PRIME MINISTER BORISSOV: (Via interpreter) Good day to all. As you can see, our guest here today is the Secretary of State John Kerry. At the meeting that we just had, they reassured us of the strategic partnership between Bulgaria and the United States. We discussed the following issues: regional and global challenges of a political nature, the cooperation in the area of defense and the security, energy security and diversification, and rule of law.
The cooperation continues by means of working groups in the following areas: security and defense, energy security, rule of law, and education, and people-to-people relations between Bulgaria and the United States.
Please allow me now to give the floor to the Secretary of State, and then when we get to the Q&A I can also respond with details.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you very much, Prime Minister Borissov. Dober den. I’m happy to be here. And it’s really a pleasure for me to be in Sofia at a – really what is such an eventful and consequential moment for our transatlantic partnership.
These are obviously very challenging times. And Bulgaria lives in a very challenging neighborhood. So I come here today to make sure that every Bulgarian knows that America is deeply committed to Bulgaria’s security, prosperity, and the health and strength of the democratic institutions.
After my meetings today with the president and with the prime minister, I am personally convinced that 2015 can be the year that Bulgaria turns the corner towards greater stability and prosperity. And we, the United States, President Obama, are deeply committed to working with you to strengthen your economy, the rule of law, energy security, and with those things, the sovereignty and the democratic health of this country.
Now, first I want to reassure you that America’s Article V NATO commitment to Bulgaria is rock solid. As allies, the United States and Bulgaria stood shoulder to shoulder for more than a decade in promoting global security, from the Balkans to Afghanistan to Iraq. And we are standing together today.
The task of building a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace is not complete. In order to meet today’s challenges, both near and far, America is committed to a strong and to a sovereign Bulgaria. That is the message that I conveyed, or shared, during my discussions today with President Plevneliev, as well as with Prime Minister Borissov.
We covered a lot of ground, including our security cooperation, energy diversification, the rule of law, and our cultural and people-to-people ties. And I’m pleased to announce that we have created four working groups to deepen and strengthen our strategic partnership in each of those key areas. One area where we have made a great deal of progress is on collective security. The United States and Bulgaria are ramping up our joint exercises. We are implementing NATO’s readiness action plan. And we are partnering with Bulgaria to modernize its military and to make it more interoperable with NATO.
The prime minister and I also discussed practical steps to enhance energy security in Bulgaria and across Europe. I think it’s fair to say we spent a significant amount of the time together talking about that because of its importance. So here in Bulgaria, that means diversifying supplies and distributing and increasing connectivity with neighbors. The United States is committed to assisting Bulgaria in this process, and we discussed very specific steps that we will take in order to follow through on that commitment.
To realize its potential as a strong and modern and prosperous democracy, Bulgaria must also strengthen rule of law and curb corruption. As a younger man, I spent two years as a prosecutor in my home state of Massachusetts before I went to the United States Senate. And there I focused on white collar and organized crime. As a senator, I led investigations into money laundering and international arms and narcotics trafficking. So I can personally testify that no region has a monopoly on the problem of corruption, and no country is exempt from this problem. But we’re all hurt by it.
And here, in Bulgaria, it’s not just about strengthening the democracy of the country; it’s about providing the climate for investment and shielding the country from those who exploit the situation to gain undue influence over your choices as a sovereign nation. That is why the United States fully supports Bulgaria’s plans to reform its judiciary, and we are deepening our partnership to help Bulgarians rein in the problem of corruption and reform the justice sector, improve faith in government through transparency, and combat international organized crime.
As Bulgaria takes these important steps which the president and prime minister are committed to taking, the United States will be your partner. Ultimately, our partnership is strong because of the people-to-people ties. Those are strong. And now is the time to build on that foundation, and we intend to do that. We’re increasing the number of openings for Bulgarian students in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange Program, and creating a summer work and travel alumni council and youth council in order to engage the next generation of Bulgarians.
And I’m especially proud that the United States is partnering with the Bulgarian people to preserve its magnificent cultural heritage, including St. Todor in Boboshevo and St. John’s in Nesebar. And having just visited St. George’s Church here in Sofia, I am reminded of the responsibility that we all have to preserve our connection to the past. Protecting our shared legacy is all the more important at a time when, regrettably, in many parts of the world, ancient treasures are becoming the casualties of continuing warfare and looting and inattention.
So we have a big agenda, the United States and Bulgaria. And it will require both of us to stand together as friends and as partners. If we stay committed, if we match our words with actions, then I’m confident that we can meet the challenges and strengthen the cause of democracy, security, and prosperity here in Bulgaria and across the region. That is our goal. And I look forward to working with our Bulgarian allies in the months and years ahead in order to fulfill these aspirations.
With that, we are prepared, I think, to take some questions, Mr. Prime Minister.
MODERATOR: Please proceed.
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Bulgaria is trying to get on its feet after a very difficult year. Do you envision U.S. investments, and in what sphere? An investment was suggested by Westinghouse. Also, will there be companies in Bulgaria that will be exploring for shale gas, for example?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we discussed this. And without doubt, there are great opportunities for investment in Bulgaria. One of the things – we discussed a number of things. First of all, the importance of diversifying the energy supply – and that is not directed against any country, it’s simply a reality. No country in the world should be totally dependent for its energy supply on one other country.
We need diversified supplies across the world. And the United States is prepared to help Bulgaria, which has made difficult decisions in order to try to protect its energy future. We are committed to try to help attract investment and provide assistance in the laying out of a full plan for the future and long-term strategy for Bulgaria. To that end, we are sending an energy envoy, our envoy, here to Bulgaria to work with your ministry in order to help understand exactly what that energy future can look like. And we are committed to working – the prime minister has asked, and we have agreed, to have the Export-Import Bank engaged in discussions in order to assist in that process, as well as energy experts. And we will work very closely, hand in hand with the prime minister, in order to assist in designing the energy future.
But obviously, there’s much more than that. There is opportunity for all kinds of investment. The key to attracting investment is to have open government transparency, accountability, a justice system that works, that promises people the capacity to resolve problems through rule of law. So the more that the reform process takes hold, the faster there will be an increase of investment and a certainty in the marketplace as to what those opportunities really amount to.
So we’re very hopeful to work closely, hand in hand. We’ve committed to do that, and we look forward to this year being a real year of turning the corner. I know the people of Bulgaria are anxious about what the meaning is in the aftermath of the South Stream decision. We understand that. And that’s why we’re deeply committed to helping your government, which has made difficult decisions, but we think strong decisions, in order to move Bulgaria in the right direction. Now it’s important for Europe, the United States, companies, to help define that and to produce it. And we’re committed to try to do so.
Arshad Mohammed of the Reuters.
PRIME MINISTER BORISSOV: (Via interpreter) But just one more second, so that I can respond to the segment of the question about shale gas. We have, on numerous occasions, declared that there is a moratorium in Bulgaria on the exploration for shale gas up until the moment we get to a point where there is a technology that can 100 percent guarantee environmental protection, because the area where, supposedly, we have reserves of shale gas is the most fertile land that we have. And this position of ours has been very clearly expressed to our partners, and they know.
And in terms of Westinghouse, I just want to add that there is a working group related to that project, and I have asked for support from the United States that Westinghouse be an investor. And so our working group, as we have created it, we will – will also include the American expert from Ex-Im Bank, from the United States, so that we can partner and find the best economic and financial scheme so that we have a scheme that does not contribute to us going beyond the acceptable budget deficit, and that would reflect on our debt. So we’re going to avoid that.
And thirdly, in terms of the interconnector with Greece, we have achieved having European funding for that project, and I had discussions and the support of the European Commission. I also acquainted our partners about our idea, together with the European Commission, about the energy hub that we want to construct at the Turko-Bulgarian border if, of course, that project that we’re hearing about between Turkey and Russia comes to fruition.
SECRETARY KERRY: Before Arshad asks his question, let me just say we support discussions between Westinghouse and the Government of Bulgaria, and we hope very much that the issues that they’re discussing can be quickly resolved and move forward.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, on Bulgaria, and on U.S. support for greater energy diversification here, one, is the U.S. Government prepared to put forward any funding, financing, other kinds of financial guarantees that would actually help the Bulgarian Government realize these projects? And in the interregnum between now and whenever Bulgaria may succeed in decreasing its dependence on Russia for energy, what, if anything, can the United States do to prevent Russian retaliation as Bulgaria tries to wean itself of Russian supplies? And then lastly, on your trip to France, do you hope that by going to Paris you will help make amends for the absence of any senior or top U.S. official at Sunday’s march?
SECRETARY KERRY: With respect to energy, the energy project we were just discussing, the Ex-Im Bank is one mechanism by which financing can be available. But obviously, there is the potential for others. That’s precisely why we have a working group. That’s precisely why we are sending an energy expert here, in order to work with the energy ministry of Bulgaria, to determine what the various options are.
But we’re going to do it with a sense of urgency and a sense of importance to the people of Bulgaria, who really deserve greater certainty, better pricing, a long-term strategy, particularly given the fact that South Stream is not going to happen, as a result. We have already been in touch – I have been in touch personally with High Representative Mogherini, with the EU VP Sefcovic, and we have made specific efforts to urge rapid European and other commitments to try to resolve this energy challenge.
A choice has already been made with respect to LNG offloading from floating capacity in Greece. That will provide some ability to transfer. But we’re very much seized of this issue. It’s important to Bulgaria, it’s important to the region, and I’m confident that there are variations on the financing structure that could be created here. And obviously, that’s going to be developed by people who are more expert than me and spend their life engaged in that kind of financing.
My visit to France is, basically, to share a big hug with Paris and express the affection of the American people for France and for our friends there who have been through a terrible time. And I don’t feel any other exigencies other than a continuation of our friendship and our responsibilities as good friends and the longest ally in our history. And that’s why I’m going.
QUESTION: Russian retaliation?
SECRETARY KERRY: The United States is working hard to try to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine and to find ways to deal with those differences that exist between not just the United States, but a lot of different people and Russia today, because of the choices Russia made with respect to Ukraine. We hope that, in the days to come, the talks which are ongoing both in the Normandy route, as well as in the trilateral route, can provide an implementation of the Minsk agreements, and give everybody an opportunity to get away from the notions of retaliation and zero-sum competition, and begin to work together to move in a better direction.
Now whether or not Russia were to choose, for whatever reason, some other form of retribution, is obviously something to be seen as we go forward. There is evidence already of some Russian engagement through financial support and other things in the politics of Bulgaria. And we think it’s – that’s why I talked a moment ago about respecting the sovereignty of this country, the sovereignty of Bulgaria. And our hope is that Russia will make a different set of choices. But we stand ready, as I said, both through our NATO partnership as well as through the choices that Bulgaria itself has made, to be supportive of Bulgaria in this time of economic and security challenge. And our hope is that Russia will make wise choices in view of the beneficial possibilities to everybody of a stable region and a prosperous region.
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Elena Nazovena (ph), from Bulgarian National Television. Mr. Secretary of State, I would like to ask you – within the framework of the strategic partnership between Bulgaria and the United States, you expressed absolute readiness for investments in Bulgaria in the area of energy and in the area of any political projects. What are your views in relation to the developments in visa processes, and can Bulgaria expect that the visas will be lifted for the United States?
And also, Radio K2, Benovska would like to add on: Mr. Kerry, for the first time in contemporary history in Bulgarian-American relations, you have a meeting with the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, who is serving a second term of office. How does America assess this fact? Does it give you reassurance in terms of Bulgarian-American relations? And do you think that it is necessary for you to continue a cooperation program that is 20 years ahead, in terms of supporting Bulgaria and the economic sector and security, to contribute to the good – the nature of the mutual cooperation? Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: That’s what we call a twofer. (Laughter.) With respect to the travel issue, let me just say that we welcome – look, we think travel between the United States and Bulgaria is a very important event for both of us. And we really believe it strengthens the ties between our countries. It provides enormous economic opportunity. It’s important to any relationship. And we’re going to continue to work with the Bulgarian authorities as we go forward in order to facilitate travel between our countries.
Now, we have a process, a program that we have on our visas. The open visa is a very specific program that has a very specific standard in place. It’s not discretionary. We don’t choose to do it with one country and not with another. There is a very clear standard that has to be met by any country that wants to take the advantage of this open visa program, the Visa Waiver Program, as we call it. And it requires — what it requires is a visitor refusal rate on visa applications of less than 3 percent. And there are – information – we have different agreements about electronic passports and different things that we do. All of these are an important part of our Department of Homeland Security cooperative effort.
But unfortunately, last year Bulgaria’s visitor visa refusal rate was at 15.2 percent. So that’s higher, obviously, than the current legal threshold. And what we need to just do is work together to make sure we’re putting in place processes, people understand the application process, everything works better so that there is a lower refusal rate, at which point we’re absolutely ready to implement the full measure of the law and welcome Bulgaria to the program.
With respect to the second part of the question of the prime minister serving a second term, we are impressed by the program and the aspirations that the prime minister is defining, together with the president and the foreign minister. And we see a team here that is committed to move forward and to try to – and I think the prime minister has made some very difficult, but very important decisions. He understands that it is better for Bulgaria to be able to have diversification of energy supply. And he understands that it is important for Bulgaria to have a clarity to its independence and sovereignty. And we congratulate him on the difficult decisions, obviously, which now require greater input and help from Europe and others to make certain that the Bulgarian people benefit as a consequence, and can see the wisdom of the choices that have been made.
That’s why I’m here today: to talk specifically about how we work together and partner. We have a strong NATO ally in Bulgaria that has helped with Afghanistan, with Iraq, with ISIL, that is working as a security partner on cyber security, on other initiatives. And it is important for us to partner now, at a time when Bulgaria has made these tough choices, to make sure that the benefits will flow to the people of Bulgaria. And that’s what we intend to do.
(Inaudible) I guess Nicole Gaouette of Bloomberg.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for hosting us in your beautiful city.
Mr. Secretary, on Iran: Is it conceivable to reach a nuclear agreement, and when that happens or even in the interim, ease sanctions when Iran is holding American hostages?
And secondly, we understand that Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif will be in Paris on Friday at the same time you are. Do you plan on seeing him?
And just to jump a region, there have been reports of terrible massacres in Nigeria because of – undertaken by Boko Haram. There hasn’t been much coverage of it, and the Nigerian Government hasn’t said much about it. I’m wondering if they have asked you for any kind of help to deal with that situation, and how you account for the silence on the government’s part in the face of numbers that groups like Amnesty International are putting out, as high as 2,000 dead? Thanks.
SECRETARY KERRY: There are several American citizens who are being held by Iran on various bases. And we have continually, in every single meeting, either by Wendy Sherman or myself, or other interlocutors, raised the issue of each of these citizens with the Iranians.
Yesterday in the morning, prior even to learning of the indictment of Jason Rezaian, I had already discussed his case with Foreign Minister Zarif. And suffice it to say that we are very much focused on each of these citizens. We are currently engaged in efforts to follow up on them. And I’m not at liberty to go further, except to say that the United States will never rest when any American is held anywhere – we’re engaged in any number of countries right now where there are hostages – and American citizens who are at risk. And we have very significant efforts underway, sometimes directly, sometimes through backchannels, sometimes through the Swiss protectorate, but we are working this and I guarantee you, working it hard.
With respect to negotiating – the – Paris, indeed we will be in Paris at the same time. Our teams are working now in Geneva, and there is no final decision as to whether or not we will meet in Paris, but it is possible. But nothing has been decided. It may also not happen, in the event that we are still not presented with a reason to have a further discussion, by virtue of the talks that are taking place in Geneva. So it’s an open question. That’s the bottom line.
With respect to Boko Haram, let me make it crystal clear – I don’t know where the silence is. I have spoken out about Boko Haram any number of times. And what they have done with respect to the slaughter recently is a crime against humanity; nothing less. It’s an enormously horrendous slaughter of innocent people. And Boko Haram continues to present a serious threat, not just to Nigeria and the region, but to all of our values, and to all of our sense of responsibility regarding terrorism.
The events in Paris just underscore it. There are different scales, obviously. But Boko Haram is, without question, one of the most evil and threatening terrorist entities on the planet today. And I even discussed this morning with the Foreign Minister of Great Britain Philip Hammond, the possibility of he and I engaging in a special initiative with respect to Nigeria, and with respect to Boko Haram.
I talked to President Goodluck Jonathan just a few days ago about the election. There is an election taking place in a matter of weeks. It is critical, obviously, to get beyond that important demarcation point in order to be able to engage in discussions that are not affected by the consequence of an election itself.
So we are deeply engaged. We are having conversations with the country, with the people. But nobody in the world should doubt the world’s determination, I think, over time, to deal with this, as we are dealing with ISIS, as we are dealing with al-Shabaab, as we deal with the al-Nusrah, and a host of groups that want to challenge the international values and mores which have guided most of the world for so long. And Boko Haram, obviously, stands as a singular example of a threat to that structure.
Thank you. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.