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Bulgaria Enlarges Its Airspace, Balkan Militaries Expand

September 27, 2004

( Research Service)- New NATO member and Washington favorite Bulgaria is taking the lead in establishing “a common air defense network” with its western neighbors, Albania and Macedonia.

As it aspires to NATO membership, Macedonia has been told to scrap its few fighter planes, in favor of its somewhat less fearsome helicopter fleet. And one of Albania’s “flying coffins,” an antiquated, Chinese-made MiG, crashed and burned the other week in Tirana. So that leaves only one contender.

On Friday, Bulgarian defense minister Nikolai Svinarov announced that the decision had been reached following his meeting with counterparts from the two Balkan states. According to an anonymous “expert,” this means that Bulgaria is “…effectively extending its current system across the airspace of its two neighbours” – hardly a reassuring thought for Macedonians who remember well from the previous century of wars the fondness their eastern cousins have  previously for their land.

For his part, Macedonian defense minister Vlado Buchkovski restated his ardent appreciation of Bulgaria’s counsel and support. According to the Macedonian Information Agency, Buchkovski rose to “…commend the support and remarkable cooperation of the Republic of Bulgaria whose successful story motivate us to endure in fulfillment of our goals. I am convinced that our Bulgarian friends will continue to support the open door policy and will unselfishly share their experiences and expertise from the NATO integration process with us.”

Bulgaria, which is eager to host US military bases as the Bush Administration continues with its strategic relocation program, is upgrading its current air defense system with help from the Americans. According to News24, the country will also be modernizing its 20 MiG-29 warplanes and 36 Mi-17 and Mi24 helicopters.

One day before the Bulgarian air network plan was announced, the five Nordic countries came out with a plan to help modernize the militaries of Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Albania and Serbia-Montenegro. Danish defense minister Soeren Gade stated that this will involve “seminars on modernizing those countries’ armies,” reports the IHT.

Following its successful NATO accession, Bulgaria’s relations with Western defense contractors have solidified. Memorandums of understanding in the area of air defense were signed last week with Britain’s BAE Systems and Gripen, a joint British-Swedish company.

But in points eastward, Bulgaria ran into a controversy last month when it was accused of gunrunning by Edward Kokoity, self-declared president of the autonomous Georgian province of South Ossetia. According to Kokoity, “…Bulgaria is steadily supporting [the] Georgian army, supplying it regularly with weapons and ammunition.”

His side claims that almost all of shells used by the Georgian army against their positions were manufactured in Bulgaria. The Russian daily Komsomoletz had claimed in early August that an “impressive” quantity of 2,500 boxes of mortar shells, “enough to destroy all Ossetian arsenal,” was transferred from Bulgaria to the Georgian port of Poti – and thereafter used on the Ossetian rebels. While not denying the transaction outright, Bulgarian officials claimed that the number of weapons involved was considerably less than what the indignant Russians had claimed.

The big unknown for Bulgaria’s military has to do with the increasingly unpopular mission to Iraq. Troops in the field are getting edgy, now that deeply symbolic Islamic religious holidays are almost upon them. Defense Minister Svinarov has announced a Nov. 9 meeting to discuss possible redeployment with American counterpart Donald Rumsfeld – provided the latter holds on to his job following the US presidential elections expected to be held one week before.

As a NATO hopeful, Macedonia must count on the backing of established members of the club. Earlier this month the leaders of Turkey – one of Macedonia’s strongest allies- reiterated their support for the country’s bid, and Vecdi Gonul, the Turkish Defense Minister, was warmly received on his official visit to Skopje.

As a NATO member, Turkey is becoming increasingly important to American interests: according to UPI, bases are to be shut down in Italy and Greece to make room for one in the more strategic port of Izmir:

“…Reflecting its changing geostrategic priorities, NATO’s Joint Command Southeast in Naples, Italy, has been deactivated and Component Command Air Headquarters-Izmir has been activated. Further drawing down the NATO presence in southern Europe, NATO’s Joint Command SOUTH in Verona, Italy, and its Joint Command SOUTHCENT in Larissa, Greece, have also been decommissioned. Izmir’s municipal authorities are salivating at the prospect of the imminent arrival of 1,000 affluent foreign families.”

According to AFP, a high-level meeting held between the US and Turkey last week was designed “…to seek ways of increasing global and regional military cooperation.” An unnamed embassy official told the agency that the purpose of the meeting was not to win permission for the deployment of warplanes at Incirlik Air Base, but rather “…to discuss broad issues of Turkish-US cooperation, such as NATO, new threats, the struggle against terrorism, ways in which Turkey and US can increase cooperation in the region such as the Caucasus, Afghanistan and Iraq.”

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