SKOPJE, Macedonia, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- Last week, Bulgaria, sitting on the United Nations Security Council, was one of 10 east and southeast European countries -- known as the Vilnius Group -- to issue a strongly worded statement in support of the United States' attempt to disarm Iraq by military means.
This followed a similar, though much milder, earlier statement by eight other European nations, including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, the European Union's prospective members in central Europe.
The Vilnius 10 -- Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia -- called the evidence presented to the Security Council by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell -- "compelling."
Iraq posed a "clear and present danger," they concluded.
Bulgaria and Romania pledged free access to their air spaces and territorial waters. The first U.S. military plane landed on Monday in the Safarovo airport in the Black Sea city of Burgas in Bulgaria. Other members are poised to provide medical staff, anti-mine units and chemical protection gear.
Such overt obsequiousness did not go unrewarded. Days after the common statement, the International Monetary Fund -- considered by some to be a long arm of America's foreign policy -- clinched a standby arrangement with Macedonia, the first in two turbulent years.
On the same day, Bulgaria got glowing -- and counterfactual -- reviews from yet another IMF mission, clearing the way for the release of a tranche of $36 million out of a loan of $330 million.
Partly in response, six members of parliament from the ruling Simeon II National Movement joined with four independents to form the National Ideal for Unity. According to Novinite.com, a Bulgarian news Web site, they asserted that "the new political morale was seriously harmed" and "accused the government of inefficient economic program of the government that led to the bad economic situation in the country."
Following the joint Vilnius Group declaration, Albania, Croatia, Bulgaria and Macedonia received private and public assurances that their NATO applications now stand a better chance. Bulgaria started the second round of negotiations with the military alliance Monday and expects to become a full member next year.
The head of the U.S. Committee on NATO Enlargement, Bruce Jackson, stated: "I'm sure that Bulgaria has helped itself very much this week."
Yet, the recent rift in NATO (over Turkish use of alliance defense assets) pitted Germany, France and Belgium against the rest of the organization and opposite other EU member states. It casts in doubt the wisdom of the Vilnius Group's American gambit.
The countries of central and eastern Europe might admire the United States and its superpower clout -- but, far more vitally, they depend on Europe, economically as well as politically.
Even put together, these polities are inconsequential. They are presuming to assume the role of intermediaries between a disenchanted Franco-German entente cordiale and a glowering America. Nor can they serve as "U.S. Ambassadors" in the European corridors of power.
The EU absorbs two-thirds of their exports and three-quarters of their immigrants. Europe accounts for nine-tenths of foreign direct investment in the region and four-fifths of aid. For the likes of the Czech Republic and Croatia to support the United States against Germany is nothing short of economic suicide.
Moreover, the United States is a demanding master. It tends to micromanage and meddle in everything, from election outcomes to inter-ethnic relations. James Purdew, U.S. ambassador to Sofia and a veteran Balkan power broker, has spent the past few weeks exerting pressure on the Bulgarian government, in tandem with the aforementioned Jackson, to oust the country's prosecutor general and reinstate the (socialist) head of the National Investigation Services.
Bulgaria is already by far the most heavily enmeshed of the Vilnius countries in U.S. military operations in Asia. It served as a launching pad for U.S. planes during the Afghan campaign in 2001-02. It stands to be affected directly by the looming war.
Bulgaria is on the route of illicit immigration from Iraq, Palestine and Iran, via Turkey, to Greece and thence to the EU. Last Friday alone, it detained 43 Iraqi refugees caught cruising Sofia in two Turkish trucks on the way to the Greek border. The Ministry of Interior admitted that it expects a "massive flow of (crossing) refugees" if an armed conflict were to erupt.
The Minister of Finance, Milen Velchev, intends to present to the Council of Ministers detailed damage scenarios based on a hike in the price of oil to $40 per barrel and a three- to four-month confrontation. He admitted to the Bulgarian National Radio that inflation is likely to increase 1 to 1.5 percentage points, at least.
The daily cost of a single 150-member biological and chemical defense unit stationed in the Gulf would amount to $15,000, or about $500,000 per month, said the Bulgarian news agency, BTA. The Minister of Defense, Nikolai Svinarov, told the cabinet that he expects "maximum (American) funding and logistical support" for these Bulgarian troops.
The United States intends to base about 400 soldier-technicians and 18 planes on the country's soil and will pay for making use of the infrastructure, as it has done during operation "Enduring Freedom" (the conflict in Afghanistan).
Bulgaria stands to benefit in other ways. The country's Deputy Foreign Minister, Lyubomir Ivanov, confirmed in another radio interview that the Americans pledged that Iraqi debts to Bulgaria will be fully paid. This could amount to dozens of millions of dollars.
Is this Bulgaria's price? Unlikely. Bulgaria, like the other countries of the region, regards America as the first among equals in NATO. The EU is perceived in eastern Europe as a toothless, though rich, club, corrupted by its own economic interests and inexorably driven by its bloated bureaucracy.
The EU and its goodwill and stake in the region are taken for granted, while America must be constantly appeased and mollified.
Still, the members of the Vilnius Group have misconstrued the signs of the gathering storm: the emerging European rapid deployment force and common foreign policy; the rapprochement between France and Germany at the expense of the pro-American but far less influential Britain, Italy and Spain; the constitutional crisis setting European federalists against traditional nationalists; the growing rupture between "Old Europe" and the American "hyperpower."
The new and aspiring members of NATO and the EU face a moment of truth and are being forced to reveal their hand. Are they pro-American or pro-German (read: pro federalist Europe)? Where and with whom do they see a common, prosperous future? What is the extent of their commitment to the EU, its values and its agenda?
The proclamations of the European eight (including the three central European candidates) and the Vilnius 10 must have greatly disappointed Germany -- the unwavering sponsor of EU enlargement.
Any further flagrant siding with the United States against the inner core of the EU would merely compound those errors of judgment. The EU can punish the revenant nations of the communist bloc with the same dedication and effectiveness with which it has hitherto rewarded them. Ask Israel, it should know.
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