Absent leaders deflate EU's 'eastern' summit
Georgia's president came to Prague on Thursday (7 May) despite unrest at home, but many Western leaders stayed away in a sign that the EU's "Eastern Partnership" project matters more to ex-Communist states.
Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili arrived in the Czech capital to talk about deeper EU relations amid ongoing street protests in Tbilisi, a failed army coup, massing Russian troops and controversial NATO war games.
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Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was too busy receiving a report on equal rights, Italy's Mr Berlusconi was dealing with his divorce and Spain was embroiled in talks on unemployment. The UK gave no reason for not attending.
The leaders of Austria, Portugal, Luxembourg, Malta and Cyprus also had other things to do.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the only big Western player to personally back the event. "[Germany] has interests in the east as well as in the west," she told press on her way into the summit venue.
The Dutch prime minister and Nordic leaders also turned out.
"It is important not to leave these countries to stand alone," the Netherlands' Mr Balkenende said, referring to the six ex-Soviet states - Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan - covered by the new EU policy.
"We have a serious economic crisis and we all face problems at home so it can be hard to find the time [to come]," Finnish leader Matti Vanhanen told EUobserver, by way of excusing his colleagues.
"I hope it's nothing political," Lithuania's foreign minister Vygaudas Usackas said on Mr Sarkozy's absence.
Lithuania was the only ex-Communist EU state not to send its top man. The president had to meet the king of Spain and the premier had to defend his budget in parliament, Mr Usackas explained.
"It's awkward, but it is in no way significant in terms of our support for the Eastern Partnership."
On the non-EU side, potential show-stealer, Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, as well as Moldova's hard man, President Vladimir Voronin, also sent deputies - but for different reasons.
"Lukashenko made a clever choice. Europe is not ready to embrace him," one EU minister said.
The Prague summit venue saw small-scale protests by Belarusians and Moldovans, with the latter angry over a police crackdown last month that left three people dead.
The host, Czech Prime Minister Topolanek, at one point strolled over to the barrier to say the Eastern Partnership "does not legitimise" the Belarusian regime, with the placard-holders dissolving into the spring sunshine shortly afterward.
The summit declaration, to be signed by the mixed bunch of 33 envoys, pledges allegiance to democratic values and foresees economic integration, but gives nothing in terms of enlargement promises and little on relaxing the EU visa regime.
"If you speak about 'European countries' you speak about a European future [accession]," the Netherlands' Mr Balkenende said, explaining why the declaration text calls the six states "partner countries," instead of acknowledging their European identity.
The summit fringe saw two interesting bilateral meetings.
The Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders held rare talks on the still-simmering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict - one of the goals of the Eastern Partnership is to build better relations among the group of six countries.
Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko also spoke with EU foreign affairs commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner on creating "a joint project on the development of Crimea."
Crimea, where Russia is busy handing out passports to the majority ethnic-Russian population, is seen as a potential conflict hotspot by Germany, Poland and Mr Yushchenko's clan.