|E.U. Pledges Aid to Former Soviet States|
|May 08, 2009|
By DAN BILEFSKY
The European Union sought on Thursday to intensify political and economic ties with six former Soviet republics, while seeking to reassure Russia that it was not trying to assert itself in Moscow’s former sphere of influence.
Under the so-called Eastern Partnership program — unveiled at a summit meeting here — the E.U. has pledged $799 million in aid from 2009 to 2013, while promising to accelerate energy projects in the region, encourage democracy and eventually ease E.U. visa restrictions.
But the program — aimed at Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova — was greeted with suspicion by Moscow.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, warned before the meeting that the E.U.’s overtures in the region had raised concerns in Moscow. “We shared our concerns that there are those who may wish to present the invited participants with the choice: either you are with Russia, or with the European Union,” he said.
Even some of the countries who stand to benefit from the program have been less than enthusiastic, arguing that it is insufficient at a time of political upheaval and economic distress. President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova has dismissed the Eastern Partnership-related grants as “candy."
The summit meeting comes at a time of already raised temperatures between Russia and the West. This week Georgia accused Moscow of engineering a mutiny before NATO training exercises in the country that Russia had complained were an unnecessary provocation.
But Javier Solana, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, insisted in an interview that the E.U.’s outreach in the region was not directed at Russia. And he said he was encouraged that the election of President Barack Obama had ushered in a new era in relations between East and West.
“Russia is not an easy partner or neighbor,” he said, “but the situation today is better than it was before.
Analysts said it was a worrying sign of the E.U.’s complacency that a majority of leaders from Europe’s biggest nations — including France, Britain and Italy — had decided to stay away from the meeting. Of the bloc’s largest countries, only Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany attended
Andrew Wilson, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that the E.U.’s lackluster help during a period of economic implosion was costing it hearts and minds in a region historically close to Russia. He said that a recent study by the council showed that 42 percent of Ukrainians wanted to integrate with Russia, compared to 34 percent with the E.U
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