Belarus and Moldova invited into EU? Europe ponders countering 'resurgent' Russia

At Prague summit today, EU leaders seek stronger ties with eight former Soviet republics.

By Jeffrey White

BERLIN - Amid fears of growing economic and political instability in several former Soviet republics, the European Union (EU) convened a summit meeting in Prague on Thursday aimed at forging a stronger partnership between the 27-member bloc and its eastern neighbors.

The summit's agenda includes launching the EU's Eastern Partnership plan, arguably its biggest outreach effort to Eastern Europe since its 2004 enlargement let in eight formerly communist countries.

The plan targets EU relations with Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

The goal?

To get these countries to adopt political, economic, and social reforms modeled on the EU - and in return, eventually to enjoy a degree of engagement with the bloc, including free trade and visa-free travel.

Brussels has made no secret that this is its latest effort to counterbalance the influence of a resurgent Russia and to commit these countries to looking westward, rather than eastward.

But with Ukraine reeling from the economic crisis, Moldova recovering from violent political unrest last month, and Georgian opposition forces currently clashing in the streets of Tbilisi and calling for the ouster of President Mikheil Saakashvili, the EU's outreach is now being seen more immediately as a policy to bring stability to a volatile region (more news on this here).

"This is the most important crisis area" in terms of proximity to the EU, says Jan Techau, director of European Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

"The EU needs to find some kind of incentive to get these countries closer to the West, for energy reasons and for security reasons," says Mr. Techau. "Because really in the end for these countries, they have to make a choice: Do they want to be part of the Russian sphere or the European sphere?"

Brussels has faced some internal criticism that much of its foreign diplomacy in recent years has focused on regions where it has little real influence, like Africa and the Middle East.

Yet some EU members, notably Germany, have grown increasingly alarmed at what they see as a deteriorating situation much closer to home and have called for more engagement in Eastern Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in Prague for today's summit; French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown opted to send representatives.

Leaders were also expected to address the economic crisis's impact on eastern economies, which is contributing to unrest (in-depth coverage can be found here).

The Eastern Partnership is meant to be the cornerstone policy initiative of the Czech Republic's six-month EU presidency, which ends on June 30. That provides an interesting twist to today's meetings, given that the Czechs themselves are models of a society that has moved clearly from a Soviet tradition to a western one.



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