EU reaches out cautiously to help stabilise ex-Soviet states
With war and military strife in Georgia, riots in Moldova and political and economic upheaval in Ukraine, the EU’s ‘Eastern Partnership’ talks Thursday are becoming increasingly urgent.Brussels -- European Union nations hold landmark talks Thursday with six former Soviet states aiming to foster stability and dilute Russia's influence without angering Moscow or encouraging their EU ambitions.
War and military strife in Georgia, riots in Moldova and political and economic upheaval in Ukraine underscore the need for action, but some of the wind has been taken out of the sails of the "Eastern Partnership."
Moscow too has lashed the initiative as a European attempt to extend its own "sphere of influence" into Russia's backyard.
The initiative, which will be launched in Prague with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, has been a priority for the Czech Republic, which is EU president until the end of June.
But the Czech government has fallen and will be replaced the day after the summit and Prague has been unable to convince key EU leaders to attend, while the presidents of Belarus and Moldova will also be absent.
Neither French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- who had pushed the Czechs to downgrade an EU employment summit set the same day -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown nor his Spanish counterpart Jose Luis Zapatero are expected.
A senior European Commission official said Sarkozy's absence increases the "danger" of "policy for the East made by countries from the East (of the EU), and a policy for the Mediterranean made by Mediterranean countries."
During France's term at the EU helm last year, the French leader launched with great fanfare a "Mediterranean Union" to bolster ties with countries around the Sea's rim, but that forum has since stalled.
From the outset, the Eastern Partnership was driven by Poland and Sweden amid concern that the EU's political focus had moved to areas where it had little real influence rather than stay on more "European" states.
Russia's war with Georgia last August helped persuade many, including France, of the need to beef up the EU's so-called "neighbourhood" policy with these states who have European aspirations but where Moscow holds sway.
The crisis in Ukraine -- where President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko are rivalling for power -- and the riots in Moldova have only underlined the urgent need for democratic and economic reform.
The EU also wants to reach out to Belarus, rewarding it for recent progress made on improving democracy under President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed the "last dictator in Europe" by the United States.
The involvement of Belarus -- a close partner of Russia on which it depends crucially for gas and oil supplies -- had been under a cloud because of differences over abuses of democratic and human rights standards.
But in the end, after criticising the way invitations to the summit were handled, Lukashenko will no longer attend and is to be represented by Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko.
Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, whose remarks about Romania have caused tensions with Bucharest, will be replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Stratan, whose portfolios include foreign affairs and European integration.
The presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine will attend.
Ahead of the summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed concerns about the EU's ambitions in language similar to that which is often directed at Moscow from Brussels.
"We would very much like to believe what is being said," he said on April 28. "Although I have to say that some of the comments we have heard about this initiative from the European Union do worry us."
"We have listened to the statements from Brussels saying this is not a question of expanding the sphere of influence and that it isn't a process which is directed at Russia. We would very much like to believe this," he added.