Views on BG | July 8, 2001, Sunday // 00:00

Washington Post, By Peter Finn

Through the 1990s, the weapons factories of this decaying industrial town (Kazanluk) and others like it in Bulgaria churned out a broad selection of reliable, low-cost `small arms`-AK-47s, mortars, mines-for sale to outlaw governments and rebel armies around the world. In 1997 and 1998, for instance, 37 flights operated by a transport airline called Air Cess left the Black Sea city of Burgas carrying Bulgarian-made military equipment, ostensibly for a legal sale to the West African nation of Togo. The weapons never got there; United Nations investigators say they ended up in Angola in the hands of the UNITA insurgent army. Cash from such deals provided desperately needed income for a shrinking weapons industry that sought new markets, however suspect, following the collapse of communism and a variety of Soviet-bloc customers. But today, the Bulgarian government has cracked down on arms trafficking in a major way, officials in that government and Western diplomats here say. The stinging revelations of a U.N. investigation, together with Bulgaria's desire to join NATO and the European Union, helped push it toward that economically painful step. In the past 18 months, foreign arms sales have dropped to about $100 M a year-a 90% decline from the country`s peak years under communism, according to Western officials who have spoken to executives at the Bulgarian arms-trading company Kintex. Defense workers grumble-1,000 here in Kazanluk have lost jobs in the last nine months alone-and the country`s struggling post-communist economy is being pinched further by the loss of income. But political leaders say they are determined to create a new image for the country and a respectable place in the world economy. As delegates from close to 180 countries gather at the U.N. headquarters in New York this week to try to negotiate a worldwide treaty regulating trade in small arms, a key goal will be to create more cases like Bulgaria, a major producer that has weaned itself away from the illegal arms trade, according to Western diplomats. Under communism, Bulgaria became an important maker of small arms in the Soviet bloc, supplying Warsaw Pact countries, Soviet client states in the Third World and Soviet-sponsored rebel groups. At its peak in the 1980s, the Bulgarian defense industry produced $1 Bln worth of arms annually, and only 5% of them were for the domestic market. Arms accounted for 10% of Bulgaria`s total exports. The industry employed 115,000 people with another 400,000 workers dependent on it through subcontracting and supplies. With the fall of communism, traditional arms markets collapsed too and contracts were not honored. In 1992, the country had an estimated $800 M worth of surplus arms on hand and production lines that continued to pump out light weapons. As the industry contracted, losing 85,000 jobs over 10 years, it tried to diversify into civilian products. For instance, Arsenal, the major factory in Kazanluk, which is famous for its Kalashnikov assault rifle, began making machine tools as well. But industry executives also looked for new places to sell the products they made best: weapons. And in a world where legitimate buyers were increasingly demanding NATO-standard equipment, that often meant selling into underground markets. In the 1990s, Bulgarian small arms reached countries under international sanctions, such as Iraq and Libya, warring factions in the former Yugoslavia, genocidal forces in Rwanda and separatist guerrillas in West Bengal, Yemen, Angola and Sri Lanka, to name just a few illicit destinations, according to Western diplomats, U.N. investigations and human rights groups. In another completed deal, 70 tons of Bulgarian-manufactured Kalashnikovs were parachuted to religious militants in India, according to Human Rights Watch and other international monitors. There was even an attempt to sell surface-to-air missiles to a Colombian drug cartel. `Bulgaria has earned a reputation as an anything-goes weapons bazaar where Kalashnikov assault rifles, mortars, antitank mines, ammunition, explosives and other items are available for a price -- no matter who the buyers are or how they might use the deadly wares`, wrote Human Rights Watch in a report on the trade in the 1990s. When called to account, Bulgaria claimed it was duped by forged end-user certificates, the basic documents that validate legitimate sales. Repeatedly, Bulgarian officials argued that if weapons were diverted to a third party once they were beyond Bulgaria's borders, Bulgaria was not responsible. `You can control the first buyer, but then you lose track`, said Ivan Ivanov, the former director of Arsenal, where Kalashnikovs sell for about $120 each wholesale. The putative Togo deal was typical of the sales in those days. The equipment never reached Togo but Bulgarian authorities later turned over to U.N. investigators a list of what was put on board the Air Cess planes. The list included: 20,000 mortar bombs, 6,300 antitank rockets, 1,000 rocket launchers, 790 assault rifles, 500 antitank launchers, 100 antiaircraft missiles and nearly 15 million rounds of ammunition. Bulgaria had received 18 end-user certificates for the arms signed by Col. Assani Tidjani, formerly army chief of staff and later defense minister of Togo. Many were sent by express mail from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, by a man named Victor Bout, the Russian owner of Air Cess, according to the U.N. investigation. Forensic examinations later showed that the Togo end-user certificates supplied by Bout were all forgeries based on a genuine document that Togo, a supporter of the UNITA rebels in Angola, had handed over to one of UNITA`s senior arms procurers, Marcelo Moises Dachala, in 1997. Investigators concluded that UNITA was almost certainly the ultimate recipient of the guns. `The U.N. report scared . . . Bulgaria and they`ve cleaned up their act`, said a senior Western diplomat in Sofia, the capital. `It was always a matter of political will and word going down the line that it had to stop. . . . And we have no intelligence of illegal shipments in the last 18 months.` In April, the Bulgarian government listed 20 countries under U.N. or EU embargoes to which it would not sell arms. But it has still failed to pass promised legislation tightening the processes governing arms exports. Officials here said the country is already using the proposals in the planned law, including lengthy risk assessments of arms delivery to certain countries, stringent review of end-user certificates and verification of delivery. `We`ve taken these measures as a result of this unpleasant case`, said Bojidar Penchev, head of the defense industry department at the Ministry of Economy in Sofia, referring to the Togo incident. Christo Antansov, another official at the ministry, said that in the last year the new administrative checks have led the country to reject 20 arms deals valued at several million dollars in total. But `it`s not over for Bulgaria`, cautioned Lisa Misol, author of the Human Rights Watch report, whose organization is also examining arms sales by the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. `All the changes are administrative changes that are not formalized in law, and can be reversed. It still depends on the goodwill of the authorities`. In depressed Bulgarian cities that depend on the defense industry, there is still intense economic pressure to keep the factories open and the weapons flowing. And there is widespread suspicion that foreign economic interests, not any concern for peace in the Third World, are driving the local defense industry into the ground. Kazanluk, a city of 60,000, was once a boomtown famous for guns and roses, the latter grown in the surrounding agricultural land and sold to international fragrance manufacturers. Today the central Bulgarian city has a 30% unemployment rate, its decaying smokestacks testament to fading industrial glory. The criticism `was a U.S. plot to eliminate Bulgaria from the arms market`, said Matei Karastoyanov, 58, who worked at Arsenal for 31 years making springs for Kalashnikovs. `Now the Americans have taken over what used to be the Bulgarian market niche. The whole policy of the U.S. was to finish off the Bulgarian defense industry in exchange for promises of NATO membership`. U.S. officials deny such charges. Kazanluk Mayor Stephan Dervishev noted bitterly, however, that the United States is the world`s leading arms merchant and in the 1980s sent weapons to rebels in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. `Our Kalashnikovs are the best in the world`, he said, `but now we can only sell where we are allowed to sell`.

Published on July 8, 2001
Find the original article on http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A31704-2001Jul7.html

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