EU, eastern leaders gather in Riga for low-expectations summit (dpa German Press Agency)

Riga (dpa) – EU leaders were gearing up Thursday for a summit in Riga with six eastern partners, but expectations are low amid piecemeal reform progress, violence in Ukraine and tensions with Russia.

EU relations with Moscow are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, with sanctions in place over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its alleged role in supporting pro-Moscow separatists.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned ahead of the two-day summit against further straining relations.

“We don’t see our neighbours’ aspirations to strengthen ties with the EU as a tragedy, but to make those processes develop positively they mustn’t hurt the interests of the Russian Federation,” Lavrov told Russian lawmakers on Wednesday.

Moscow has long expressed concerns that the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme – offering closer ties to the former Soviet nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in return for reforms – could harm its interests. EU officials have repeatedly denied this.

“The Eastern Partnership is not directed against anybody, especially not against Russia,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament on Thursday.

But events in Ukraine – which were triggered when its former president backed out of signing up to closer EU ties in 2013 – have prompted a rethink of the bloc’s policy towards it eastern neighbours.

The EU is now seeking a more tailor-made approach, to encompass the more pro-European ambitions of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, who have no interest in EU membership.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called for the Riga summit to deliver a “concrete assurance” that his country could one day join the EU, saying this would provide a boost to Kiev’s reform agenda, which is bogged down by an economic crisis and the conflict in the east.

“We urgently need a European perspective,” he said in an interview with German daily Die Welt.

Ukraine, along with Georgia, is also looking for promises that its citizens will be granted visa-free travel to the EU next year. But officials in Brussels say Kiev and Tbilisi still need to make more technical progress.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, whose country is hosting the two-day summit, dampened any expectations of progress towards EU membership.

“We have to make clear that this door is open. But to go through it, you have to be well prepared,” Rinkevics told Latvian public television.

The summit, which starts with a dinner on Thursday, will formalize a 1.8-billion-euro (2-billion-dollar) EU loan deal for Ukraine, while the bloc has pledged to help generate 2 billion euros in investments for small businesses in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine over the next 10 years.

Analysts have warned against setting ambitions too low.

“If the summit turns out to be a non-event, with an empty declaration, it risks being perceived as rewarding the bullying policies of Russia,” warned Amanda Paul of the European Policy Centre think tank.

Twenty-five of the EU’s 28 leaders are expected in Riga, along with four of their six eastern counterparts.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev cancelled his attendance one day before the summit, instead sending Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.

Belarus – whose diplomatic relations with the EU have been hampered by its poor political and human rights record – will also be represented by its foreign minister, Vladimir Makei.

Before the summit had even started, differences reportedly emerged between the participants over Russia’s perceived involvement in the Ukraine crisis.

Armenia and Belarus were contemplating not signing the summit declaration, according to EU lawmaker Elmar Brok. The text is thought to contain a passage that condemns Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.