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Bulgarians Put Their Money on GIs

Businesses wager that U.S. will relocate bases to more strategic locations outside 'Old Europe.' So far, one village has lost the bet.

May 28, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

SARAFOVO, Bulgaria — 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.

"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.

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%.

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.

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.

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