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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.

“We're not happy membership is not part of the partnership but we'll take what we can get, to get as close to the EU as we can,” Shumylo said.

For some of the countries, EU membership wouldn't be an option, even if Brussels were open to the idea, given the internal opposition to democratization. Of the six partnership countries, Belarus is arguably the most politically regressive — President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled virtually unchallenged since 1994. (Ironically, however, of the six countries, Belarus has by far the highest per capita income at more than $12,000 per year.)

Dissidents like Vitali Silitski, who have been forced into exile for criticizing the regime in Minsk, warned that Lukashenko will want to reap the economic rewards of the partnership without investing in democratic reforms.

“We are interested in the human contact,” Silitski said. “The government is interested in [developing] infrastructure.”

The need for more contact across borders was a recurring theme among the delegates, with many agitating for relaxed visa regimes. While many advocated eliminating visa requirements altogether for entering the EU, Milos Lexa, the Czech's representative for the partnership program, said that was unrealistic.

“Visa liberalization is a better term,” he said. “There should be visas from one year, up to five years. Currently some visas are only two weeks, which is ridiculous.”

He added that the global economic downturn had taken its toll on the number of visas being issued. He said Poland granted 585,000 work visas to Ukrainians in 2007, but that the number had plunged 40 percent last year, to 350,000. In Hungary, the decline was nearly 50 percent, to 90,000 from 173,000 last year.

Yet even in countries where the governments are inclined toward Western integration, chronic economic poverty, rampant corruption and political dysfunction present significant hurdles.

Nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many say they're hopeful the partnership will succeed in developing their respective economies and civil society. But as one conference participant quipped, “The best solution would be to hand over the government to Brussels.”

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