Ex-Soviet Georgia urges EU progress, despite Russian pressure
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has warned European Union leaders against letting Russian aggression in Ukraine undermine the bloc's project of building closer links with ex-Soviet nations.
Speaking ahead of a key Eastern Partnership summit in Riga that starts Thursday, Margvelashvili insisted Russia's opposition should not scare Europe off closer ties with the former Communist states.
"Top EU leaders gave me clear assurances that there is no informal Russian veto on Georgia's free choice to be part of Europe," Margvelashvili told AFP in an interview on Tuesday.
"But unfortunately, Russia -- with the aggression against Ukraine -- has managed to temporarily dent the Eastern Partnership agenda, shifting it towards confrontation," Margvelashvili.
"We, the European leaders, have to overcome this paradigm of confrontation," he said.
The number one question at the two-day summit in the Latvian capital will be how to reconcile the programme -- involving Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine -- with current Russian relations.
Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and alleged backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine showed that it is determined to block its former satellites from shifting towards the West, and thereby maintain its sphere of influence.
Kiev and the West have accused Russia of fuelling a bloody separatist war in eastern Ukraine which defied the Kremlin by signing last year -- along with Georgia and Moldova -- association and free trade accords with the EU.
The signatures marked the culmination of years of negotiations by the ex-Soviet republics to edge closer towards the West, a policy that sparked fury in Moscow.
- Visa demands -
But with slower-than-expected progress on issues such as waiving short-stay Schengen visas for Ukrainian and Georgian citizens, and no formal promise in sight for their eventual EU membership, the three countries' expectations from the upcoming Riga summit risk turning to disappointment.
"If we fail to show progress on issues such as visa liberalisation, it would amount to accepting an absurd logic that making it easier for a Georgian tourist to visit Paris is a threat to Russia," Margvelashvili said.
Earlier in May, the EU said that Ukraine and Georgia had made progress in gaining visa-free access to Europe, which Kiev and Tbilisi hoped would be announced during the Riga summit. But the EU also postponed introduction of the plan to next year for Georgia, and even further for Ukraine.
The Georgian leader said it was a matter of credibility for Europe to avoid giving the perception that the Eastern Partnership is stalling under pressure from Moscow.
"I expect European leaders to assert in Riga, that the Eastern Partnership countries' closer links with the EU are not a threat to Russia. I expect further -- but not final -- steps forward on our path towards the EU membership, including progress on visa liberalisation."
Margvelashvili insisted the 28-nation bloc will benefit economically from embracing Georgia, which -- with its pipelines carrying Caspian oil and gas towards European markets -- "plays an important role in Europe's economic and energy sustainability".
He also said the EU's enlargement to include Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova will strengthen European security.
"As it has become even more evident after the Ukraine crisis, European security is an illusion without the security of the Eastern Partnership countries."
© 2015 AFP