English version, Transmission of Friday 11 July at 21.30 CET on Europe by Satellite

Feature Story «Downsizing the military forces in South Eastern Europe»

This is Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. For more than a decade, Bulgaria has been going through a difficult process of economic and political reform. In a country with 20% unemployment, a real economic take-off remains the main challenge.

ABCnet is an example of a small, thriving firm constantly employing new staff. The dynamic world of computer networking constantly requiring new, skilled workforce. This successful company looks to some like a small military HQ, for it employs as many as six former top brass officers. The owner of ABCnet explains why he likes to hire former military people.

ITV Valentin Konov, ABCnet, Sofia:

They have qualities such as responsibility, decision-making, they take responsibility for their decisions. Last, but not least, they are disciplined, after years of military training.

When Bulgaria decided in the recent past to cut down the number of its military personnel, many officers faced unemployment and had to find a new job. Which is why these colonels and majors found themselves in ABCnet.

Emil Kostadinov, former colonel :

I must admit that I was scared by the new situation. Maybe it wasn`t fear, but when I started it was all uncertain for me - working in a private company.

Nikolaj Nikolov, former colonel :

The ones who have been in service for just two or three years could not identify themselves with the army. But when you`re there for ten, fifteen or twenty years, you change, you think differently and it`s hard to get out.

These officers` story illustrates only a part of the ongoing reform process in Bulgaria. A challenge faced by all the countries of Southeast Europe.

When Bulgaria becomes a member of NATO next year, its army will be reduced by two thirds, comparing to its size from just several years ago.

The experiences there and in neighbouring Romania will be used as a model for reforming the armed forces in the other countries of the region; Huge armies can`t be justified on security or economic grounds anymore - they are simply too expensive.

But for colonel Nikolaj Nikolov, the years spent in the army were the best of his life. For twenty years he served across Bulgaria. Today, all that remains are pictures as souvenirs and a uniform, which he rarely takes out of the closet.

Nikolaj Nikolov:

I am not sorry for not wearing a uniform anymore, I am happy for the ones who stayed. I hope that the reforms will achieve something concrete, so that they can continue to serve and do what they were trained for.

In order to find a new job, Nikolaj decided to attend retraining courses. Thousands of redundant officers are too serious a problem for the state to just leave them on their own. With the financial and professional assistance of many international organizations, the government provided help to officers looking for a new job. The American University in Blagoevgrad launched specialized courses in skills that were deemed to be necessary to find a new employment.

Natalija Dimitrova, American University in Blagoevgrad:

We give them six months courses in three major areas, English language, Cisco networking academy and business and business plan writing, and untill last year we also offered them opportunity for two or three months of internship, for Stage at the end of their training with different companies.

Army reduction opens the question of what to do with soldiers, but also what to do with military barracks and bases? Hundreds of military bases are currently closed, just like this one in Simitli, in Southeastern Bulgaria. It is a serious problem, because all the economic activities in small towns like this one were dependent on the military base. The conversion of military bases into something that will bring profit and jobs is a difficult task, impossible without assistance of the international community. It was the Stability Pact which got the ball rolling. It brought the partners together. Convincing banks and financial institutions to invest in the conversion of military bases.

Stewart Henderson, Director for Security Issues, Stability Pact

We try to match the needs of the countries in the region with available financial resources. In the case of military retraining and base conversion our main partners are the World Bank and NATO. NATO has a lot of technical expertise, the World Bank has a lot of financial expertise. So we have brought these two partners with countries in the region and that is how basically we operate.

For the mayor of Simitli, where unemployment tops 30 %, the transformation of the military base is crucial.

Vasil Ivanov, Mayor of Simitli:

We have agreements with several businessmen for the development of the base. One of them currently works on processing and recycling of old plastic. He wants to transform this place into a factory with hundred workers.

Persuading business people and investors to invest their money into abandoned barracks was not an easy job. It still needs the assistance of NATO, the EU and the Stability Pact.

Efrem Radev, himself a former high-ranking officer, has launched an association of municipalities that want to transform military barracks on their territory.

Efrem Radev

The idea of the projects, the idea of the municipalities is to use this property,this infrastructure in order to stimulate the lot of businesses between them, the infrastructure, not free of charge but at a very low cost and attracting foreign investments and foreign donors, of course, and, of course, foreign investing companies that will ease the process by giving credits to these companies which are affordable for the companies to pay back.

After several years of radical reform, the Defense Ministry is aware that some hard tasks are still to be tackled.

ITV Ivo Ivanov, Deputy Defense Minister:

What is maybe the hardest task is to get rid of excessive weaponry and ammunition. We have plenty of it in the Balkans and this process requires complex technology that we don`t have, and huge spending which we can`t afford.
Getting rid of excessive weaponry and ammunition is yet another condition of stability and security in the region.

Bulgaria has gone a long way down the road to reform. Downsizing the military was never going to easy. But now the Bulgarian experience can serve as a model for other countries in the region to plan their way ahead for the future.