RIGA -- Participants at the EU's Eastern Partnership summit have agreed on a final document affirming the bloc's relations with six neighboring countries in spite of sharp differences on key issues among participants that threatened to upstage the event.
Disputes over wording on Russia's annexation of Crimea and the status of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region in the summit's final declaration highlighted divisions among the EU member states and the six countries the bloc has designated as its eastern partners.
European Council President Donald Tusk said at the conclusion of the two-day summit on May 22 that strong emotions surrounding the joint declaration were "very natural" because of the difficult situation in the region.
Disagreement over the wording on Crimea erupted on May 21 when Armenia and Belarus tried to block text that referred to Russia's annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014 as "illegal." Armenia and Belarus have close ties to Moscow and are members of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
That dispute was later resolved in a way that enabled Armenia and Belarus to avoid using the term "illegal." Point 4 of the final declaration states that the "EU" -- not all of the summit participants -- "reaffirms its position against the illegal annexation" of Crimea.
Still, Tusk suggested the meeting displayed unity in a region shaken by Russia's takeover of Crimea and support for separatists in a deadly conflict in eastern Ukraine.
"This message about our continued, consistent, and strong commitment to the Eastern Partnership and each of our partner countries is the main message of this summit, and it's a necessary message in light of the last year's turmoil, aggression, intimidation, and even war in this part of Europe," he said.
The cause of the apparent disagreement over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the focus of a long-standing "frozen conflict" between Azerbaijan and Armenia, was not immediately clear, though Tusk at one point had to telephone Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to smooth things over.
Tusk, in his concluding remarks, downplayed reports Azerbaijan had objected to the wording on Nagorno-Karabakh, saying that he and Aliyev had discussed the need for "new tools" between the EU and the Eastern Partnership.
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Three countries, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, appear to have scored a victory by getting member states to accept wording in the declaration that participants "acknowledge the European aspirations and European choice of the partners concerned."
While the wording is similar to that agreed upon at the previous Eastern Partnership summit, in Vilnius in 2013, it had appeared earlier that some EU member states -- such as Germany and France -- might not be willing to go that far at this meeting.
Tusk said leaders of all six of the eastern partners, including Armenia, Belarus, and Azerbaijan, mentioned the importance of liberalizing visas for travel to the EU's Schengen zone. Among the eastern partners, only Moldova enjoys visa-free travel.
The next eastern summit is likely to take place in Brussels in 2017 though alternative sites in Britain or Malta are possible, as these two countries will hold the EU's six-month rotating presidency that year.
Moldova has also proposed that its capital, Chisinau, host the next summit.