When the leader of a small Southeast European country arrives in Washington in the midst of a looming international as well as a political crisis, it can be hard to get much attention - as Bulgaria's president found when he arrived last month. For the most part, however, the current Sofia government provided the right message amid all the attention being paid to Iraq and Monica Lewinsky.

Most Americans are largely unaware of Bulgaria, although avid news watchers and political analysts knew about Bulgaria's unrest in January 1997. Since then, however, much has improved. The fact that CNN has not sent correspondents to Sofia in 1998 is a good sign. President Petar Stoyanov and Prime Minister Ivan Kostov have been making some progress as they try to accelerate reform and take strong steps against corruption and crime in the government and economy.

Still, selling the idea that Bulgaria is an ''island of stability'' in Southeastern Europe will not gain credibility simply because a popular young Bulgarian president, an astute foreign minister and others say it is so. Rather, the country will have to live it. And, 1998 will be a critical year.

Fundamental structural reforms must now follow economic stability - a stability achieved with the help of international financial institutions. This won't be easy, and it will hurt.

In what was once Eastern Europe's and the Balkans' most state-dominated economy, the Kostov government must stop supporting unprofitable factories while accelerating the privatization of those that exhibit enough efficiency to attract buyers.

It does not require much insight to see that many Bulgarians will lose their jobs, and popular disaffection might rumble anew underneath Sofia streets.

That said, the Bulgarian government's best approach to reinforcing stability is to move rapidly ahead, not fall back, toward the goal of creating a market-driven economy.

Overcoming Bulgaria's ''mafia'' in order to control the economy will require broad and firm political support in Bulgaria - but it must be done. Building a truly ''civil military'' that is compatible with most NATO behavioral and operational standards also depends on a multiparty consensus across Bulgaria's political class.

Bulgaria's image depends, too, on ensuring that disputes inside and outside the country do not obscure real accomplishments. While President Stoyanov carries the message to Washington that the nation is intent on avoiding conflict and securing peace, Bulgarians of all political stripes need to come to terms with Macedonia, the thorny topic of language and with a truly European position on national minorities.

All of this effort by Bulgaria also requires a West European and North American political, economic and security investment. Political investments include official visits by heads of state and multiple working visits by Cabinet and Subcabinet officials to cement relations and further relations.

U.S. trade with and investment in Bulgaria are still very minimal, and foreign companies often miss opportunities to develop long-term profitable ventures. This is due in part to the wait-and-see attitude by Americans toward Mr. Kostov's ongoing economic reform.

In the security realm, Bulgaria reappeared on NATO's radar screen only last year after having dropped into oblivion. On this score, a great deal remains to be done merely to ensure mention of Bulgaria as a candidate when a second tranche for NATO expansion is considered by principal U.S. or NATO policymakers in a few years' time.

Bulgaria's plate is full, and time is short. Everything seems to require immediacy. But, in early 1997, no one would have thought that an official presidential visit could come a year later. Bulgaria's achievements are significant. Whether Bulgaria is now, as President Stoyanov declared, an island of stability in a volatile corner of Europe will require an assessment several years hence.

But for the moment, despite very turbulent seas in Washington, Bulgarian leaders have demonstrated their personal abilities and their country's capacity to keep afloat and hold a steady course even when confronted by daunting challenges.

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