PRAGUE -- European heads of state have gathered in Prague for landmark talks with six eastern countries it hopes to bring closer to the West, despite opposition from Moscow.
A draft summit statement of the new Eastern Partnership says its main goal is to “accelerate political association and further economic integration” between the 27-member European Union and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the summit marked a “new start” in the bloc’s relations with its eastern neighbors.
"This Eastern Partnership is a substantial offer for stepping up our bilateral ties with our eastern partners. It is also an instrument to boost regional cooperation and cohesion. This is a frame work for a long-term relationship and engagement by the European Union based on common interest and shared values," Barroso said.
Moscow opposes the partnership, which it sees an attempt to reduce its influence in what it considers its backyard. On May 6, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned against the creation of “new dividing lines” in Europe.
But Brussels insists the new alliance is not against Russia. European Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Tardio said, “this is not about building spheres of influence.”
EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana echoed that at a postsummit press conference with reporters in Prague.
"This is not against Russia. In fact, as you know very well, probably Russia and maybe Turkey will be cooperating in some of the programs, that eventually will be [put] in place. This is the philosophy in which we are beginning this process," Solana said.
The idea for the partnership came from the Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency.
More than half of the 27 EU governments sent a head of state, but Prague was unable to convince several key leaders to attend. Missing from the talks were Britain’s Gordon Brown, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Spain’s Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy.
The draft statement that was produced reflects some of the tensions within the EU over the future of relations with its eastern neighbors. There is no mention of EU membership for any of the six states, and the section on visa liberalization contains the phrase “long-term goal.”
The Czech Republic had favored dropping the “Eastern” name in front of “European Partnership,” but in the final language, it stayed.
Barroso said the partnership will benefit both the EU bloc as a whole, and individual members on a bilateral basis.
"This is also a political initiative to serve the European Union strategic interests, promoting political and economic stability with the six partner countries to our east," he said.
"This partnership provides our partner countries with clear options for deepening their bilateral relations with the European Union in all areas leading up to association agreements including free trade as well as to more mobility for the citizens," he added.
The new initiative comes after a year of unrest in many eastern European countries. There was last August’s Russian-Georgian war, this spring's riots in Moldova, and continuing political and economic upheaval in Ukraine. In January, energy supplies from Russia that transit Ukraine on their way to Europe were disrupted by disputes that have become all too familiar.
Although a delegation from Belarus attended the summit, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- the man known as “Europe’s last dictator” -- did not.
Nevertheless, about 200 protesters -- many of them Belarusian political emigrants -- gathered in central Prague as the summit opened to voice their opposition to Belarus’ inclusion in the partnership, according to the human rights group Charter 97.
They carried posters that said, “Freedom to Political Prisoners!” “No to Lukashenka in Europe!” and “Freedom to Belarus!”