NATO member Bulgaria, which depends on Russian imports, has been told by visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that the situation in Ukraine is still "far" from calm. He says a long road lies ahead.
Steinmeier sought to reassure Bulgaria on Tuesday that Europe must be patient until the West's standoff with Russia over war-shattered Ukraine is resolved.
Speaking through an interpreter in Sofia, Steinmeier said all sides knew that "we are still very far from a solution" in Ukraine. It also needed help to cope with its "grave economic situation," he added.
Steinmeier (above left), who met with his Bulgarian counterpart Daniel Mitov (right), said he hoped that Europe would maintain its joint course, which includes economic sanctions against Russia.
"None of us underestimates the long road that lies before us," he said, adding that help with reforms was also needed in Bulgaria, where 5,000 German firms are active.
Germany is Bulgaria's most important trading partner, with German direct investment in Bulgaria amounting to 2.3 billion euros ($2.5 billion) over the past 10 years.
Ceasefire deal holding
On Monday, while visiting Romania, Steinmeier had said the February 12 Minsk ceasefire deal - to separate Kyiv forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine - was holding, but with minor violations. More observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were needed, he added.
His remarks in Sofia on Tuesday coincided with a NATO exercise on the Black Sea just across the water from the Russian-annexed Crimea Peninsula.
Taking part in NATO's simulated "rapid reaction" maneuvers were naval units from Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Germany, Canada and Italy and the cruiser USS Vicksburg.
NATO ministers decided in early February to set up emergency command centers in six locations, including Poland and Bulgaria. Bulgaria is dependent on Russia for energy supplies.
Once a close ally of the ex-Soviet Union, Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004. Tucked between Romania and Ukraine is Moldova and its breakaway Russian-speaking enclave of Trans-Dniester.
Visiting Romania's capital Bucharest on Monday, Steinmeier said he hoped Moldova would stay on its pro-European path.
Pro-European Moldovan parties won a parliamentary election last November, but to form a coalition government needed the support of the country's communist party, which favors slower reforms.
Germany favors Schengen entry talks
Steinmeier also said in Bucharest that Germany was open to talks on allowing Romania and Bulgaria into the passport-free Schengen zone.
Romania and Bulgaria have been EU members since 2007 and have sought Schengen status since 2011, so far without success.
Visiting Romania last month, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev said Bulgaria's controls on its segment of the EU's external border were "much better" than in many other EU nations.
Plevneliev also said Romania under its new president Klaus Iohannis had made progress in fighting corruption, and conceded that Bulgaria had to catch up.
Pressure to tackle corruption
Founding EU nations such as the Netherlands and France have urged Romania and Bulgaria to do more to tackle corruption and secure their borders before they can join the Schengen zone.
The area comprises 26 European countries, of which 22 are EU members.
ipj/jr (dpa, AP, AFP, Reuters)