The European Union has announced that it is beginning talks to strengthen ties with Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia that will eventually result in formal association agreements.
Those agreements will provide a framework for deepened cooperation between Brussels and the three ex-Soviet states on a range of political and economic issues, including the possibilities of visa-free travel and free-trade regimes.
EU High Representative Catherine Ashton made the announcement of talks with Georgia today in the Black Sea city of Batumi.
"I strongly believe that by strengthening the relationship between Georgia and the European Union we can contribute to Georgia's democratic development, its long-term stability, [and] prosperity," she said alongside Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
"It's good for you and it's good for us. Stability and prosperity here enhances stability and prosperity in the European Union," she added.
Ashton's office said in a statement that talks on association agreements -- which usually take from one to four years -- will also be launched with Azerbaijan and Armenia when the high representative visits Baku on July 16 and Yerevan on July 19.
Association talks are already under way with Ukraine and Moldova.
Assurances To Georgia
Saakashvili hailed the launch of talks as a key step in the country's efforts to forge closer ties with the West.
"Georgia is Europe, Georgia is coming back to Europe," he said. "The goal of our reforms is to create the first European state in the Caucasus."
Some in Georgia have feared Western abandonment amid pushes by both the United States and the EU to strengthen ties with arch-rival Russia.
But those fears have been substantially assuaged in recent weeks, as Saakashvili hosted a number of top Western officials, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on July 5. Today, ahead of his meeting with Ashton, the Georgian president met with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
Like Clinton, Kouchner expressed support for Georgia's territorial integrity, which has been challenged by Russia's recognition of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
He affirmed said that Russia would not interfere with Georgia’s goal of an expanded relationship with the EU.
"We will always help Georgia in its talks with the EU to become an associate member," Kouchner said. "Russia does not decide who should become an EU member."
The talks are expected to give a boost to Saakashvili, who is seeking to rebuild his reputation as an effective, democratic reformer after the country’s disastrous 2008 war with Russia and a 2007 crackdown on antigovernment demonstrators in Tbilisi.
The announcement of talks will also be read as sign of renewed EU commitment to the region as a whole.
Many had feared that the expansion-wary bloc was losing interest in the South Caucasus after reports in late May of a plan to scrap the post of EU special representative to the region.
compiled from agency reports