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Bulgaria - the Neglected Balkan Trouble Spot

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On the streets of Peoria, mention Bulgaria and stares may be as blank as those that once accompanied "Bosnia" or "Chechnya." Post-cold-war turmoil in heretofore unpronounceable locales has replaced the neatly bipolar confrontation with Soviet-style communism that ordered Americans' world view for two generations. But in recent weeks, another trouble spot has come into view: a Balkan state of fewer than 9 million people teetering on the precipice of internal conflict. And, although Bulgaria is still not on many Americans' radar screens, its problems affect us.

Bulgaria's instability is interwoven with American interests in a stable Southeastern Europe - a region that has seen genocidal war in the former Yugoslavia, omnipresent danger of conflict between Greece and Turkey, nationalist tensions affecting Macedonia, and resurgent authoritarianism in Albania.

But as prior episodes in this century made clear, tensions that lead to war in the Balkans can't be isolated in that peninsula. Whether to contain conflict or to fight wider wars resulting from Balkan conflicts, human and financial resources from the streets of Peoria have been used when threats to European peace aren't addressed early and forcefully.

Bulgaria's present unrest is dangerous to Bulgarians, to Europe, and to the US. But Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, is not Belgrade. Press attempts to portray events in these two cities as similar confuse Western publics and obscure the accurate views needed by policymakers.

Reasons for tensions

Bulgarian tensions have several underlying causes, none of which have anything to do with perceived defeat in war ( la Serbia) or with nationalism in the virulent Serbian sense. Instead, the roots lie in (1) economic collapse, (2) public fear of crime and disgust with corruption, (3) a substantial drop in the popularity of the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), even while it retains the parliamentary majority won in 1994 national elections, (4) the arrogance of now-departed BSP Prime Minister Zhan Videnov, and (5) the resort to street protests and incitement to violence by the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) when the BSP insisted on trying to form a new government rather than scheduling new elections.

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