- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

BRUSSELS (AP) - European Union leaders on Friday are expected to promise a hefty program of aid, trade and closer political ties for six ex-Soviet states where Moscow retains a strong influence nearly two decades after they won their independence.

The EU’s “Eastern Partnership” falls short of membership for Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova and Belarus but offers significant economic integration and visa-free travel. Moscow views such attempts at closer integration with suspicion.

The program seeks to tie the neighbors to the EU’s democratic and free market values and reflects the bloc’s concerns that continued Russian influence there creates instability on the bloc’s doorstep.

Last August Russia angered NATO and the EU by invading Georgia and recognizing the independence of two breakaway regions.

In January, relations soured further when Moscow failed to meet gas supply contracts to Western Europe because of a dispute with Ukraine over transit fees.

The program is to help increase the number of routes bringing oil and gas to the EU from areas around the Black Sea that are not under Russian control.

The EU leaders planned to conclude a two-day summit with a statement that does not mention Russia but insists the promotion of “stability, good governance and economic development in (the EU’s) eastern neighborhood is of strategic importance.”

A draft of the statement said the program will bring lasting benefits to the former Soviet republics, which in turn will benefit the EU.

The EU, however, faces a huge task to bring everyone together for the expected formal launch of the program at a May 7 gathering in Prague of the 27 EU leaders and their counterparts from the six countries.

The partnership is open to Belarus but its authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, is close to Moscow and runs a Soviet-style economy. The EU has prevented him from traveling within the bloc but suspended the ban to enable him to come to Prague.

EU officials say the partnership _ and aid _ is only open to six countries if they embrace the rule of law, protection of human rights and market economy rules.

If so, the EU will offer later this year tailor-made free trade, economic assistance, regular security and defense consultations and better energy supply agreements.

The EU has budgeted euro1.4 billion ($1.8 billion) for the program between now and 2013. After the Russian-Georgian war in August and the cutoff of Russian gas through Ukraine euro600 million ($769 million) in funding was added.

The reaction has been lukewarm to date.

At a pre-summit conference, Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister of Poland _ which joined the EU in 2004 _ said the EU must be more generous, adding the recent funding increase came down to only $20 million per eastern neighbor per year.

Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Hryhoriy Nemyrya said, “I am afraid significant resources are required.”

The partnership came about after French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 pushed for a Mediterranean Union linking the EU to Israel and its Arab neighbors.

That was watered down because of objections in Germany and because other countries said it was more crucial to reach out to eastern neighbors.

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