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EU tries to boost ex-Soviet states

Eastern Partnership tries to encourage economic and political reforms without worsening already tense relations with Russia.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso gestures as he gives a speech at a news conference during the Eastern Partnership Summit in Prague, May 7, 2009. (Jakub Hnevkovsky/Reuters)

PRAGUE — Frustrated with the slow pace of political and economic reforms in several former Soviet republics, the European Union has launched a program intended to help these struggling countries develop democratic principles and market economies.

The so-called Eastern Partnership will give Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan an opportunity to gain free-trade benefits typical of EU member-states if they work toward harmonizing their laws with EU standards and developing civil society and rule-of-law infrastructure.

These are the basic prerequisites for EU membership, but the partnership stops short of offering its eastern neighbors tickets to the club. Instead it promises aid as well as the possible easing of visa restrictions.

This is, in part, to avoid provoking Russian concerns of Western expansionism, but also because the EU is suffering enlargement fatigue — having taken in 12 new members, in two rounds of enlargement, since 2004.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday he's hopeful the EU is not trying to usurp Russian influence among its neighbors, according to Reuters.

“We shared our concerns that there are those who may wish to present the invited participants with the choice: either you are with Russia, or you are with the European Union," he said.

Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense at the Center for European Reform in London, said the new initiative was long overdue.

“It's an admission of failure inside the EU,” he said. “For the past 10 years, the EU assumed that the appeal of the EU would motivate countries to adapt to EU standards. But that hasn't worked. If anything they've been backsliding.”

Valasek was one of dozens of representatives from NGOs, as well as policy analysts, gathered here last week for a two-day summit on how to best proceed with the partnership.

So far only 600 million Euros ($800 million) have been allocated for the project through the next four years. The partnership originated as a joint Swedish-Polish initiative, but the Czechs accelerated the plan by making it a priority during their six-month EU presidency, which they will hand over to Sweden on July 1.

Ukraine and Georgia are eager to join Western clubs such as the EU and NATO, but for now they'll make do with what is being offered, said Olga Shumylo, director of the International Center for Policy Studies in Kiev. Russia opposes such Western influence in what it considers its backyard and its foreign policy in recent years has sought to keep the two countries out of the military alliance.