Riga (dpa) – EU leaders met in Riga on Thursday with six eastern partners for a summit aimed at furthering relations and encouraging the former Soviet states to reform, while delivering the message that Russia should not meddle in the affairs of its neighbours.
Relations between the European Union and Moscow are at their worst 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 in Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said as she arrived for the talks that Russia differs “quite clearly” from the EU, adding, “We accept that the different members of the Eastern Partnership go very different paths.”
The most important message out of Riga is that the partner countries have “the freedom to make their own decisions about their future,” added British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.
“If Russia was a bit softer, more charming, more attractive, perhaps it wouldn’t have to compensate its shortcomings by destructive, aggressive and bullying tactics against its neighbours,” said EU President Donald Tusk.
“The Eastern Partnership is not a beauty contest between Russia and the European Union. But let me be frank: beauty does count,” he added.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned ahead of the two-day summit against taking decisions that “hurt the interests” of Russia, while adding, “We don’t see our neighbours’ aspirations to strengthen ties with the EU as a tragedy.”
Moscow has long expressed concerns that the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme – comprising Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – could harm Russian interests. EU officials have repeatedly denied this.
“Let me reply to those who claim that the Eastern Partnership is directed against Russia: It is not,” Tusk said 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, which have no interest in EU membership.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he was happy to see the bloc “demonstrate unity and solidarity” on Thursday.
He said there was now “full evidence” that regular Russian troops are active in eastern Ukraine, referring to confirmation by international observers that a soldier being treated in Ukraine is a “real soldier of the Russian troops.”
Poroshenko stressed that possible EU membership remains an important goal, for which Ukraine is willing to carry out reforms, fight corruption and improve the country’s investment climate.
“It’s a key element for us to keep the European door open,” he said at a pre-summit meeting of conservative leaders.
The summit declaration will acknowledge “the European aspirations and European choice of the partners concerned,” according to a draft seen by dpa.
But Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, whose country is hosting the 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.
According to the draft, Ukraine – along with Georgia – will not receive a sought-after promise of visa-free travel for citizens visiting the EU from 2016.
EU Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn said Kiev and Tbilisi still need to meet a “few outstanding conditions.” Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili expressed hope of completing the “technical procedures” by the end of the year.
The summit, which started with a dinner on Thursday, will formalize a 1.8-billion-euro (2-billion-dollar) EU loan deal for Ukraine. The bloc has also pledged to help generate 2 billion euros in investments for small businesses in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine during the next 10 years.
Twenty-five of the EU’s 28 leaders were 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 – was also represented by its foreign minister, Vladimir Makey.