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Stanislava Mladenova

Standing in line: what NATO means to me

NATO brings together people from differing cultures and backgrounds on both sides of the Atlantic. Here, a NATO staff member explains how her life, which unfolded in both Europe and the US, coloured her vision of NATO.

On 9/11 I was standing in line outside my university dorm in New York waiting to donate blood for recovered victims. I was confused by the chaos of cancelled trains, and shut down highways. In the hours that followed, my roommates and I were glued to the television. We sat motionless, watching every angle of the towers being struck by two airplanes. It was on every channel, every network. And in the midst of this, I questioned what this meant to me as a European in America.

Vidin, Bulgaria

Back in Bulgaria, where I grew up, my sister and I had used to stand in line on Saturday mornings to buy the loaf of bread allowance for our family. And then in the summer of 1990 I stood in line with my mother when she was waiting to cast her vote in the first free election held in Bulgaria after 45 years.

Several years later I travelled to America. A school exchange for one year turned into 14. In my new country, I followed Bulgaria's every move – how it dealt with 200% inflation, trying to shrug off the difficulty of transition, and standing in line to become a NATO partner and member and EU hopeful.

A school exchange for one year turned into 14 – in my new country, I followed Bulgaria’s every move

© Reuters

And that brings me to what NATO has meant to both of my countries - and to me in trying to link them. After 9/11, as a fourth year political science student and a European American, I found myself questioning how America's "war on terror" became everyone else's. Why, as a world economic and defence superpower, couldn't America simply solve terrorism so the rest of the world wouldn't have to? But we – and the world – learned more about the genesis of terrorism, realising it was not a threat confined to a geographic location. And with that, Europe was no less vulnerable to the threats that had struck America.

A flag-raising ceremony to celebrate the accession of Bulgaria to NATO.

NATO HQ, 2 April 2004. © NATO

The post-1989 years were filled with change and uncertainty - different to today's threats. But unlike previous generations, I felt fortunate to live in a time knowing that my government would not question me because I voiced my criticism against it. I felt fortunate to come from a place whose resilience brought it from NATO partner to aspiring member, leading Bulgaria to take an in-depth look at its political and military structures, and forging strategic bonds in the region.

As an Eastern European, I live with the resonance of a communist era, when NATO symbolised an aggressor against the sovereignty of nations which did not fit the Western model. As someone who has spent nearly half her life in America, NATO represented the shield against regimes whose power was as unpredictable as their end was unforeseen.

So from my two lives, I see NATO uniting two nations whose relationship goes beyond small and large players, wealthy or developing, or East or West. Two nations so different historically, but so clear in their present and future conviction – standing in line together, to ensure each other’s security.

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the Author

Stanislava Mladenova is a member of NATO’s international staff at its Brussels headquarters. She writes here in a purely personal capacity.

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