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

Riga (dpa) – EU leaders arrived in Riga on Thursday for a summit with six eastern partners, but expectations were low that their talks would break new ground, amid piecemeal reform progress, violence in Ukraine and tensions with Russia.

Relations between the European Union and Moscow are at their worst since the end of the Cold War, with sanctions in place due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its alleged role in supporting pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine.

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 – could harm Russian interests. EU officials have repeatedly denied this.

“The Eastern Partnership is not directed against anybody, especially not against Russia,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German parliament before travelling to Riga.

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, which have no interest in EU membership.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the possibility of EU membership remains very important for his country.

“It’s a key element for us to keep the European door open,” he said at a pre-summit meeting of conservative leaders in Riga, stressing the willingness to carry out reforms, fight corruption and improve the investment climate in Ukraine.

“We need to demonstrate two things: the unity of the EU and the solidarity with Ukraine. I think both things – unity and solidarity – today we received this,” he added.

The leaders are expected to “acknowledge the European aspirations and European choice of the partners concerned,” according to a draft of their joint statement, seen by dpa.

But Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, whose country is hosting the two-day talks, 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.

Ukraine, along with Georgia, is also looking for promises that its citizens will be granted visa-free travel to the EU next year.

EU Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn said Kiev and Tbilisi still need to meet a “few outstanding conditions,” adding that this could be achieved by the end of the year. The ultimate decision would then have to be taken by member states, he added.

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 during 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.