BRUSSELS -- European Council President Donald Tusk says that former Soviet republics such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have the right to aspire to EU membership but that he will not deliver an “empty promise” about the prospects of such integration.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL ahead of the EU's Eastern Partnership Summit on May 21-22, Tusk said the partnership program was never a guarantee of EU membership, even in the future, but that Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau “have their right to have a dream, also the European dream.”
In the run-up to the Riga summit, the three countries have accused the EU of failing to provide them with clear signals about their potential inclusion into the 28-member bloc.
Several EU governments are reluctant to acknowledge the aspirations of some Eastern Partnership member countries to join the EU in the final declaration of the Riga meeting.
During his tenure as Poland’s prime minister, Tusk championed the Eastern Partnership program, which encompasses the EU's eastern neighbors: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
He says his role as European Council president is to manage these countries’ expectations in the coming years.
"Our duty -- I feel it is also my personal responsibility -- is to deliver not the empty promise that it is possible tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, but the way to Europe," he told RFE/RL on May 19. "I mean not membership in a predictable future, but to European standards, to our cultural and political community."
Tusk expressed hope that both Ukrainian and Georgian citizens would enjoy visa-free travel to the EU's passport free Schengen zone as early as next year.
"Everything depends on their efforts and determination," he said. "Of course it is possible, but it is not a formal promise. We are in the middle of the process. But the progress in both countries, in Georgia and Ukraine, is really promising."
He added that the EU's next assessment of visa-free travel for Ukrainians and Georgians could be conducted in November, and that "if the progress is as promising as it is today, I think that 2016 is quite possible."
Georgia and Ukraine had hoped to be granted visa-free travel at the Riga summit, but the EU Commission issued a report last week stressing that both countries must do more to implement legislation in areas like combatting corruption and human trafficking before they could qualify.
Among the six members of the Eastern Partnership program, so far only Moldova enjoys visa liberalization with the EU.
Russia, which sees the former Soviet republics as its crucial sphere of influence, has bristled at the planned Riga summit, saying it "has a clearly anti-Russian coloring."
The Riga summit is unlikely to deliver much in terms of concrete new policy, though it could move toward bringing Belarus in from the cold. More than 200 Belarusian officials, including President Alyaksandr Lukasehnka, have been blacklisted by the EU since a crackdown on the opposition in Belarus after the 2010 presidential election.
But a relative thaw has emerged in Minsk’s ties with Brussels, which has praised Belarus for its role in facilitating a cease-fire deal in Minsk that has eased hostilities between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas, the eastern Ukrainian region that is at the center of the fighting.
Lukasehnka’s prime minister, Andrei Kobyakov, is set to travel to Riga, which would make him the highest-ranking Belarusian politician ever to attend such a summit. Minsk, meanwhile, may also be granted a visa-facilitation deal with the EU in the Latvian capital.
Tusk says the reason for this is Belarus's engagement to resolve the crisis in Ukraine and admits that he himself has been positively surprised by Lukashenka despite a previously icy relationship between the two men.
"It was a surprise not only for me that Lukashenka and his government [were] really useful and helpful when it comes to the so-called Minsk agreements and the Minsk process towards the crisis [in the] Donbas and Russian aggression in Ukraine," Tusk said.
"This is why I am sure that we have to be ready to appreciate, of course, just this part of Belarusian official activity," he added. "But if we can see that something positive is on the table, I think we have to say very openly that this is a good direction."