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Bulgaria, terror and aftershock

An attack on Israeli tourists in the Black Sea resort of Burgas is a moment of profound alarm for Bulgaria. It also highlights changes in the country’s international profile, says Dimitar Bechev in Sofia.

A bus full of Israeli tourists was blown up on 18 July 2012 at the airport of Burgas, a Bulgarian town on the Black Sea coast. From the evidence so far available, the attack was carried out by a suicide-bomber carrying a backpack laden with explosives. The shock here is profound – the news from Burgas overshadowed the European commission’s regular report monitoring judicial reforms and anti-corruption released a few hours earlier. There were six fatalities in addition to the bomber himself, five Israelis and their Bulgarian coach-driver; tens of injured were taken to local hospitals.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was quick to blame the attack on Iran and the Hizbollah movement it supports. He warned that Israel’s reaction would be “powerful”.  It is too early to speculate whether such claims are substantiated, and how far the hawkish talk in Israel after the tragedy at Burgas will go. But from the viewpoint of Bulgaria, two points are worth noting.

First, the 36-year-old Bulgarian casualty, Mustafa Kyosov, was in fact a member of the country’s (Bulgarian-speaking) Muslim minority called Pomaks. Thus the victims of this atrocity were Jews and a Muslim (who compose up to 12% of Bulgaria’s population, the highest share of any European Union member). For his part the suspected perpetrator, as captured on security-cameras, hardly matches the stereotype of a darker-skinned middle-easterner. It seems he was carrying a forged United States driver’s license.

Second, there is an important international dimension. Bulgaria’s relations with Israel have been developing rapidly for years. The influx of Israeli tourists, especially after the Mavi Marmara crisis with Turkey in 2010, has been remarkable too.  The figure for 2012 is 260,000, with 30,000 arriving in Burgas alone in July (many are bound for large resorts such as Sunny Beach). Whether Israelis are a “soft target” or not is now hotly disputed. But whoever takes the blame for failing to avert the attack, it is clear that the Bulgarian security services will have to deepen cooperation with their Israeli counterparts as well as with the US (President Obama, not usually known as a keen follower of Bulgarian affairs, produced an almost instant condemnation of the attack).

When that process gets underway, the resulting intensified international contacts are bound to expose policy deficits, reform blind-spots and all kinds of dirty laundry in Bulgaria. It can only be hoped that the outcome will be a push to make security agencies here more efficient and transparent, and thus begin to cure what has since 1989 been a sore spot in Bulgaria’s politics.

About the author

Dimitar Bechev is senior visiting fellow in the European Institute of the London School of Economics. He is an affiliate of South East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX), a research unit in St Antony's College, Oxford University, and was head of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). His publications include (as editor) What Does Turkey Think (ECFR, June 2011) and Turkey's Illiberal Turn (ECFR, 2014)

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Dimitar Bechev is senior research fellow and head of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He is editor of What Does Turkey Think (ECFR, June 2011), a collection of essays by Turkish analysts, policymakers and academics exploring the country’s rapid domestic transformation and dynamic foreign policy

This comment was first published on the website of the ECFR

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