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These soldiers in Heidelberg might soon pack their bags and head east.Image: AP

Balkans Hope To Land U.S. Bases

July 23, 2003

Tens of thousands of American soldiers are expected to leave western Europe soon and move eastward. With their strategic location and support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, the Balkans are becoming an attractive option.


The Bulgarian port city of Burgas is quiet again. A few tourists stroll on the beach on sunny days, but most of the noise these days comes from the seagulls flying overhead. The restaurant with a view on the top floor of the Hotel Bulgaria has lost most of its customers and the scantily clad women in the hotel lobby have seen their turnover fall dramatically recently.

The city's practically been at a standstill since American soldiers who were based at nearby Sarafovo airport during the war in Iraq left. Many in Bulgaria and other Balkan countries hope they'll come back. In the end, some of them may get their wish.

U.S. troops might soon be using the Balkans in the tens of thousands as training sites and staging areas for possible future missions in hot spots like the Middle East. In a major shift of U.S. forces in Europe, the Pentagon is considering moving withdrawing approximately 15,000 soldiers from Germany, according to U.S. and European officials.

Charles F. Wald
Charles WaldImage: AP

"Around 89.4 percent of our U.S. forces are mostly in Germany and Central Europe and that is not necessarily where the security problem is anymore," General Charles Wald (photo), deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe recently told Deutsche Welle. "The security problem is generating itself further to the east and further to the south."

Closer to the action

Having troops closer to where the problems are makes sense, military planners say. The Balkans, with their proximity to hot spots in the Middle East and Central Asia, would allow for the quick movement of troops to these regions.

"We're here right in the center of southeast Europe. All strategic routes cross here," said Boris Tradic, defense minister of Serbia and Montenegro.

Although U.S. officials insist no concrete plans have been made, officials privately say that the Pentagon wants to use Romanian and Bulgarian training grounds as year-round bases that would have up to 3,000 battle-ready soldiers ready for immediate deployment.

A spokesman for the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, Lt. Cmdr. Rick Haupt, told reporters that considerations of the Balkans was part of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "larger vision to transform the military into a more agile fighting force."

In Bulgaria, talks are focusing on the use of the Sarafovo and Graf Ignatievo military airports and training areas of Koren and Novo Selo. In Romania, the Americans are interested in the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base as well as the Babdag training range and the Black Sea port of Constanza. While the U.S. says no decisions have been made, American General Gregory Martin confirmed that negotiations are taking place.

Hurt feelings?

The timing of the public discussion about reducing troop sized at bases in Germany has led to speculation that American unhappiness over Germany's opposition to the war in Iraq is a major reason for the imminent shift eastwards. The governments of the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe largely sided with the U.S. over Iraq. Among the Balkan countries, only Serbia remained neutral. The rest openly expressed their support for the Bush administration's decision to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by military means.

However, General Wald told Deutsche Welle that the political differences over Iraq do not play a role. Indeed, the idea of relocating troops to less expensive eastern European countries has long been a subject of discussion among military brass.

"This would need to be done regardless of any of those political decisions," he said, echoing statements of other U.S. officials speaking on the record.

The response from the Balkan countries to a possible U.S. presence has been generally positive. While there have been some protests against the U.S. in Sorafovo, many there see future military bases as providing a boost to local economies. At Romania's Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, U.S. contracts have already paid for Romanian crews to resurface and widen two roads and build landing areas that can accommodate large American troop carriers. Business owners have been encouraged, since experience in Germany has shown that the U.S. presence brings significant income into the local area.

Divided loyalties

Still, an increased U.S. presence could lead to tensions between Balkan countries and the European Union over where loyalties lie. Relations between EU heavyweights France and Germany and the United States are still strained over Franco-German resistance to the U.S. war stance.

When several eastern European countries due to join the EU next year wrote an open letter to supporting U.S. President George W. Bush's position, they were given a severe dressing down by Jacques Chirac. The French president singled out Bulgaria and Romania for criticism, warning that support for the U.S. was jeopardizing their chances of being admitted to the EU.

Eastern European analysts say that Central European and Balkan countries could be stuck between a rock and a hard place. While they depend economically on the EU, the EU does not fully provide for their security. For that, they look to the U.S. The trick will be balancing the two issues without hurting any feelings, especially if the current transatlantic climate remains frosty.

Czech analyst Jiri Pehe was not optimistic, however, that such a juggling act would be easy.

"No matter what we do, we will be seen as disloyal to France and Germany or to the U.S.," he said.

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