Bulgaria's foreign policy environment has been completely transformed since the end of the Cold War. Bulgaria was once the closest ally of the USSR and a member of the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO) and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), all of which dissolved in 1991. Since then, the government has sought to foster improved relations and eventual integration with Western Europe, as well as to act as a stabilizing force in the Balkans. Bulgaria has enhanced political, economic, and security links to Western institutions, such as the Council of Europe, the European Union (EU), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Bulgaria signed onto NATO's Partnership for Peace program in February 1994, and has been an active participant in the initiative. An association treaty with the EU came into force in February 1995.
The dissolution of both the USSR and Yugoslavia presented Bulgaria with some difficulties. The ongoing conflict in Yugoslavia severed trading links with the West. Bulgaria's observance of United Nations (UN) economic sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro cost substantial economic losses, and the Bulgarian government remains concerned about instability in the Balkans. After the Dayton Peace Accords for former Yugoslavia were reached in November 1995, the government swiftly suspended trade sanctions against Serbia and sought to normalize bilateral economic relations. Bulgaria has supported other regional institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Black Sea Economic Conference.
In February 1997, the Kostov government issued a declaration that Bulgaria would seek full NATO membership. Though not among the three countries invited by NATO in July 1997 to begin accession negotiations, the government continued to press for Bulgaria's eventual membership. In mid-July 1997, the European Commission could not recommend Bulgaria for membership in the EU because of the state of its economy, although it did note that Bulgaria was on its way to meeting the political criteria for membership.
The unabashedly pro-Western stance of the government was in evidence as soon as NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia began in late March 1999. Although the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians opposed the conflict (as was the case in neighboring Greece and Macedonia), the Bulgarian government supported NATO's action whole-heartedly and even went to the length of permitting Turkish warplanes to fly over Bulgaria on their way to targets in Yugoslavia. As one headline summed up this policy, the pro-NATO policy was indeed a "brave gamble" for Bulgaria. Not only did nearly all Bulgarians oppose the war, Bulgaria itself suffered from the continuation of hostilities. Errant NATO missiles struck suburban Sofia; the bombing of Yugoslavia cut off Bulgaria from the Danube River, its primary trading route; and expected economic growth declined by over half, from 5% to 2%.
In the final analysis, however, Bulgaria's gamble paid off. NATO's recognition of Bulgarian support for the war effort bodes well for Bulgaria's desire to be included in a subsequent NATO expansion. The United States also extended much needed economic assistance, and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha met with U.S. president George W. Bush in late April 2002 to reiterate Bulgaria's interest in becoming a contributing member of NATO. On 30 April 2002, Norway opened its first embassy ever in Sofia, further evidence of the strengthening of Bulgaria's position in the eyes of its European neighbors.
Like his predecessor Kostov, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha has unequivocally favored Bulgaria's relations with and accession to the EU and NATO. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha acknowledges Kostov's successes and promises to guarantee their continuance. The main foreign policy priority for 2002, garnering an invitation to NATO membership, was realized on 21 November 2002 when Bulgaria was invited to begin accession talks to join NATO, with formal membership to be completed by 2004. Meanwhile, Bulgaria was elected a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council effective 1 January 2002, in recognition of the nation's successful, balanced foreign policy and role as a stabilizing influence in southeast Europe. On 20 January 2003, Bulgaria participated in a meeting of the UN Security Council where the issues of Iraq, North Korea, and NATO enlargement were addressed.