NATO's Unintended Victim

SOFIA: Life in Bulgaria is now divided into before and after the war over Kosovo. Before, Prime Minister Kostov and his government could boast of successes in undoing the ruinous policies of the previous socialist government. Now, a projected budget surplus has been blown apart by collapsing tourism and trade as surely as the bridges over the Danube. Moreover, the monetary stabilisation brought about by the country's adoption of a Currency Board is also in danger as hard currency reserves are depleted.

With all bridges over the Danube blasted, Bulgarians can now ship to and from Europe only through the Bosporus. What used to be a handy 1000-mile road, rail, and river link through Yugoslavia to Germany - Bulgaria biggest trading partner - now requires a long sea journey from the Black Sea though The Sea of Marmora, the Aegean, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic to the North Sea and the Baltic. No surprise, then, that exports to Europe have collapsed.

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Broken bridges on the Danube, however, are not the biggest economic harm. For, actually, there is one bridge left on the lower Danube, at the Bulgarian port city of Rousse - once a buzzing transportation hub but silent in recent years. This is the bridge on the road to Moscow, and activity there is picking up.

Bulgarians have struggled for a decade to keep off that road, both in trade and in foreign policy. Time and again, the country has looked West, time and again, this time violently, the doors to Europe have been slammed in Bulgarian faces. So the lure of Russia begins to be appealing, particularly as, yet again, a painful economic squeeze is approaching through no fault of the people here, and Bulgarians are resentful. A recent IMF/World Bank report predicts that in all countries surrounding Yugoslavia, bar Hungary and possibly Romania, the conflict will cause a 5% decline in annual GDP. Bulgarians fear even worse.

Beyond the damage it is doing to the economy, Kosovo is also destabilising Bulgaria politically. The only country in the region to have managed communism's end without a single drop of blood being shed, Bulgaria is irritated at the risk of being dragged into a foreign war. Such anxieties seem natural with NATO war planes flying overhead after their bomb runs, with the occasional stray bomb hitting as nearby as a Sofia suburb. No one in Bulgaria has been hurt so far, but reports arrive from Serbia describe ethnic Bulgarians living in that country being moved near to the war zone, possibly to dig trenches or for use as human shields. People blame the government for leaving these people in the lurch.

But the real horror for Bulgarians is of Kosovo repeating itself in Macedonia, with another tide of refugees bringing the war and its suffering onto Bulgarian soil itself. Despite the rants of the ex-communist opposition, the Macedonian and Bulgarian governments recently resolved a number of long festering disputes. This was done so skilfully that the USA, UK, Germany, the EU Commission, even a recalcitrant Greece applauded. But the war has so revitalized the postcommunists, that they now denounced those agreements as betrayals, and shout that the government, by allowing NATO to use Bulgarian airspace, is drawing Bulgaria into war.

Fear of a wider war has real resonance here. All Bulgarian men have served in the army, and many remember how, in the 1970's, Russian tank brigades could be airlifted into the country in a matter of hours. They know that NATO's business with Milosevic could have been over in days, had NATO exercised the will. Because America and Europe did not want to risk the lives of their soldiers, the lives of countries like Bulgaria are put at risk instead.

Stability is something that cannot be taken for granted in the Balkans. Refugees cannot spend next winter in tents just within the Macedonian border. Rather than starve or freeze, they will move, and wherever they march, political unrest will follow. So a wider war can come not only by drawing in Macedonia or Bulgaria. It can come simply through a general breakdown of government as politicians, some with the best intentions in the world, fail to cope with that human tide of misery.

And what is the European Union's response to Bulgaria's plight? Why, its legal envoys are investigating an anti-dumping law suit against the Kremikovtsi steel mill near Sofia. Bulgaria's government is at pains to sell this loss-making plant even for the symbolic price of 1 Bulgarian Lev. But even that price will prove too high if the EU blocks steel imports from the plant. A "before Kosovo" commitment to the IMF to sell or close another 600 state firms by the end of July threatens to shutdown more factories per day than the bombing campaign has achieved in Serbia. Those shutdowns are another potential source of unrest in Bulgaria.

Instead of Europe opening its doors at this critical moment, Bulgaria's entrepreneurs must queue for weeks outside EU embassies begging for visas. All the while, Russian trade missionaries whisper that the government is dragging its feet on a proposed free trade zone between Bulgaria and Russia, something requested by the previous socialist government of Bulgaria but only now offered by an opportunistic Russia.

At the conclusion of a recent broadcast, Radio Sofia slipped in a throwaway sentence about the fact that 190 bomb shelters in the capital built in Soviet times remain in good condition and are prepared to accept the public. Most Bulgarians would prefer not to crouch in bomb shelters or return to the safety of hiding within Mother Russia's skirts. What Bulgaria needs is an open and straight road to Europe. The risks to its stability and existence that Bulgaria is now being asked to run by NATO deserves no less a compensation than that.