WARSAW -- The Eastern Partnership summit has kicked off in Warsaw amid fears that the six Eastern neighbors are slipping further away from a European Union that has turned its attention elsewhere.
Leaders or officials from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are currently meeting several of their EU counterparts at a two-day gathering in the Polish capital that is expected to yield few concrete results.
One focus will be on Ukraine, with hopes for a clear timeframe to finalize negotiations for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) and association agreement with Kyiv, and for a launch date for similar negotiations with Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova.
Many politicians have raised concerns about the ongoing abuse-of-power trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and how this would affect the trade negotiations, with France recently demanding a suspension.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk met with the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on the sidelines of the summit and told journalists afterward that the possible signing of a DCFTA later this year would be "a coronation of years of hard work."
He also said that he had discussed EU worries about the situation in Ukraine with Yanukovych.
"We are also discussing the situation in Ukraine and I gave the president my opinion and the opinion of my partners in the EU. It concerned relations between government and the opposition and the democratic standards which might have bearing on the integration process with the EU," Tusk said.
"The level of democratic standards and human rights are very high when it comes to countries that aspire to European integration. I am happy that the president understood our fears."
The summit got off to a rocky start with the announcement that Belarusian Foreign Minister Serhiy Martynau would not be attending. Martynau is one of the few senior Minsk officials not subject to an EU travel visa ban, but in an apparent diplomatic snub, Minsk decided at the last moment to send its Warsaw ambassador, Wiktar Gaisenak, instead.
However, Gaisenak will probably not have access to all the sessions at the summit. Maja Kocijancic, the spokesperson for EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, told RFE/RL that the EU regretted Martynau's absence.
"We understand that [Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau] is not coming and we regret this because we believe the summit would be a good opportunity to give our very clear messages directly to Belarusian authorities," Kocijancic said.
"You know these positions very well. We want to see the release and the rehabilitation of all political prisoners. We remain open for critical engagement with Belarus, obviously under the clear understandings of our demand regarding the political prisoners."
Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, who spoke at a pre-summit press conference in Warsaw, described Martynau's decision not to attend as "another step in Belarus's self-isolation." He said Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's relations with Europe will "be like his relations with his people."
EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy met with several Belarusian human rights defenders in Warsaw and sent a clear signal to Minsk afterwards.
"We are concerned about recent reports regarding the health conditions of those still in jail and the pressure exercised on them," Van Rompuy said.
"I will urge the Belarus ambassador tomorrow to take this message back to Minsk and we urge the Belarus authorities to address the situation in the country in line with the European Union's established position. We continue to monitor the situation and stand ready to react as appropriate."
The summit draft declaration also includes strong words on the ongoing persecution of the democratic opposition in Belarus, though it mentions no new measures.
Leaders "express their deep concern at the deteriorating human rights, democracy, and rule of law situation in Belarus and call for the immediate release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners and the start of a political dialogue with the opposition," the document says. "They also call on the Belarusian authorities to fully respect their commitments to freedom of the media."
The summit comes at a time when the political situation in the six countries in many ways looks less stable than two years ago when the Eastern Partnership was launched.
Now, revolutionary changes in the Arab world and the ongoing economic crisis in the eurozone are in the spotlight and enthusiasm for clinching deals with eastern neighbors appears to have subsided somewhat in many member states.
Adding to the sense of flagging interest, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will be absent from the summit, leaving German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the only head of government from a big member state.
French and German diplomats have indicated that the Eastern Partnership program is supposed to work as a substitute for real EU membership, whereas Poland sees it has a step towards a future eastern enlargement.
Speaking to RFE/RL, the Polish EU ambassador, Jan Tombinski, conceded that Warsaw's goal looks hard to achieve at the moment.
"The European Union goes through a difficult period now. We are so much occupied with our domestic issues in the sense of saving the euro, finding new ways in order to trigger growth and to prepare the European Union for better times. Therefore many countries are not willing now to open new possibilities for enlargement," Tombinski said.
The draft summit declaration is a further sign that the EU is currently unwilling to entertain the thought of further expansion -- it omits references to Article 49 of the EU treaty, stipulating that all European countries can become EU member.