NATO newcomer Bulgaria and the United States have agreed to establish three U.S. military bases in the Black Sea state, officials from both countries said on Friday, despite polls showing widespread public opposition.
The deal, under which up to 3,000 U.S. troops will be stationed in Bulgaria at a time, is key to Washington’s shift from large Cold War-era installations to smaller bases closer to the Middle East and Africa.
It should be signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she visits the country of 7.8 million for a summit of NATO foreign ministers next month, said Lubomir Ivanov, Bulgaria’s ambassador to NATO.
“We are convinced that with this agreement, we will make Bulgaria, the United States, Europe, the region, and the world as a whole a little more secure,” Ivanov, who also led Bulgaria’s negotiating team, told reporters.
Eager to repay Washington for its support for its 2004 NATO entry, Bulgaria is a staunch U.S. ally and supports the U.S.-led operations in Iraq despite widespread public disapproval.
The plan resembles an arrangement agreed in December between the United States and Bulgaria’s northern neighbor Romania.
It includes the Bezmer airfield and Novo Selo shooting range, both near Bulgaria’s border with Turkey, and the Graf Ignatievo airfield in central Bulgaria. U.S. forces will also use a storage facility near Bulgaria’s port of Bourgas.
The agreement, which will be valid for 10 years, must still be ratified by Bulgaria’s parliament.
“We would anticipate that ... the first U.S. soldiers would arrive in 2007 and 2008,” U.S. Ambassador to Sofia John Beyrle told reporters.
The bases have drawn sharp opposition from the far-right opposition Attack Party, which has staged protests involving thousands of people in Sofia and other cities in past months.
A recent opinion survey shows 60 percent of Bulgarians were against the bases which are expected to bring tens of millions of dollars in badly-needed foreign investment and create jobs.
Rights groups have expressed concern over the bases following allegations that the United States may have used installations in Romania, Poland, and other European states as secret CIA jails.