BUCHAREST, Romania – The presidents of Bulgaria and Romania insisted Wednesday that they weren't opposed to Russia, despite both Eastern European countries being members of NATO and the European Union.
The EU recently agreed to extend sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine, following the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula three years ago. And Moscow views NATO with suspicion, after the alliance has beefed up its presence in Eastern Europe.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said "communication lines with Russia should be kept open, so there is a sincere and open dialogue with Russia, which will ease tensions and avoid possible risks." Bulgaria, one of the poorest EU members, is heavily dependent on Russian gas.
"For us... it is important to have various deliveries and energy grids, which will give us greater freedom in making decisions, greater security, and importantly lower prices," Radev said after meeting with Romanian counterpart Klaus Iohannis.
Radev, who was elected Bulgaria's president in November 2016, favors closer relations with Russia, and the Balkan country of 7 million traditionally enjoys good ties with Moscow.
Iohannis said Romania had "no problem" with Bulgaria over its relationship with Russia. Moscow has criticized Romania for hosting a U.S. missile defense site in the southern town of Deveselu. The Romanian president repeated the base was "strictly defensive," adding: "(NATO) has no strategy against Russia."
Russia is unhappy that NATO is moving into countries that were previously under its influence. NATO has staged exercises in the region with thousands of troops in recent months, and the alliance also has bases in Eastern Europe. Romania and Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004.
Radev, on a two-day visit to Romania, discussed NATO, Black Sea security, trade and EU issues with Iohannis. Radev said the neighbors had bilateral trade worth 4 billion euros ($4.48 billion) last year.
Radev praised Romania's anti-corruption fight which has targeted top officials in recent years. He said Bulgaria could borrow "principles" in its anti-graft campaign.
The leaders talked about the presidency of the EU, which Bulgaria takes over on Jan. 1, 2018, and Romania a year later. The neighbors joined the EU in 2007.