Bulgaria Reaffirms Plan to Destroy SS-23 Missiles

May 6, 2002
Youliana Ivanova

Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, WikiMedia Commons

Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Source: WikiMedia Commons

During a late April visit to the United States to lobby for Bulgaria’s entry into NATO, Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha reaffirmed Bulgaria’s commitment to destroy the country’s eight remaining operational SS-23 missiles. In addition, Mr. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha met with President Bush to discuss Bulgaria’s preparedness to enter the alliance, and presented an action plan of economic and military reforms the Bulgarian government plans to implement to ensure the country’s acceptability to NATO at the organization’s upcoming summit in Prague. (1)

Together with combating corruption, strengthening democratic institutions, and modernizing its armed forces, Bulgaria’s NATO membership is contingent upon the destruction of the Soviet-supplied SS-23 missiles, which were transferred to the territory of Bulgaria in the 1980s. The missiles have a range of 500 kilometers (km) and can carry a payload of 450 kilograms (kg). The Soviet Union did not transfer nuclear warheads for the missiles, which were equipped with conventional warheads.

The possession of these missiles by the United States and the Soviet Union was prohibited by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which was supposed to eliminate an entire class of ground-launched intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles and their launchers. (2) Signed by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on December 8, 1987 and ratified on June 1, 1988, the treaty covered missile systems with ranges between 500 km and 5,500 km, and declared all systems were to be eliminated within three years of the ratification of the treaty. (3) All Soviet SS-23 missiles were therefore included in the treaty and were supposed to be destroyed by May 31, 1991.

The Soviets declared 200 deployed and non-deployed SS-23s, which were subsequently destroyed, and five SS-23 missile operating bases in the Soviet Union and two in East Germany. (4) However, by 1989-1990, reports emerged that two years prior to the signing of the treaty, the Soviet Union transferred 73 SS-23 missiles to former Warsaw Pact allies – East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. These transfers were not made public, and the Soviet Union did not disclose this information at the time of the signing of the treaty. Even though the possession of SS-23s by former Soviet allies is not officially a violation of the provisions of the treaty, it still undermines the INF Treaty’s intent and raises concerns about missile proliferation. (5)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Germany and the Czech Republic destroyed their SS-23s, however, Slovakia and Bulgaria did not follow suit. In 1997, the US government pressed both countries to eliminate the remaining missiles on their territories, but this request was met with fierce opposition. Both countries cited national security concerns as reasons not to destroy the Soviet missiles. (6) Even though the SS-23s do not pose a direct threat to the United States, the US government seeks their destruction in order to fulfill the objectives of the INF Treaty, as well as those of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), to which both Bulgaria and Slovakia have agreed to adhere unilaterally. (7) According to the MTCR, SS-23s are classified as Category I systems (which can carry a 500 kg payload at least 300 km), the export of which is “subject to a presumption of denial,” because of their direct role in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. (8) After years of negotiations and consultations, on October 27, 2000, Slovak officials confirmed that Slovakia had destroyed all surface-to-surface ballistic missiles with financial help from the United States. (9)

This left Bulgaria as the only country in the world still possessing SS-23 missiles, an inheritance from the Soviet era, which hindered Bulgaria’s acceptance to NATO. In order to overcome this challenge and increase Bulgaria’s chances for being invited into the alliance, in December 2001 the Bulgarian Parliament decided almost unanimously (178 votes “for,” 3 “against,” and 2 abstentions) that Bulgarian SS-23 missiles should be destroyed by October 30, 2002. (10) Bulgarian politicians were quick to explain that the decision was not taken under foreign pressure, but is the outcome of the first political consensus after the presidential elections in November 2001. (11)

During a February visit to Bulgaria, a US State Department delegation, headed by Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation John Wolf, discussed with Bulgarian officials the destruction of the SS-23s, as well as Bulgaria’s stocks of less-capable Scud and R-65 missiles. (12) The United States has offered Bulgaria $7 million for the timely and successful completion of the project; however, no deal has been reached as of yet. In a recent article in a leading Bulgarian newspaper, the Chief of General Staff of the Bulgarian Army Gen. Miho Mihov stated that it would be better for Bulgaria to receive several military helicopters, one or two ships, and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) instead of money. (13) Bulgaria’s Defense Minister Nikolai Svinarov stated that the destruction of the missile stockpiles could be completed prior to the deadline set by the Parliament, should Bulgaria receive reasonable compensation for it. (14) No matter whether Bulgaria receives foreign aid and compensation for the disposal of its missiles, it is now certain that by the end of this year with the enlargement of NATO another relic of the Soviet Empire will disappear.

At his meeting with President Bush, Mr. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha also noted that in the past several years Bulgaria has been acting as a de facto member of the alliance by providing essential support for NATO’s operations in Kosovo and Bosnia, as well as being an active ally in the war against terrorism. (15) Bulgaria has also allowed the United States to use one of its military bases, a precedent in the history of the country, which has never willingly permitted foreign troops to be stationed on its territory (not even Soviet troops). (16)

According to US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, offering tangible military and logistical support to the United States during the war in Afghanistan has aided the cause of several East and Central European NATO applicants. (17) Bulgaria’s hopes for joining the alliance were also boosted by President Bush saying at a recent summit of the nine candidate countries in Bucharest, “In Prague, our nations will take a historic step toward removing the remaining divisions of Europe.” (18) His remark was understood to imply a large increase in NATO membership. (19) As Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana recently told reporters, “What was a nice photo op has become today a true mechanism of cooperation beyond NATO enlargement.” He also noted that Romania and Bulgaria would provide a “springboard” for future operations against terrorists. (20)

It is true that while just a year ago Bulgaria’s bid for NATO membership might have been considered a long shot, today it’s viewed as a step towards increasing regional stability and providing a “land bridge” to Greece and Turkey, both of which have officially expressed support for Bulgaria’s application. (21) In addition to increasing stability and security in the region, Bulgaria’s acceptance to NATO would also increase foreign investments in the country and will strengthen its weak economy. (22) As former Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov observes, “For former communist countries, NATO would provide both a security guarantee and a source of confidence for the future. NATO membership would end two generations of a ‘Yalta syndrome’ in which East Europeans fear geopolitical trade-offs or the emergence of new spheres of influence, and would help them firmly stay the course towards liberal democracy and market economy.” (23) Stoyanov also notes that a rejection of Bulgaria’s bid for NATO membership might create anti-Western sentiments in the country, and could worsen the post-Communism nostalgia syndrome, caused by social inequities and corruption, typical for the transition period from communism to democracy. (24)


(1) Nicholas Kralev, “Bulgaria outlines bid for NATO,” The Washington Times, April 24, 2002, www.washtimes.com.
(2) “Fact Sheet: State Department on 1987 INF Missile Treaty,” US Department of State, International Information Programs, May 16, 2001, http://usinfo.state.gov.
(3) Ibid.
(4) “Controversy Rages Over SS-23 TBMs in Bulgaria and Slovakia,” Center for Defense and International Security Studies’ Missile Resources, August 1997, www.cdiss.org.
(5) Ibid.
(6) “Bulgaria, Slovakia Still Hold SS 23s,” Arms Control Today (September 1997), www.armscontrol.org.
(7) Ibid.
(8) “ITEM 1: Complete Rocket and UAV Systems,” FAS Database, http://fas.org.
(9) “Slovakia Destroys SS-23 Missiles,” Disarmament Diplomacy 52 (November 2000), www.acronym.org.uk.
(10) “Bulgarian Parliament Votes for SS-23 Missiles Destruction by October 30, 2002,” BTA, December 19, 2001, www.bulgaria2net.com.
(11) Ibid.
(12) “Bulgaria: US Offers $7 Million to Scrap Missiles,” Global Security Newswire, February 22, 2002, www.nti.org.
(13) “Iskame vertoleti i korabi vmesto CC-23,” (“We want helicopters and ships instead of SS-23s”) Standart, March 20, 2002, www.standartnews.com.
(14) “Visiting US, Defense Minister Svinarov Will Brief His Hosts about Bulgaria’s Preparation for NATO,” Balkans Weekly, April 8, 2002, www.seeweekly.com.
(15) Nicholas Kralev, “Bulgaria outlines bid for NATO.”
(16) Steven Erlanger, “Romania and Bulgaria Edge Nearer to NATO Membership,” The Washington Times, March 26, 2002, www.mfa.government.bg.
(17) David R. Sands, “US leans to larger expansion of NATO,” The Washington Times, March 26, 2002, www.washtimes.com.
(18) Ibid.
(19) Nikolai Svinarov, “The Southern Dimention of NATO Enlargement,” lecture by the Minister of Defense Nikolai Svinarov, CSIS, Washington, DC, April 11, 2002.
(20) James Morrison, “Embassy Row,” The Washington Times, April 5, 2002, www.washtimes.com.
(21) David R. Sands, “US leans to larger expansion of NATO.”
(22) Nicholas Kralev, “Bulgaria outlines bid for NATO.”
(23) Petar Stoyanov, “NATO’s Moment: The West has historic opportunity to expand alliance,” InternationalReports.net (The Washington Times), www.internationalreports.net.
(24) Petar Stoyanov, “Challenges Facing Europe’s New Democracies,” The American Bar Association’s Central and East European Law Initiative (CEELI) Speakers Forum, April 24, 2002, American Bar Association, Washington, DC.

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