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For Bulgarian villagers, US bases mean jobs

Date: 30.04.2006

Matthew Brunwasser
International Herald Tribune

For statesmen, an agreement to open three U.S. military bases in Bulgaria seals years of tough diplomacy; for nationalists in Sofia, it is grounds for protest. But for locals in this very poor rural region in the southeast, the deal means something far more important: business.

"The hopes of the people are that the Americans will create jobs, build something new or fix up the village," said Bozhidar Burdarov, 65, a security guard in the village of Bezmer near the Bezmer Air Base, a facility built during the Cold War that is still operational.

He spoke before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew into Sofia on Thursday for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. She was expected to sign the bases agreement Friday with her Bulgarian counterpart, Ivailo Kalfin.

Under the deal, up to 2,500 U.S. soldiers will be deployed in Bulgaria on six-month rotations from 2007 as part of an American strategy to shift troops based in Europe farther east.

Several hundred nationalists demonstrated against the agreement in Sofia on Thursday, some shouting "Yankee go home," and a recent poll indicated that 60 percent of the people of this formerly Communist country oppose the plan.

But in this rundown farming village, the deal is being welcomed by people like Ivanka Lozeva. Never mind that U.S. military planes will roar overhead and military vehicles will rumble past her home over the potholed road to the Bezmer Air Base. "The most important thing," Lozeva said, "is for the young people to have work."

Most of the operations and housing for the U.S. forces are expected to be at the Bezmer base, in improved facilities and new ones yet to be built.

The United States also expects access to the Graf Ignatievo Air Base, 120 kilometers, or about 75 miles, west of Bezmer, and the Novo Selo training ground, 40 kilometers to the north. Joint U.S.-Bulgarian military exercises have been held at Novo Selo three times since 2003.

Ivan Georgiev, 55, the mayor of Bezmer, said locals from the Novo Selo region had already cashed in on the American presence during exercises simulating responses to terrorism.

"At Novo Selo they pay locals 40 levs a day to play a terrorist," he said. "Where else can you get such good money?" The amount, about $25, is high by Bulgarian standards.

Georgiev says locals are excited that the Americans might fix the roads, sidewalks and buildings in Bezmer, although they are also concerned about the fate of the 500 Bulgarian military personnel working at the base.

The region is heavily populated by former military men, both retired and "downsized" as Bulgaria has shaped a professional army of 39,000 from the conscript army of 100,000 it maintained until 1989, when the Communists were removed from power.

The area was also strategically important during the Cold War. Bezmer is just 60 kilometers from the Turkish border - the former Iron Curtain separating NATO's southern flank and the Warsaw Pact.

The Warsaw Pact officially dissolved in 1991, and Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004.

The American Embassy in Sofia has tried to avoid using the term "U.S. bases." It stresses that the bases will remain Bulgarian facilities, with Bulgarian command and under a Bulgarian flag.

Official details about the deal remain patchy, still to be hammered out after the Bulgarian Parliament ratifies the defense cooperation agreement. But it is clear that the facilities will be far smaller and more mobile than the mammoth bases of the Cold War era.

One point of public concern in Bulgaria is whether the facilities could be used as a trampoline to launch attacks on third countries. U.S. officials assure the public that such attacks would not happen without Bulgarian approval. But Bulgarians are deeply skeptical, doubting that their officials could or would resist the will of the American military.

"This could mean a reaction against us," says Todor Milev, 32. He has bachelor's degrees in both history and social work, but earns only 120 levs a month doing maintenance in the Bezmer Town Hall. He says if the Americans open work places and pay well, he hopes to find work there.

"Business is always the best barometer for measuring which way things are going, in a positive or negative direction," said Mitko Petrov, 45, a former Bulgarian Air Force major who leads a foreign policy discussion group in the nearby town of Yambol.

"Now there are serious foreign companies coming here and asking for unemployment lists from the labor agency," he said. "Things are moving."

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