EU leaders soothe Russia over new eastern club
EU leaders anointing a new club of ex-Soviet states in Prague on Thursday (7 May) assured Russia that the scheme will not damage its interests.
"This project is not against anybody, whoever thinks it is against somebody is wrong," EU foreign relations chief Javier Solana said at the closing press conference of the Eastern Partnership summit. "We have explained this to the Russian leadership at many levels."
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The current political climate in Europe is not comparable to the Cold War era, Czech Prime Minister and summit host Mirek Topolanek explained.
"I used to live in the Soviet bloc and it wasn't of my own free will. These countries have decided to participate of their own free will, so I see a real difference there."
The Eastern Partnership is a €600 million EU policy to build closer political and trade relations with Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia over several years.
Russia has criticised it on numerous occasions as creating new divisions in Europe.
"There are those who may wish to present the invited participants with the choice: either you are with Russia, or with the European Union," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said one day before the Prague event.
No Russian observers were invited to Thursday's talks.
But during the closed door discussion, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende underlined that under paragraph 12 of the Eastern Partnership declaration "third countries [such as Russia]" can take part in "concrete" Eastern Partnership projects.
Belarus, which together with Armenia and Moldova, has the strongest ties with Moscow out of the group, made the same point.
The country's deputy prime minister, Vladimir Semashko, said his country is a "bridge between east and west" and does not want to sign a political Association Agreement with the EU, let alone aspire to EU accession. He also declined to join in the summit 'family photo' with the other 32 delegates.
EU officials said the tour de table, full of diplomatic pleasantries, did not see any Russia-critical statements. Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili was the only exception, complaining about Russia's military "expansion" into his territory.
The discussions floated the idea of holding the next 27 plus six Eastern Partnership summit in Hungary in Spring 2011, when Budapest has the EU chair.
The Czech Republic's Mr Topolanek appeared annoyed by suggestions that the absence of the French and British leaders on the day undermined the importance of the accord.
"It's really quite offensive to everyone who has participated. It was really quite a high-level team," he said. The Austrian PM could not come because he was ill, Mr Topolanek explained.
The Czech leader, who steps down on Friday after a failed confidence vote, added that the new caretaker prime minister, Jan Fischer, should host the regular EU summit in June, instead of the eurosceptic Czech president Vaclav Klaus.
"I think all the other EU members share this [opinion]," he said.