warfare to countries neighboring Iraq in the event of a U.S.-led war.

(RFE/RL's Sofia bureau contributed to this report.)