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EU Enhances 'Eastern Partnership' -- But Is There Less Than Meets The Eye?

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has stressed that Europe isn't seeking to undermine Russian influence in the region.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has stressed that Europe isn't seeking to undermine Russian influence in the region.
The European Commission is reaching out to six former Soviet nations, proposing generous financial assistance programs and free trade deals.

The proposal represents the European Union's most ambitious program aimed at former Soviet countries since embracing Baltic and Eastern European states as EU members.

Under the scheme, which was unveiled December 3 in Brussels, the 27-nation bloc will spend an additional 350 million euros on aid to Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova, and Belarus.

This sum would add to the almost 1.2 billion euros already pledged to these countries by 2020 in the framework of the so-called Eastern Partnership.

Katinka Barysch, deputy director of the London-based Center for European Reform, says the proposal demonstrates the EU's mounting commitment toward forging closer ties with ex-Soviet nations.

"It is a significant sum for some of the countries involved that are quite small, and a significant increase from what the European Commission had previously committed," Barysch says. "It shows that the European Union is quite serious about making a difference. It's always easy to talk, but it seems that the European Union is willing to put some money where its mouth is."

Reward For Reforms

The proposal calls for free trade deals, closer energy ties, visa liberalization, and financial assistance programs as a reward for making democratic and free market reforms.

Belarus, however -- which has been branded "Europe's last dictatorship" -- must initiate democratic reforms before it can qualify.

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

The six beneficiary countries have warmly welcome the plan, despite concerns over its implementation.

"Who will spend this money? It's very important," asks Vefa Guluzadeh, a former foreign policy adviser to ex-Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev. "If the money is given to these countries' governments, who knows how it will be spent? There is a high level of corruption in all of these counties. I think it will make sense if this money goes to people who are in need, or to projects that need it."

The scheme, which stops short of offering any firm prospect of EU membership, is also bound to disappoint many in EU hopeful Ukraine and Moldova.

Some officials, like Andriy Veselovsky, Ukraine's ambassador to the EU, nonetheless view the proposal as a step toward eventually joining the European Union.

"This is definitely a step toward Ukraine's membership in the European Union," he told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "Why go through the trouble otherwise?"

Gained New Importance

The Eastern Partnership was launched earlier this year but gained new importance following the August war between Russia and Georgia, which underscored Moscow's increasingly assertive stance and raised the threat of political instability in the region.

The partnership also fits into Europe's drive to secure safe energy supplies -- all of the countries involved are either rich in oil and gas or are critical energy transit routes.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso admitted that the commission had felt an urgency to act after the war in Georgia. But he stressed that Europe wasn't seeking to undermine Russian influence in a region that the Kremlin continues to regard as its own backyard.

The bloc, he said, simply wants to support reforms that the six beneficiaries are willing to undertake. "There is no Cold War," he said on December 3 while outlining the initiative.

The EU plan will no doubt ruffle a few feathers in Moscow.

But Barysch of the Centre for European Reform says the Kremlin is unlikely to pay close attention to the initiative.

"I don't think that Russia is going to be overly upset by what is still essentially quite a bureaucratic process," Barysch says. "The Russians take the [EU] eastward enlargement seriously because they see that it can create new borders within the European landmass. But I don't think they take the European neighborhood policy very seriously."

RFE/RL's Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Azerbaijani services contributed to this report.

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