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Bulgaria

Capital Sofia
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 359
Mobile Codes 91,92,95,98,99
ccTLD .bg
Currency Lev (1EUR = 1.95BGN)
Land Area 110,993 sq km
Population 7.5 million
Language Bulgarian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

Bulgarian Military Achieves Professional Goals, Regional Influence: Interview with General Zlatan Stoykov

By Christopher Deliso

The successful conclusion of a long reform process that has brought a greater sense of stability and security for military personnel, as well as a more prominent role in Balkan partnerships on the national level, are two of Bulgaria’ss key achievements, according to General Zlatan Stoykov, Chief of General Staff of the Bulgarian Armed Forces.

At the same time, an historic accord signed earlier this month between Greek, Serbia and Bulgarian military officials on reaching common understandings regarding military history is being highlighted as an example of Bulgaria’ss role as a bridge between NATO members new, old and prospective.

In an exclusive interview with Balkanalysis.com conducted on May 12 in Sofia, General Stoykov outlined the positive results already being witnessed from the conclusion of reforms, as well as his view of the Bulgarian military’ss strategic role as a stabilizing force in the region.

After speaking at the opening of a conference on lessons learned from international peacekeeping efforts in Kosovo, hosted by the Rakovski National Defense Academy, General Stoykov kindly took a few moments to share his thoughts on Bulgaria’ss efforts in creating a professional army, peacekeeping missions, and its enhanced role as a regional military leader.

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General Zlatan Stoykov addresses the audience at the Rakovski National Defense Academy

After the end of Communism, Bulgaria like other former Eastern Bloc countries underwent a lengthy and difficult transition period. Reforming and refocusing the military towards NATO standards was one of the major national issues to be confronted. Official diplomatic liaisons between NATO and the eastern Balkan country had begun in 1990, but the latter was only invited to begin accession talks at the alliance’ss November 2002 Prague Summit.

On March 29, 2004, Bulgaria along with seven other nations joined the military alliance. Speaking on the occasion, Emil Valev, then Bulgarian Ambassador to NATO, stated that Bulgaria’s NATO membership “would help keep the instability in the Western Balkans at bay and entail lower costs for the NATO-led missions in the region.”

Five years later, Bulgarian leaders feel that their country’ss contribution is essential, not only for helping keep the peace but also for enhancing military partnerships with neighboring countries. “Bearing in mind the achievements of previous chiefs of general staff, Bulgaria’ss achievements in Bosnia and Kosovo and our bilateral cooperation with Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, Romania and Greece, I see the Bulgarian armed forces in the next years as a productive and reliable partner,” stated General Stoykov. “We look to share our experience and lessons learned, so that Macedonia and Serbia continue building professional armies and fulfilling the PfP criteria.”

The general also mentioned as examples of positive cooperation joint exercises already held with Romanian and Turkey, plus an upcoming one with Romania and Serbia. The Bulgaria military is preparing a memorandum, he stated, which will pave the way for an air defense exercise to be held at military grounds near the eastern Bulgaria town of Shabla. The week-long exercise, involving training with the Strela anti-aircraft missile system, “will probably happen in September,” he said.

In the coming years, the Bulgarian military will contribute even more regionally, the general stated, pointing out the fact that Bulgarian military offices have been in charge of NATO offices in both Albania (now a full-fledged NATO member) and Macedonia, where an expected NATO invitation was vetoed at last April’ss Bucharest summit by Greece over the unresolved “name issue.”

General Stoykov highlighted ongoing Bulgarian leadership at NATO regional posts, including in Albania and Macedonia. At the moment in Skopje, the mission is being led by a Bulgarian officer, Rear Admiral Valentin Gagashov, who has replaced the previous mission leader, Brigadier General Stoyan Genkov, another Bulgarian. Genkov was recalled on April 29, stated General Stoykov, for “health problems.” Although the NATO presence in Macedonia is set to wind down in September, if the Greeks do not relent on blocking Macedonia’ss NATO entry it may continue and Bulgarian officials remain keen to be involved.

Since joining NATO, Bulgaria has also been moving to highlight its role not only in orientation to the Western Balkans, but to the wider Black Sea area as well, a region to which considerable strategic planning is currently being devoted. Bulgaria is involves, or aspires to be involved, in major regional energy projects at a time when NATO is re-orienting its primary focus towards becoming a bulwark for ensuring European energy security vis-à-vis a more assertive Russia.

Bulgaria’ss friendship with Russia goes back long before Communism, however, at least to the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War, in which Russian forces liberated large parts of the country from Ottoman control. Due to its history and geographic placement, Bulgaria is strategically important to both east and west. Referring as well to the unresolved tensions in the Western Balkans, General Stoykov affirmed that “Bulgaria has a balancing policy in the region.”

One important though under-reported issue involving the Bulgarian military involves the stabilizing benefits of reforms fulfillment and the creation of a fully professional army. Although the army fully professionalized since January 2008, the process was symbolically completed with a new act officially published on May 12 in the state gazette.

According to General Stoykov, “there was a need for such an act, as the existing law [dated to the time of] NATO and EU integration goals. Since these have been put into action now, I hope the new act will put an end to the reorganizing process in our military. From now on, the only work should be involving continuing modernization and technical issues.”

Identifying the military’ss three areas of key interest as safeguarding national security, peacekeeping missions abroad, and national security activities during peacetime (i.e., responding to natural disasters), General Stoykov affirmed that the act “will provide a professional model and clarify steps for career advancement.”

Indeed, during the long transition and reform period in Bulgaria and similar countries, downsizing and other personnel issues have led to uncertainties that have affected morale. According to the general, the act has a “social capacity,” meaning that the state will accept more responsibility for military staff and their families, “so that they can feel secure about their jobs and their futures- to ensure military officers that their jobs will be safe and no more staff reorganizing is being planned.” With reforms finished, the rest is “details,” noted General Stoykov. And, the improvement in morale “is already being felt,” he said.

At the same time, Bulgaria’ss ambitions for becoming a regional leader were attested by an historic event held just after the conclusion of the Defense College’ss May 12-16 conference. In a trilateral signing, representatives of the Bulgarian, Serbian and Greek military pledged to work together towards a common understanding of military history between these countries- in the past, having a mixed legacy as both allies and enemies.

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Signatories of the memorandum of understanding on behalf of Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia, respectively (L to R): Colonel Stancho Stanchev; Major-General Giorgos Evangelatos; Colonel Katarina Strbac (photo courtesy Lt. Col. Rossitsa Rousseva)

According to Bulgarian Lt. Colonel Rossitsa Rousseva, who was responsible for much of the organizational work for the conference, “the idea for starting this project came from the Bulgarian side€¦ it’ss a unique idea because it’s the first such initiative in Balkan history, and improves cooperation between one old NATO member, Greece, another pretty new one, Bulgaria and one future member, Serbia, which needs some certain help before joining NATO and the EU.”

Added Lt. Colonel Rousseva, “we intend to invite other Balkan countries next year, and we hope that it will become a good opportunity for mutual cooperation in the region. It’s time to show that Balkans can work together for fulfilling different projects and ideas for our future, and not producing only conflicts.”

The memorandum of understanding was signed by visiting officials from the three states. From the Greek side came Major-General Giorgos Evangelatos, Deputy Chief of the Army History Directorate in the Greek Ministry of Defense. The Serbian delegation was led by Colonel Katarina Strbac, Chief of Department of Strategic Research at the Strategic Research Institute in the Serbian Ministry of Defense. The Bulgarian signatory was Colonel Stancho Stanchev, Chief of the Center of Military History and Lessons Learned in the Rakovski National Defense Academy in the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense. Also attending was retired Serbian Colonel Mihajlo Basara, who is credited along with Colonel Stanchev as originally having developed the idea.