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EU Announces 'Eastern Partnership' With Former Soviet Neighbors

External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner (right) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in Brussels
(RFE/RL) -- In a bid to strengthen ties with its former Soviet neighbors, and possibly replace Russia as the dominant player in the region, the European Union has unveiled an ambitious plan to spend 350 million euros on aid to Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova, and Belarus.

The EU proposal calls for increased cooperation with the Eastern European states in four key areas: democracy and the rule of law, the harmonization of economic systems and rules, energy security, and people-to-people contacts, including visa liberalization.

In a statement, the commission said the EU has "a vital interest in seeing better governance and economic development" in Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Belarus, as well as an interest in reducing Russia's influence over them.

Barroso said commission felt an urgency to act after Russia's aggression toward Georgia, which led to a brief but intense war between the two countries in August.

But he said the proposed partnership is "not about drawing a new division of Europe." Rather, he said, the EU wants to support reforms that the ex-Soviet republics are willing and ready to make.

Under the new program, the 27-member EU will draw up new agreements with the six countries as a reward for making democratic and free market reforms.

The 350 million euros ($443 million) in new aid will go toward strengthening state institutions, border control, and assistance for small companies. The EU has now pledged 1.5 billion euros in aid to its eastern neighbors by 2020.

External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said, "the time is ripe to open a new chapter in relations" with the six countries and noted that the new agreement will have a strong multilateral dimension.

"That means platforms where the different countries of this neighborhood partnership can sit together and can learn from each other -- can see what has been the best practice in one country, [and ask] how can we do better?"

Ferrero-Waldner stressed that one of the goals of the new partnership is to create a "free-trade area" among the countries that could lead to a "neighborhood economic community between the region and the European Union. The partnership will be mutually beneficial, she said.

"On energy, it is for their own energy security but it's exactly also for our energy security," Ferrero-Waldner said. "Again, this is a win-win situation. It matches our interests."

All of the countries involved are either rich in oil and gas or are critical transit countries for energy from Russia and other eastern states.

A summit is planned with the leaders of the six countries sometime in the first half of 2009. Belarus, which is ruled by a man many call "Europe's last dictator," President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, must initiate democratic reforms before it can qualify for the EU aid plan.

The plan does not discuss EU membership, which Georgia and Ukraine in particular are keen to achieve. Still, it is likely to irritate Russia, which considers the countries as part of its sphere of influence.

But Barroso told reporters, "there is no Cold War" and said "there not be any spheres of influence."

EU leaders will debate the proposal when they meet in Brussels next week.

with agency reporting

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