John Kerry Seeks to Bolster Bulgaria in First Visit

John Kerry Seeks to Bolster Bulgaria in First Visit

File photo of John Kerry

Berlin:  US Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with Bulgarian leaders Thursday seeking to help the cash-strapped former communist country wean itself off Russian energy supplies, battle rampant corruption and improve security.

Kerry arrived in Sofia late Wednesday on his first official visit after a day of talks in Geneva seeking to make progress towards an elusive Iran nuclear deal, and was due to leave for Paris late Thursday.

Kerry is to meet French President Francois Hollande on Friday following last week's attacks at the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly and a Jewish supermarket by Islamist extremists that left 17 people dead.

In NATO and European Union member Bulgaria, Kerry met President Rosen Plevneliev, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov for talks on security, defence cooperation, energy issues and bolstering the rule of law.

"Bulgaria is an ally that is in need of strong support at the moment. The economy has been somewhat sluggish. They have significant energy dependence problems," a senior State Department official told reporters.

Bulgarian authorities said this week a French national, a Muslim convert of Haitian origin, arrested in Bulgaria on January 1 had suspected links with one of the Paris attackers.

Bulgaria, which has a significant Muslim minority, was the scene of an attack in July 2012 that killed five Israeli tourists and their driver.

- Energy issues -

A major part of the talks was energy, with Washington and Brussels keen for Bulgaria to reduce dependence on Russia, a traditional ally with which it has close economic, historical and cultural ties.

The need for diversification became even more pressing after Bulgaria in June froze all work on its section of Russia's South Stream pipeline project under pressure from the EU and the United States.

The pipeline was intended to carry 63 billion cubic metres of Russian gas underneath the Black Sea and through eastern Europe to connect with the main European network -- and bypassing crisis-hit Ukraine.

But with a downturn in Russian relations with the West over Ukraine, Moscow pulled the plug in December.

Sofia relies on Russia for 85 percent of its gas, and its sole nuclear power station is Russian built and runs on Russian fuel.

"It is not a good position for a NATO ally to be (in) -- and to be 85 percent dependent on one country for gas," the US official said, asking not to be named.

"So this is part and parcel of the larger US policy to support energy diversification across NATO and EU space."

Plans to build a spur for Bulgaria to a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) plant in Greece would be part of Kerry's discussions, officials said.

He will also raise delays in a $5 billion project agreed last year with US nuclear engineering giant Westinghouse to build a new reactor at Bulgaria's Kozloduy nuclear power plant.

Kerry will also meet British counterpart Philip Hammond who is on a tour of Bucharest and Sofia.

- Corruption, poverty woes -

Washington is looking for more commitment to fighting corruption from Borisov's government which took office in November, officials said.

It is the third government in two years and is battling to improve the sluggish economy, implement unpopular reforms and get to grips with rampant corruption, cronyism and organised crime.

The average monthly salary in the southeastern European country of 7.4 million people is 400 euros ($500), and seven years after joining the EU every fifth household lives below the poverty line.

Anger at graft and poverty erupted into nationwide protests that saw several people die after setting themselves on fire in 2013. Late last year four people died in a similar manner.

"Corruption is not just a threat to the democratic fabric of a country, it's not just something that undercuts the environment for investment, it also is a wormhole for foreign interference," the US official said.

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