Russian pressure on neighbours strains ties with EU
Moscow's pressure on former Soviet states in eastern Europe -- Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova -- is piling further pressure on already strained EU-Russia ties, European leaders said Friday.
"We have differences, even a long list of differences" with Russia, said European Council president Herman Van Rompuy at the close of a two-day summit.
"Pressure on some of the countries belonging to our Eastern Partnership is adding ... to the list of our differences," he added.
The 28-nation bloc has worked for several years to strengthen political and economic relations with six former Soviet states on its eastern flank in what is known as its Eastern Partnership programme, a project watched with suspicion in Moscow.
Ukraine a month ago suddenly rejected a landmark trade and political deal with the EU due to have been signed at an Eastern Partnership summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, at end November.
A statement agreed by EU heads of state and government at the summit said the bloc "emphasizes the right of all sovereign states to make their own foreign policy decisions without undue external pressure".
Ukraine cited Russian pressure as one of the reasons for its change of heart after Armenia too chose to turn its back on Brussels and look to Moscow.
Van Rompuy said that EU leaders would "speak openly" about the differences at an EU-Russia summit end-January which he said would "be an interesting and challenging summit".
"The future of Ukraine lies with Europe," Van Rompuy said. "One can try to slow it down, to block it, but in the end no one can prevent it.
"Geography and history will always mean a special relationship with Russia, of course we acknowledge that.
"We have made it abundantly clear that the EU's agreements with partner countries in the region are not at Russia's expense. On the contrary, it is also set to benefit from it."
Georgia and Moldova meanwhile initialled partnership agreements with the EU at the Vilnius summit and the bloc's leaders pledged to ward off potential pressure against the two small countries
"We will stand by the side of these countries in their choice and ... we are willing to speed up the signing of the agreements with them, next August at the latest," the EU said.
Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych has turned to Russia for a multi-billion dollar bailout package.
He told the West to stay out of his country's affairs after hundreds of thousands of pro-EU protestors took to the streets over the past month.
EU leaders reiterated that the door remained open for Kiev to sign the pact.
© 2013 AFP