EU, ex-Soviet states push ties in face of ‘hostile’ Russia

Brussels - Leaders from the EU and six former Soviet states have gathered in Brussels to discuss deepening ties, with worries about Russian influence looming and thorny subjects like the war in Ukraine off the official agenda.

The set-piece will focus on 20 "deliverables" -- plans to help Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus tackle corruption, improve the rule of law and modernise their economies.

Brussels insists its so-called Eastern Partnership with the six states is "not aimed at any country", but the likes of Moldova and Ukraine have urged the European Union to send a welcoming signal to their people to counter the siren call of Moscow.

Concerns are running high in Europe over the Kremlin's use of cyber tactics and misinformation to cause political destabilisation around the continent and draw former Soviet states into its embrace.

As she arrived for the summit British Prime Minister Theresa May warned that Europe needed to be on guard against "the actions of hostile states like Russia which... attempt to tear our collective strength apart".


- 'Guiding star' to Europe? -


And German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU's partnership with the six states was "very important for our own security", without mentioning Russia specifically.

Moscow regards the countries as part of its sphere of influence and has opposed them getting closer to the EU.

Ukraine has pushed for a clear pledge from the 28-member bloc that one day it will be allowed to join, with President Petro Poroshenko warning that closing the door to membership would validate the Kremlin's claims to "special interests" in the region.

And Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip, whose pro-EU government faces an election next year, said his people wanted Brussels to show them a "guiding star".

Moldova and Ukraine argue that without a clear signal that they could at least in principle one day join the EU, their populations could turn their back on Europe and go the way of Belarus -- which lies firmly in Russia's orbit.



But there is no appetite in the EU for eastward expansion, particularly after Dutch voters rejected the first attempt at an association accord with Ukraine in an April 2016 referendum.

"This is not an enlargement or accession summit," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said as he arrived.

Lithuania's outspoken President Dalia Grybauskaite warned Ukraine had "a long way to go" before it could be ready to join.

The war in Ukraine -- whose roots lie in Moscow's opposition to Kiev signing an association agreement with the EU -- and a billion-dollar corruption scandal in Moldova has cooled some of the enthusiasm Brussels had in the early days of the Eastern Partnership.

A joint declaration to be made at the summit goes no further than acknowledging the "European aspirations and European choice" of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, according to a draft seen by AFP.


- Don't mention the war -


The EU hopes that by focusing on concrete measures that will improve people's lives in the partner countries -- such as small business loans and reducing mobile phone roaming charges and energy costs -- it will improve its popularity and see off the lure from Moscow.

The summit is also set to shy away from discussion of any of the separatist conflicts currently rumbling on with varying degrees of intensity in the six partner states.

Unlike the declaration after the last summit in 2015, this time there will be no specific mention of the war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists, which has killed more than 10,000 people.

However, Merkel said she would speak to Poroshenko about the conflict "to see if we can perhaps make some small progress".


Map of eastern Ukraine locating the Russian-back insurgent regions of Lugansk and Donetsk


Nor does the draft statement refer to the bitter row between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh, which almost flared into a full-scale war last year.

Instead it simply calls for "renewed efforts to promote the peaceful settlement of conflicts in the region" -- a sharp contrast to the strong language in 2015, which criticised Russia's annexation of Crimea outright.

By Damon Wake