May 22, 2015 10:30 AM

EU embrace of eastern partners turns lukewarm

The Associated Press

RIGA, Latvia (AP) The European Union reaffirmed its partnership with six post-Soviet nations Friday but offered them no new prospects of future membership in the Western bloc at a summit overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis.

The two-day meeting in Riga underlined that the EU's relations with Russia's neighbors in Eastern Europe are moving on different tracks, with only three of them Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova truly pursuing deeper integration.

Belarus and Armenia are seeking only limited cooperation after joining Russia's Eurasian Economic Union and Azerbaijan showed lukewarm interest in the EU partnership, sending its foreign minister to Riga instead of its president.

EU leaders stressed repeatedly that its eastern outreach wasn't directed against Russia and the 13-page declaration produced at the end of the meeting mentioned Russia only once, though it included a reference to its "illegal annexation" of Crimea.

The declaration recognized the "aspirations and European choice" of the eastern partners but made no mention of the desires of those who want to join the bloc.

"Nobody promised that Eastern Partnership would be an automatic way to membership in the European Union," EU President Donald Tusk said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had emphasized during the summit that the Eastern Partnership was not a tool for EU expansion, but for building closer ties to eastern partners.

The tangible results in Riga included the signing of a 1.8 billion euro ($2 billion) loan agreement meant to help revive Ukraine's ailing economy, which is suffering from structural problems and unrest in the industrial east, and EU grants of 200 million euros ($223 million) over the next decade to support small and medium-sized businesses in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

Also, Ukraine and Georgia were offered the possibility of visa-free travel to the EU next year, providing they implement some required reforms by the end of this year. The bloc has already dropped visa requirements for Moldovans.

"It is also up to Georgia and Ukraine to set the pace to fulfill the necessary steps," Tusk said.

In Moscow, Russian officials made no secret that they see the Eastern Partnership as encroaching on Russia's sphere of influence.

"The problems of modern European order and European security is largely due to the fact that the Western community at some point lost the sense of reality, it lost the ability to perceive what is going on," deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said in comments reported by Russian media.

Russia tried to pull Ukraine away from the West in 2013, triggering street protests that led to the overthrow of the Moscow-friendly government followed by Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

Against that backdrop, the Riga summit was never expected to make any huge leaps forward, but to reaffirm the EU's readiness to keep the program on track.

"It is the prerogative and right of every independent and sovereign state to choose which club it wants to belong to," Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb said, while holding up Western integration as a path to peace, stability and economic prosperity.

"The Eastern Partnership is not against anyone, it's for everyone," Stubb said.


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