EU leaders meet with eastern partners in shadow of Ukraine crisis (dpa German Press Agency)

EU leaders are meeting in Riga this week with six eastern partners, but the talks are likely to be overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine and the role of Russia after their last summit, in 2013, precipitated the region’s worst security crisis since the end the Cold War.

Brussels (dpa) – EU leaders are set to meet with their counterparts from six eastern countries in Riga this week, amid concern that the meeting could further inflame tensions with Russia.

Their last meeting, held in Vilnius in 2013, triggered the current crisis in Ukraine, after the country’s former president Viktor Yanukovych backed out of a deal on closer ties with the European Union.

Months later, violent protests forced Yanukovych out of office. Tensions flared up in the east of the country, where a pro-Russian insurgency took hold. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, leading to widespread condemnation and Western sanctions as relations soured.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the EU during a trip to Brussels against steps that could harm Russian interests, adding that the bloc’s relations with its eastern neighbours must not have negative consequences for Moscow.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership programme aims to encourage six former Soviet states – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – to undertake reforms, in return for closer relations and economic benefits.

Brussels insists its policy is not aimed at creating dividing lines in Europe, but Moscow has expressed strong misgivings, arguing that closer economic ties between the EU and its main trading partners could harm Russia.

Since the 2013 summit, Kiev’s new leadership has signed up to closer political and economic relations with the EU, as have Georgia and Moldova.

But Belarus and Azerbaijan have shown little interest in following that path, while Armenia has joined the Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union.

Brussels is keen to remain engaged with all six countries, a senior EU official said on condition of anonymity, but the Ukraine crisis has prompted a rethink to “avoid entering into a similar situation again,” he added.

“The key word is differentiation,” he noted. As an example, he said Armenia is now on track to negotiate an “ambitious” new framework agreement with the EU, despite having joined Russia’s economic bloc.

But some analysts accuse Brussels of failing to act more ambitiously.

“As long as the Ukraine crisis continues, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel is unwilling to take any bold risks with Eastern Europe,” wrote Judy Dempsey of the Carnegie Europe think-tank.

Merkel, along with French President Francois Hollande, has taken a lead role in Europe’s efforts to resolve the conflict.

“Governments’ prevailing outlook is one of inertia and geostrategic caution,” added fellow Carnegie analysts Thomas de Waal and Richard Youngs.

Few concrete outcomes are likely from the two-day talks that begin in the Latvian capital on Thursday, at which 25 of the EU’s 28 leaders are expected as well as the presidents or prime ministers of all Eastern Partnership countries.

Ukraine is due to sign a previously agreed 1.8-billion-euro (2.1-billion-dollar) EU loan deal, while the European Commission will offer funding for small and medium-sized companies in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Events on the sidelines of the Riga summit include civil society and business conferences, as well as media talks addressing press freedom and challenges posed by Russian propaganda.

Although lacking “drama,” the Riga summit will show that the Eastern Partnership policy “works, despite all the negative circumstances,” the EU official stressed.

But Ukraine and Georgia are likely to be disappointed at not being offered visa-free travel to the EU in Riga, argued Ian Bond of the Centre for European Reform. EU officials say this hinges not on political decisions, but on meeting technical requirements.

Belarus also deserves “a little more love from Brussels,” Bond argued, pointing out that it has a better human rights record than Azerbaijan.

The EU has been critical of Belarus’ record on issues including political prisoners, but there are signs that the role of Minsk in brokering a ceasefire deal for eastern Ukraine could bring a thaw in relations.

The talks in Riga could end up being overshadowed by another European crisis. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is expected to meet with Merkel and other eurozone leaders on the sidelines in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough in bailout negotiations.

But talks in Riga “cannot be a substitute” for formal talks between Athens and its creditors, a commission spokesman warned.