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EU: New 'Eastern' Division Of Labor Lays Groundwork For Partnership Deal With Russia

(RFE/RL) EU foreign ministers hope to soon launch long-delayed talks with Russia on a strategic partnership treaty, which has been held up by Lithuania and Poland.

After blocking negotiations between Russia and the European Union on a strategic partnership deal, Lithuania appears now to be in a more conciliatory mood.

On May 21, Lithuania's ambassador to Brussels told his EU colleagues that Vilnius will lift its veto of such discussions. The move came after Vilnius accepted assurances that the list of demands it presented earlier this month would receive due attention in the course of the EU-Russia talks.

Vilnius wants Russia to acknowledge a 1991 massacre of Lithuanian border guards by Soviet forces and to produce results in the disappearance of Lithuanian businessmen in Russia in recent years.

Vilnius, Warsaw Vetos

Lithuania had initially made the lifting of its veto conditional on accession to its demands, but was brought back into the EU fold after intense mediation by Poland and Sweden.

Vilnius's objections to talks on a new EU-Russia strategic-partnership deal had raised hackles among EU member states eager to revive their relations with Moscow.

The EU had only recently been freed to start the talks with Russia, after Poland retracted the veto it imposed after a 1 1/2-year tug-of-war with Moscow over meat exports.

Meanwhile, the EU-Russia relationship has been idling, relying on a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement originally scheduled to lapse in 2007, but since extended on a yearly basis.

The plan now is for Lithuania's concerns to be addressed in a declaration the EU's foreign ministers are expected to approve on May 26 in agreeing to open the talks with Russia.

Lithuanian Grievances

Vilnius wants Russia to acknowledge a 1991 massacre of Lithuanian border guards by Soviet special forces; to produce results in investigating the disappearance of several Lithuanian businessmen on Russian territory in recent years; and to resume the supply of oil to Lithuania's Mazheikiu oil refinery, which was halted in July 2006 for what Moscow said was necessary maintenance work on a pipeline. Finally, Vilnius wants Russia to reverse steps to build closer links with Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Officials in Brussels say all these demands have now been consigned to a separate declaration, which will say they will be addressed in the course of the EU-Russia talks.

This wording is said to make it clear that the outcome of the talks will in no way depend on progress -- or absence thereof -- in addressing Lithuania's concerns. What's more, all references made in the declaration to Lithuania's concerns will be highly oblique. Thus, Georgia will not be named directly; instead the declaration will refer to attempts to resolve frozen conflicts.

The disappearances of businessmen will be covered by a reference to cooperation in the field of law enforcement. Oil supplies to Mazheikiu will be addressed under the general heading of seeking agreement on the broad principles set out in the EU's Energy Charter -- signed, but not ratified, by Moscow.

As a result, Lithuania has backed down while also saving face and having its concerns addressed. But Vilnius has also served warning it is ready to resort to a veto to defend its interests.

Loss Of Support

Vilnius's late foray enjoyed relatively little open support -- even among the EU's new member states -- although most sympathize with the substance of the Lithuanian complaints.

The absence of Polish backing appears partly explained by reports that together with Sweden, Warsaw will on May 26 ask the EU to back plans for closer ties with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

The initiative appears crafted to counterbalance recent moves by France to set up a "Mediterranean Union." Both initiatives would operate under the broad umbrella of the EU's European Neighborhood Policy.

The initiative also signals a trade-off between old and new member states involving relations with Russia.

France and Germany -- traditionally backing closer ties with Russia -- are reported to be supportive of the Swedish-Polish plans. Significantly, the Swedish and Polish foreign ministers on May 12 negotiated an initial compromise with Lithuania in Vilnius on the planned EU-Russia talks.

The two ministers, joined by their Lithuanian and Slovenian colleagues, then proceeded to travel to Georgia in a bid to defuse the country's rising tensions with Russia.

Thus, an understanding seems to be evolving within the EU, giving the eastern member states a greater say in running the bloc's "Ostpolitik" in exchange for self-restraint on big-ticket issues such as relations with Russia.

The new "eastern partnership" initiative is unlikely to bring much substantive change to the EU's relationship with its eastern neighbors. Russia will remain outside its purview. The largest, Ukraine, routinely rejects being treated as a neighbor instead of a prospective member.

There will be no new standing institutions, the best the neighbors can expect is a better focus for support for their aims within the EU. The new initiative also fails a crucial EU commitment test by not bringing with it any new funds.

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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