EU proposes deeper ties to 6 ex-Soviet nations

BRUSSELS — Seeking to extend its reach into Russia’s backyard, the European Union on Wednesday proposed deeper ties with six former Soviet nations, even suggesting that it could embrace Belarus, often described as the continent’s last dictatorship.

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Four months after the Caucasus exploded into conflict, and with growing concern over energy supplies from Russia to the EU, nations on the bloc’s eastern flank have emerged as a new priority.

On Wednesday the European Commission sought to tempt them with offers of free trade deals, closer energy ties, easier access to visas and financial assistance programs worth a total of �600 million, or $760 million, over two years.

The proposed new «Eastern Partnership» with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus is the boldest outreach to ex-Communist nations since the EU expanded in 2004 and 2007 to embrace the Baltics and all the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe. Yet it will disappoint Ukraine, a country considerably bigger than France, and much smaller Moldova for holding out no firm prospect of EU membership.

The new group, which is likely to meet in a Prague summit next spring, began life earlier this year because of pressure to counterbalance efforts by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to forge closer links with and between Europe’s southern neighbors.

But the plan assumed greater importance after the fighting in Georgia in August, which underlined the power of a resurgent Russia and highlighted the risk of political instability in the east.

Outlining the proposal, Jos� Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, denied suggestions that the EU was seeking to establish itself as an alternative power center to Moscow.

«The Cold War is over,» said Barroso, «and where there is no Cold War, there should be no spheres of interest.»

Russia has reacted angrily to the expansion of NATO into its «near abroad» but has so far seen the EU as a less threatening prospect. The evolution of a free-trade zone on its doorstep might be beneficial to Moscow, analysts say.

A senior European diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject, said that if the EU did not engage with these countries, there was a growing likelihood that Moscow would.

«If you don’t offer these countries a future, there’s always Russia,» he said.

Nicu Popescu, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the move could force Russia to engage with the EU over the future of the six nations, all once part of the Soviet Union itself.

«The EU has a desire to cooperate with Russia,» Popescu said, «but the problem is that Russia doesn’t want to cooperate with the EU within the neighborhood. Only when the EU acts does Russia take it seriously — what works is forced cooperation.»

But Popescu warned that the announcement has not resolved European divisions over how to handle any policy associated with Russia.

«The big problem for these countries,» he said, «is not a lack of promises but a failure to deliver on those promises.»

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European external relations commissioner, said that, while the Sarkozy plan for the Mediterranean focused on joint infrastructure projects, this plan would bring eastern nations closer to the EU by aligning them with the bloc’s commercial standards.

One unanswered question is the role of Belarus. In October, the European Union lifted temporarily a travel ban on the country’s president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, following the release of political prisoners.

That decision will be reviewed in March next year and, if confirmed, the Belarus president will be invited to a summit next April or May in Prague to launch the new «Eastern Partnership.»

The EU imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and about 40 other Belarussian officials in 1999 after crackdowns on the political opposition. In 2002 he was refused a visa by the Czech government when he wanted to attend a NATO summit meeting there.

At the time, Lukashenko was reported to have threatened retaliation for the snub, saying he would flood Western Europe with illegal immigrants and drugs.

Belarus is not a NATO member, though it cooperates with the alliance through its Partnership for Peace program.

The issue of human rights does not feature prominently in the document published Wednesday on the proposed new partnership. The paper does, however, suggest that minimum standards need to be attained for those countries that want to negotiate an association agreement, which would intensify economic ties. That would be the next step toward EU membership.

For Ukraine, the document has the benefit of differentiating it from other neighbor nations, like Syria, which have no aspiration to join the EU. But it also means that the favored relationship on offer to Kiev will be extended to Azerbaijan and Armenia. Perhaps to compensate, Barroso described Ukraine as being in the «avant-garde» of the Eastern Partnership.

Poland has been a strong advocate of binding Ukraine more closely to European structures. Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a Polish center-right European deputy and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, welcomed the move.

«The recent crisis in the South Caucasus,» he said, «has once again brought to evidence the need for a strong EU presence in its Eastern neighborhood. For the sake of stability on our doorstep, we have decided to move beyond declarations, improve on our up-to-date performance and offer tangible benefits to our closest neighbors.»

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DEL