Leaders gather for EU Eastern Partnership summit

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Leaders from the EU and six former Soviet states meet in Brussels on Friday for the latest summit aimed at deepening ties, but thorny subjects like Russian influence and the war in Ukraine are off the agenda.Leaders gather for EU Eastern Partnership summit

The set-piece will focus on 20 “deliverables” — plans to help Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus tackle corruption, improve the rule of law and modernise their economies.

Brussels insists its so-called Eastern Partnership with the six states is “not aimed at any country”, but the likes of Moldova and Ukraine have urged the European Union to send a welcoming signal to their people to counter the siren call of Moscow.

Concerns are running high over the Kremlin’s use of cyber tactics and misinformation to cause political destabilisation around Europe and draw former Soviet states into its embrace.

British Prime Minister Theresa May will warn the summit to be on guard against “the actions of hostile states like Russia which… attempt to tear our collective strength apart”.

European aspirations

Ukraine has pushed for a clear pledge from the 28-member bloc that one day it will be allowed to join, with President Petro Poroshenko warning that closing the door to membership would validate the Kremlin’s claims to “special interests” in the region.

And Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip, whose pro-EU government faces an election next year, said his people wanted Brussels to show them a “guiding star”.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about political support,” he said. “It’s about feeling the political support, those positive declarations. This is the most important in winning hearts and minds.”

Unless the EU gives a clear and unambiguous signal that they could at least in principle one day join, Moldova and Ukraine argue they could go the way of Belarus — which lies firmly in Russia’s orbit.

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But there is little appetite in the EU for eastward expansion, particularly after Dutch voters rejected the first attempt at an association accord with Ukraine in an April 2016 referendum.

Moreover, the war in Ukraine — which had its roots in Moscow’s opposition to Kiev signing an association agreement with the EU — and a billion-dollar corruption scandal in Moldova has cooled some of the enthusiasm Brussels had in the early days of the Eastern Partnership.

A joint declaration to be made at the summit goes no further than acknowledging the “European aspirations and European choice” of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, according to a draft seen by AFP.

The EU hopes that focusing on concrete measures that will improve people’s lives in the partner countries — such as small business loans and reducing mobile phone roaming charges — will improve its popularity and see off the lure from Moscow.

Don’t mention the war

The summit is also set to shy away from discussion of any of the separatist conflicts currently rumbling on with varying degrees of intensity in the six partner states.

Unlike the declaration after the last summit in 2015, this time there will be no specific mention of the war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists, which has killed more than 10,000 people.

Nor does the draft statement refer to the bitter row between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh, which almost flared into a full-scale war last year.

Instead it simply calls for “renewed efforts to promote the peaceful settlement of conflicts in the region” — a sharp contrast to the strong language in 2015, which criticised Russia’s annexation of Crimea outright.

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An EU official insisted the bloc was still “deeply engaged” in efforts to resolve conflicts in the former Soviet states but said the summit was not the right place to pursue them.

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