The European Union yesterday (7 May) launched a plan to foster closer political and economic ties with six former Soviet republics, while attempting to persuade Russia that it is not trying to muscle in on its sphere of influence.
Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, all of which are poor East European and Caspian countries mostly bordering Russia, are suffering from the economic crisis, and the EU is keen to avert political instability in a region that carries all its gas imports from Russia.
The ‘Eastern Partnership’, with funding of 600 million euros ($799 million), will aim to promote democratic reform, economic integration and energy security in the six states.
“This is not anti-Russian,” said Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
“They are our close eastern neighbours and we have a vital interest in their stability and prosperity. This is an offer, not an EU projection of force […] and they are responding.”
Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday he wanted to believe the EU was not trying to build a power base on Russia’s borders.
“We shared our concerns that there are those who may wish to present the invited participants with the choice: either you are with Russia, or with the European Union,” he told a news briefing after talks with Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski.
“We appreciated the explanation Mr Sikorski gave that this was not the plan of the Polish as initiators of the programme.”
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said there was no thought of that. “This is nothing against anybody, in particular it is nothing against Russia,” he said.
Free trade areas
Vondra expressed disappointment that several EU leaders, including Britain’s Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy of France, were not attending.
“I would have hoped all EU states would be committed, because it’s in the wider EU interest,” he told reporters.
The six eastern states are widely different countries with different ambitions on how close they want to get to the EU.
Countries with solid governance can use the partnership programme to negotiate association agreements with the EU, a form of closer cooperation. These could lead to setting up free trade areas with the EU.
One concrete point in the plan is the aim of long-term liberalisation of visa rules for partnership countries. Sikorski told the Polish parliament on Thursday that the effectiveness of the project would become apparent only by 2015-2016, once agreements stemming from it had taken effect. He said more funding would be needed.
Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, said the EU had to act to help the region deal with problems arising from state weakness and Russian pressure.
“The ‘eastern neighborhood’ is, after all, next door, and its troubles are already spilling over into the EU,” he said.
The EU included Belarus – criticised for years for its tough handling of political opposition – in the partnership programme.
However, President Alexander Lukashenko opted to stay away from the summit, which Czech diplomats have said was part of a gentleman’s agreement to avoid irritating some EU countries.
Belarussian opposition representative Alexander Kozulin welcomed this. “That is a moral success,” he told Reuters.
The EU will follow up the meeting with an overlapping energy summit on Friday aimed at opening a “southern corridor” for alternative energy supplies, mainly via the long-planned Nabucco pipeline, which should bring Caspian natural gas to Europe.
(EURACTIV with Reuters.)