PRAGUE -- The first ex-communist countries to join the European Union are now working to help bring former Soviet republics closer to the EU.
Meeting in Prague on March 5, Foreign Ministry officials from the Visegrad Four approved groundbreaking rules that will allow the new ‘Visegrad Four Eastern Partnership” to begin its work.
The initiative is based on decisions made last June at a Bratislava summit of the Visegrad Four, which comprises Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
It aims to support political and economic reforms in six former Soviet republics that are part of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program. Those countries are Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Belarus.
But Belarus, amid deteriorating relations with Brussels, boycotted the talks, which also included EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele, officials from the Baltic states, and the trade minister of Denmark.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg told RFE/RL that Belarus said it would not attend the meeting because Schwarzenberg had invited only the Belarusian deputy foreign minister, not Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau.
Last week, the EU expanded sanctions against Minsk over its treatment of political prisoners who oppose Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime.
In a joint statement issued in Prague, foreign ministers of the Visegrad Four and the Baltic states registered concern about developments in Belarus, including what they said was a lack of any improvement on human rights and the continuing repression of civil society combined with the absence of any deep democratic and economic reforms.
The foreign ministers also expressed concern about worsening relations between the EU and Belarus.
They stressed substantial change in Belarusian policies could pave the way for the resumption of political dialogue with Belarusian authorities.
They also called on Belarus to release and rehabilitate all political prisoners.
In the absence of a Belarusian delegation, foreign ministers from the EU’s other five Eastern Partnership countries were introduced to the Visegrad Four’s new initiative.
Progress Needed In Ukraine
Ashton and others also expressed concern about Ukraine, where former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year jail sentence on abuse-of-office charges that Western officials say are politically motivated.
Ashton said the EU would not be able to proceed on an Association Agreement solidifying ties with Kyiv if the Ukrainian government does not change its stance on Tymoshenko.
"We have been clear to the government of Ukraine that by the standards that we hold dear, by international standards, Yulia Tymoshenko was not dealt with properly," Ashton said. "And we call upon Ukraine to not only understand that, but if you like, to remedy that using the standards of international justice. And that we would continue to call on them to do. We want this Association Agreement, but we recognize that the political structures which we operate in within Europe will wish to see movement on the issue."
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski echoed the sentiment, saying Ukraine's pursuit of closer EU ties cannot proceed without progress on the Tymoshenko case.
"Poland would like to see the Association Agreement signed, ratified, and implemented. And we agree with Yulia Tymoshenko herself, who would like that to happen, irrespective of what happens to her," Sikorski said. "But as you just heard and what [Catherine Ashton] says reflects the strongly held opinion of some member states, that objectively, it will not happen unless the Tymoshenko case is resolved and the government of Ukraine knows that."
Rules approved on March 5 call for what the Visegrad Four described as “the rapprochement of Eastern European partners toward the EU.”
The program is to include flagship projects and grants to help boost reforms as well as student grants and scholarship programs aimed at accelerating the political associations and economic integration between the Eastern Partnership countries and the European Union.
Bolstering Economic Transition
Funding for grants under the initiative is to come from the International Visegrad Fund, which also continues to disburse grants within its four member countries to bolster economic transition.
There was no immediate word on how much funding would be made available.
The Visegrad Four group says its new program with the EU’s Eastern Partnership countries is to be built up gradually, starting in the areas of democratization, economic transformation, regional cooperation, and support for civil society.
The Czech Republic, which currently holds the presidency of the Visegrad Four, says it is hosting the gathering in Prague because it wants the EU to pay more attention to the program with its eastern neighbors.
Poland, which is next in line to take over the presidency of the group, confirmed that it also intends to maintain the Visegrad Four Eastern Partnership as one of its priorities.
Fuele, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, welcomed the initiative, telling RFE/RL that the transition experiences of the Visegrad Four countries after the collapse of communism can help former Soviet republics carry out policy changes that are more in line with EU laws and goals.