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Bulgaria considers how to attract Trump's attention, given that Melania might not be the best conduit.by Boyko Vassilev 23 January 2019
Information travels through myriad and sometimes unexpected connections. Consider U.S. presidents: how do they make their decisions about the Balkans? Through official reports? By consulting the State Department and embassies, or, indeed, the CIA? Despite the many possible advisors teeming around a president, the answer could be closer to home.
Who could be closer to a president than his wife? There was a widespread theory in the early 1990s, about the reason for the prolonged U.S. hesitation to act in the Yugoslav wars. According to this hypothesis, Hillary Clinton took Robert Kaplan’s Balkan journalism – collected as a travel book called Balkan Ghosts – as a reason to persuade her husband Bill not to engage in this messy, unrepairable region. It took three more years of bloodshed, and the persuasive power of officials like then-National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and special envoy Richard Holbrooke, to reverse this strategy.
In the 2010s, enter Donald Trump and his Slovenian wife, Melania, who is undoubtedly a valuable source of impressions, jokes, and stereotypes about the Balkan countries – well, at least those that were part of former Yugoslavia.
This might explain some of the U.S. president’s otherwise baffling Balkan pronouncements. How else can we explain an outburst about the violent nature of Montenegrins? NATO’s newest and second-smallest member surely deserves better than public derision about being likely to need rescue by the United States.
How, too, can we explain Donald Trump’s unexpected tolerance toward the idea of a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia? Europe certainly has never accepted such a plan. Yet Washington has not only failed to denounce the idea, but has urged Kosovar President Hashim Thaci to reach a “historic” deal with Serbia.
Is this a matter of Trump’s fondness for deal making? Is he rejecting the legacy of his (mainly Democratic) predecessors? Or, perhaps, is this just Melania whispering in his ear? We will never know for certain.
However, if it is true that the First Lady is a source of President Trump’s information, Bulgaria is in a difficult position. The country was never part of Yugoslavia – and even if it had been, out of all former Yugoslavs, Slovenians know the least about Bulgaria. Melania Trump might not even know any Bulgarian jokes!
How, then, can this Balkan country attract Trump’s attention? Bulgaria has made at least two attempts.
When Trump entered the White House two years ago, a Trump Society was founded in Sofia. Tellingly, the group consisted mainly of opposition figures and outspoken critics of the U.S. presence in Bulgaria. This group hoped that Trump would denounce billionaire philanthropist George Soros, and the liberal and globalist inclinations of U.S. Democrats and the State Department – thereby improving U.S. relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
However, now Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s coalition government has embarked on another plan to catch American interest. This NATO member’s air force is still using Soviet MiGs, but after a decade’s hesitation, much political wrangling, and a recent, hasty debate, the Bulgarian cabinet has decided to open negotiations with the U.S. about the acquisition of F-16 fighter jets. On 16 January, parliament approved the policy, albeit with a slim majority.
Sweden’s Gripen fighter, produced by SAAB, had been declared the winner of an earlier process. That was under the previous caretaker government, which President Rumen Radev, a former air force commander, had appointed. Borissov’s GERB party has taken a different approach.
Sweden has declared it remains open to a deal, but Borissov argues that F-16s are the most widespread NATO military aircraft, and that the new Block 70 version of the Lockheed-Martin fighter can be used for more combat tasks than simple air policing.
In addition to the military motivations, there is another, unspoken, calculation being made here. President Trump enjoys making deals, and his main battle cry is to create American jobs. In other words, with such a deal, Bulgaria is negotiating for more than just F-16s – the country is trying to secure the U.S. president’s positive attention.
Given what we know of Trump, this is an even better way of attracting his interest than through a joke by the First Lady.
May the Force be with Borissov, to strike a deal that Washington can feel is valuable! Because, just like President Trump’s attention, his gratitude can also be won in unexpected ways.
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