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Bulgarians Want a 'Western Way of Life'

(Washington, DC--September 4, 2002) Bulgarian Ambassador to the U.S. Elena Poptodorova told a RFE/RL audience today that the desire of her fellow citizens for a "Western way of life" is the driving force behind her country's willingness to make the difficult choices needed to qualify for NATO and European Union membership.

Amb. Poptodorova said that the Bulgarian government's commitment to the West was bolstered in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on America. Her country's post-attack offer to allow U.S. and NATO forces fighting the war on terrorism basing rights at the strategic Burgas airfield was the first time, according to the ambassador, that Bulgaria has allowed any foreign power to set up a air base on its territory. Bulgaria has also shown this commitment in other decisions, including its recognition of Macedonian independence in 1992 and its decision to participate fully in NATO peacekeeping activities in the former Yugoslavia. Bulgaria's close cooperation with Turkey, Greece and Romania has served both as a base of support for Bulgaria and Romania's NATO aspirations as well as a stabilizing influence in Greek-Turkish relations, according to Amb. Poptodorova.

Military reform, key to any potential invitation to join NATO, is well underway in Bulgaria, according to Amb. Poptodorova. Its Soviet-style army is being restructured, modernized and downsized from 120,000 to 45,000 troops by 2005; the role of non-commissioned officers is being upgraded along American lines, while alternative service on the EU model is now a legal option. The ambassador observed that personnel reform of the military has been "painful," but essential for "building the dignity of the military in a new way."

Amb. Poptodorova said that Bulgaria has taken steps to fight corruption, especially in its ongoing effort to privatize all state-owned enterprises by the end of 2003. The ambassador noted the recently-completed sale of former state tobacco company Bulgartabak, and acknowledged that the planned privatization of Bulgaria's national telecoms company has been postponed. One of Bulgaria's most viable economic sectors, according to the ambassador, is energy -- Bulgaria supplied 40 percent of Turkey's energy needs during the winter of 2001-2002, and is working to establish itself as a regional energy center. Illicit weapons trading is also a "serious issue," Amb. Poptodorova said, noting that a licensing committee has been set up to regulate the arms trade and prevent the sale of dual-use technologies, overseen by Bulgaria's deputy prime minister.