He urged the crowd to “stay the course” on democratic reform and to avoid the ethnic struggles plaguing other Balkan countries.
“I am very proud to be the first American president to visit Bulgaria — a free Bulgaria,” Clinton said. “I am proud to stand in this place where voices were silenced for too long.”
Clinton used the rally in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia as a chance to address the people of Serbia, which he plans to visit Tuesday.
“Tonight I hope the people of Serbia can hear our voices when we say: If you choose as Bulgaria has chosen, you will regain the rightful place in Europe that [Yugoslavian President Slobodan] Milosevic has stolen from you, and America will support you too,” Clinton said.
Fearing possible violence in the wake of protests in Greece last week, U.S. security agents worked with Bulgarian police to close off much of downtown Sofia.
Speaking in Nevski Square, a site of several demonstrations against communism, Clinton thanked Bulgarians for their country’s support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s air war against Milosevic last spring.
“I am told that during the recent war you could actually hear some of the bombs falling on Serbia in this square,” Clinton said. “You stood with NATO. I know it was very hard for you to do. But I ask you to think about what would have happened if we had not stood up.”
Bulgaria’s government allowed NATO planes to fly over its territory during the war in Kosovo. Reuters reported a group of 400 protesters gathered in another part of Sofia before the rally, chanting anti-NATO slogans.
Tuesday’s scheduled stop in Kosovo has been preceded by a wave of negative press.
The Serbian Socialists of Kosovo condemned the visit, saying Clinton is “only coming to this part of Serbia to encourage Albanian separatists and terrorists to continue their violence and terror and to commit new crimes.”
The party of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic also characterized Clinton’s visit as the “arrival of the criminal at the scene of the crime,” a Yugoslav news agency reported.
Clinton is expected to speak at a sports center in the southern town of Urosevac before having Thanksgiving dinner with troops at a Camp Bondsteel, a U.S. military base.