BRUSSELS -- Lawmakers from the European Union and further east have inaugurated their interparliamentary assembly in Brussels -- with the noticeable absence of Belarus.
Known as Euronest, the assembly is meant to provide a parliamentary forum to the EU's Eastern Partnership program, aimed at forging closer ties with six East European countries through trade agreements and visa liberalizations.
But its inaugural meeting had been delayed by one year due to the uncertainty surrounding the participation of Belarus.
And on May 3, there were 10 empty "Belarusian seats" as 60 members of the European Parliament gathered with 10 parliamentary deputies each from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Minsk's exclusion is a direct result of its violent crackdown on demonstrators after December's disputed presidential election.
Bulgarian MEP Kristian Vigenin, who was chosen on May 3 as one of Euronest's two co-presidents, told RFE/RL that sent the right message to Belarus.
“My feeling is that these 10 free, empty seats are a bigger encouragement for Belarusians to move towards democracy than to fill those seats with representatives with questionable legitimacy," Vigenin said.
'A Historic Day'
European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, attending the proceedings, called Euronest's opening "a historic day."
He said the Eastern Partnership was not created as an EU counterweight to other countries vying for influence in the eastern part of Europe.
"This partnership is not against anybody, specifically it is not against Turkey or Russia," Buzek said. "We even want to cooperate better within or beyond our Euronest with parliamentarians from Russia and Turkey, because we know that both of them are big, important, strong partners both to the five countries of the Eastern Partnership and the European Union."
Participants have expressed hope that Euronest will raise the Brussels profile of their region and give a boost to the Eastern Partnership program.
Vigenin points out that there is a need for the EU’s eastern neighbors to regain the spotlight amid the ongoing revolutionary events in North Africa.
"The immediate benefit for our partners would be that the eastern neighborhood would be again in the center of attention. In the last months all the attention has been focused on the southern neighborhood," Vigenin says.
"Now with this assembly we will give a strong message that the eastern neighbors are still there. They need our support, they need our encouragement. On the other hand our neighbors show their willingness to cooperate with us and to solve together issues that are of mutual interest.”
Euronest's other co-president, Borys Tarasyuk of Ukraine, told RFE/RL that Euronest will kick-start the Eastern Partnership.
"It is needless to say that the Eastern Partnership is not workable as of now. So somebody has to indicate this and to say to the executive structures of the European Union and of the partner countries what is going wrong, why it is going wrong, what has to be done activate the Eastern Partnership as such," Tarasyuk said.
But decisions taken by Euronest will not be binding, prompting critics to claim that it will be just another political talking shop. The parliamentarians have however insisted that thorny issues such as frozen conflicts, which are present in four out of the five participating partner countries, will be discussed.