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Bulgarians Put Their Money on GIs

Times Staff Writer

During this last winter, when nary a lick of work was to be found in this backwater near the Black Sea, the bankrupt local airport summoned idle builders for a top-dollar job: rebuilding the traffic-control tower.

A few weeks later, a paving crew arrived in the village to lay asphalt on what had been rutted muddy roads. Soon Voice of America news in English could be heard blaring from the gas station, and the residents of scruffy Sarafovo were buying dictionaries and self-teaching guides to the international language of business.

The Yanks were coming.

Or at least the merchants of Sarafovo thought so. Despite the arrival in February of nearly 400 U.S. troops to staff a refueling base for Iraq-bound bombers, none of them appears to have set foot in this village that had spruced up its shops and eateries for an off-season windfall.

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“We never saw a live American. They didn’t buy a single beer,” groused Dimo Martinov, whose family runs the Tropicana bar on the main street, which is virtually abandoned eight months of the year but throngs with budget-conscious Bulgarian and Russian vacationers in summer.

Bulgaria has become one of America’s new best friends in Europe since old-best-friend Germany snubbed Washington’s war plans in Iraq. But hopes in Sarafovo that the U.S. military would bring with it a windfall have been pretty much dashed already.

While the village airport was converted for use in recent airstrikes on Iraq, the American troops slept in tents and ate military rations. For rare recreation, they were bused from camp to the nearby city of Burgas, bypassing Sarafovo’s freshly swept terraces and prematurely deployed beer gardens.

Few here were naive enough to think this frumpy resort town could become the next Heidelberg, the tourist haven in Germany that rose amid the post-World War II military occupation by U.S. forces. But as the Pentagon ponders relocation of its military assets from “Old Europe,” as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld referred to opponents of the Iraq war, the talk has increasingly touched on Bulgaria.

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A Need for ‘Lily Pads’

There are logistical reasons to move U.S. forces here. While Germany plays host to more than half of the 112,000 American troops stationed in Europe, recent military actions have been far from those bases. Forces stationed near the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean would be closer to the Middle East and South Asia, lessening the burden of obtaining permission to fly over some nations during wartime.

What the strategic reviews underway in Washington and NATO envision for this region are “lily pads” -- flexible jumping-off places -- rather than full-fledged bases with thousands of troops and the commissaries, exchanges, bowling alleys and swimming pools that accompany major deployments. The bases would be beefed up for a crisis but otherwise scaled down.

Still, any talk of a growing U.S. military presence has avid listeners in Bulgaria, where the official unemployment level is about 15%.

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In fact, Stoyan Nikov imagined he could hear the cash registers in Bulgaria ringing all the way from Las Vegas, where he was waiting tables at the Golden Strike Casino when he heard of U.S. plans to build bases in his homeland.

“I knew it was time to come back. This is an opportunity for me. I know what Americans like -- steak and eggs and southern fried chicken,” the 34-year-old auto mechanic by training said of his plans to open a snack bar catering to U.S. forces -- as soon as he figures out where and when they’ll be coming.

Nikov had struggled for more than six years to make a life in the U.S., fixing blocked sinks and toilets in San Diego, driving a taxi in Dallas and serving breakfast in Las Vegas. He had been feeling down about his inability to get visas for his wife and daughter to join him, an effort he realized was doomed amid the virtual immigration freeze that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.

Now all that time in minimum-wage occupations looks like on-the-job training. He returned to Bulgaria in late March and has been lobbying townspeople to gear up for the coming opportunities.

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Whether Sarafovo will become a permanent site of U.S. or NATO military activity is still in question. U.S. diplomats and Bulgarian officials praise the Iraq operation and the previous use of the airport for U.S. military flights to Afghanistan as resounding successes and examples of what the new allies can accomplish together.

Terrorism Concerns

Yet a Western military presence would have its downside. Both recent missions occurred during the off-season, posing no conflict at the civilian airport, which handles 40 to 50 flights a day during the summer. Tourism is Bulgaria’s biggest source of hard currency, bringing in $1.3 billion last year. Defying a worldwide downturn, the industry grew 11% during that time.

“There’s some concern that if Americans were around, we’d become a target for terrorism,” said barkeep Ivailo Madjarov of the Cedars, separated from the Tropicana by a grocery store, a couple of fruit stands, several homes undergoing expansion, a chicken farm and the newly paved street.

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“I personally don’t think there would be any problem, and a permanent base would be good for business. But one of the travel agencies that usually books Polish tour groups says not one of her usual customers has signed on for this summer.”

Sarafovo, on the Black Sea and relatively near the Middle East, is well suited to refueling and staging operations. Burgas is home to a Bulgarian-Russian oil refinery venture, Neftochim, which supplied the fuel for the two recent U.S.-led operations.

“Even five or six years ago you couldn’t imagine a Russian refinery providing fuel for an American operation that Russia was not completely in agreement with, and from all places, Bulgaria,” said Todor Churov, head of the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry directorate for international security and North Atlantic Treaty Organization relations.

In the capital, Sofia, the irony of the newly emerging alliance is lost on no one. This country better known a generation ago for involvement in an attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II and for killing a dissident writer with a poison-tipped umbrella is now knocking on the doors of the European Union and NATO. As part of its courtship of the latter, Bulgaria is converting Soviet-era bases and equipment for use by the superpower it and its allies in the former Warsaw Pact once opposed.

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Vestiges of the Cold War rear up in the oddest places.

Bulgarian-made military hardware was recently intercepted along the Syrian-Iraqi border, a U.S. official here noted. Bulgaria destroyed its SS-23 short-range missiles, which can carry nuclear warheads, only last year after having denied their existence for a decade.

While now better dressed and less glum than in Soviet times, Bulgarians are still partial to tinted eyeglasses and black leather jackets. Long stretches of highway near the central city of Plovdiv once doubled as emergency airstrips, in case a Warsaw Pact airborne staging site was needed. The speed limit at those sites still drops from 80 mph to 50 mph, though neither the nation’s modern military nor its pals from the Pentagon have any plans to use the busy thoroughfares for landings.

Plovdiv will be the heart of future U.S. operations in Bulgaria, predicted Velizar Shalamanov, chairman of the George C. Marshall Assn. think tank and a former deputy defense minister. The city, site of a NATO training project for the past four years, has facilities ready to occupy. The Bezmer airfield to the southeast and the Graf Ignatievo air base just north of the city have recently been upgraded.

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Across the dusty road from the Graf Ignatievo base, where the Bulgarian Defense Ministry spent $30 million over the past year to install state-of-the-art communications and navigation equipment, Vanyo Sapov is making big plans.

“We’re going to expand into food supply and frozen-food storage, so we’ll have the whole service industry covered,” said Sapov, 36, proprietor of a combined gas station, mini-mart, carwash and restaurant. When a dozen American military personnel were stationed at the base during the refurbishment this past winter, Sapov hired an English translator to make sure his cooks and waitresses gave the soldiers what they wanted.

Might the businessman be jumping the gun with new investments when definitive base locations have yet to be decided?

“Maybe,” Sapov said with a classic Balkan shrug: eyes closed, shoulders hunched, mouth set in indifference. “We interpret this [upgrading] to mean there is going to be a bigger American presence in the future, but it depends on people and decisions beyond our control.”

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Still, he argued, in chorus with Sofia officials, a U.S. presence anywhere in Bulgaria will improve stability and encourage Western investment that will trickle down to small businesses like his.

‘Just Looking’

U.S. officials in Sofia confirm Pentagon brass have been on a recent shopping trip to examine Bulgarian bases but insist they are “just looking.” An ongoing strategic review of U.S. and NATO forces projects a shift from Western Europe to former Eastern Bloc nations to take shape in four or five years. But Shalamanov, of the Marshall think tank, expects the U.S. footprint here to begin emerging by year’s end as U.S. officers come to train a second battalion of Bulgarian troops for duty in Iraq.

A verdant country rich with recreation opportunities priced for Europe’s poorest travelers, Bulgaria already hosts R&R; visits for U.S. peacekeepers serving in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo province. More than 15,000 have come to mountain ski resorts and Black Sea beaches on furloughs over the past five years, said a diplomat in Sofia, who added that there have been few problems. As another envoy put it, referring to the libertine mores prevailing in the post-communist era, “it’s OK to sleep with the locals.” Both requested anonymity because of State Department rules.

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Still, there are pitfalls, most visibly the risk of creating unrealistic expectations. Little information has been transmitted to the public by the politically fractured Sofia government, even if all parties generally welcome the promised U.S. presence. There is also reluctance in some quarters to see Bulgaria again becoming a handmaiden to a superpower.

“Bulgaria has not managed to get beyond the syndrome of needing a big brother,” conceded Defense Minister Nikolayo Svinarov. “But this time I believe decisions will be taken as partners, not alone in Moscow or Washington, D.C.”


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