When he became president, the biggest fear was that Georgi Purvanov's Bulgarian Socialist Party background would put the brakes on Bulgaria's integration in to the European Union and NATO. His numerous opponents pointed to the socialist's long-standing firm anti-NATO stance. But his first steps in office have shown his opponents, and the world, that he is not the harbringer of hard times for Bulgaria.
European Union enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen said two months ago that Bulgaria would need magical powers, "a Harry Potter approach", in order to finish the accession talks by the end of 2003.
This statement was made after Bulgaria surprised the Union by saying it planned to do everything possible to become part of the first wave of EU enlargement in 2004.
Now, Georgi Purvanov is not Harry Potter and he has no magical powers. But his position in the country's hierarchy provides him with many tools to sharpen the image of Bulgaria. Each Bulgarian president has been viewed as the First Diplomat and the term of office of the former head of state Petar Stoyanov showed how true this was.
Continuity - this was the keyword that Purvanov used since he was elected president last November when trying to describe what his foreign policy priorities were. Immediately after his election win Purvanov firmly stood for continuity in Bulgarian foreign policy regarding strategic priorities, membership of NATO and the EU.
Purvanov also emphasised the increasing role of Russia in the contemporary world and said that relations with Moscow, which had frozen, had to be thawed.
"There hardly is a serious politician who underestimates the potential of this country and does not take its interests into consideration, including Southeastern Europe," Purvanov said.
Among other priorities, Purvanov deemed essential to preserve "dynamic relations with Israel, developing connections with the Arab World, the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America."
The new head of state "posed the task" that negotiations with the EU should end by 2003. "Bulgaria should do all possible to minimise the deadlines for ratification of the future accession agreement," Purvanov said.
At the end of November last year, Purvanov even tried to assure the strongest partner of all, the United States, of his intentions. Purvanov met US ambassador Richard Miles and assured him that there would be continuity in Bulgaria's foreign policy.
In an exchange, Miles delivered a letter from US President George Bush who welcomed Purvanov's commitment to continuing the vital process of economic reform and pursuing membership for Bulgaria of NATO and the European Union.
"I trust you will continue your predecessor's efforts to promote peace and stability in the Balkan region," Bush's letter said.
And Purvanov started to impress.While his first meetings and statements in Bulgaria were viewed as just a PR campaign, his first trip abroad, to the centre of Bulgaria's future desires - Brussels, headquarters of the EU and NATO - proved how eager the president was to achieve what he promised.
NATO: near or far?
The 19 NATO members are to decide at the Prague summit at the end of this year which countries are to be invited to join. At this point none of the 19 has an official position on the issue.
As NATO Secretary General George Robertson jokingly put it, the new members will be between one and nine. The nine candidates are equal and will be assessed by their individual progress.
The US is in favour of a major enlargement, said US Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns. Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt shared that position.
In April, NATO will begin reviewing the applicants' progress towards membership.
While meeting a series of VIPs in Brussels, Purvanov heard statements of gratitude for the support Bulgaria provided to NATO during the crises in the Balkans and after the September 11 events. The president emphasised that Bulgaria had behaved as a de facto ally of NATO, and continued to do so.
Purvanov also underscored the lasting political stability Bulgaria had achieved. It has fulfilled the bulk of criteria regarding the military reforms and will make an utmost effort in the time that is left to the Prague summit.
Even after returning from Brussels Georgi Purvanov continued to use the language that he used in the Belgian capital. Last week he emphasised that NATO membership was a lasting national foreign policy priority and noted the political forces' were unanimous on the issue.
The president pointed to the progress that has been made in reforms but also to the further work that lies ahead, to fight corruption, improve the judiciary, and last but not least, raise living standards. More legislative work needs to be done in connection with future NATO membership, Purvanov said and called on the institutions to mobilise their potential.
On the issue of NATO, Purvanov did a lot and he threw the ball into the court of the Government and Parliament. Naturally, they were the institutions that should do the rest of the job and be as active as possible, as the NATO summit in Prague was just several months ahead.
You can find the whole Big Story in Issue 8 of The Sofia Echo.
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