May 22, 2015 / 5:09 PM / 2 years ago

EU, ex-Soviet neighbors patch over rifts with eye on Russia

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) listens to Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko before the Eastern Partnership Summit session in Riga, Latvia, May 22, 2015. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

RIGA (Reuters) - Looking over their shoulders at Russia, the European Union and six former Soviet neighbors patched up their differences to renew vows of cooperation in the interests of peace and security at a summit on Friday.

Meeting in Riga 18 months after the last Eastern Partnership gathering sparked the Cold War-style tug-of-war over Ukraine, Kiev and other aspirants to the European club won offers of aid and hopes of visa-free travel to the EU that fell short of promises of EU membership.

Despite sympathy from some EU leaders, especially in the east, who urged firmer commitments to eventually bringing the most pro-Western states into the bloc, the EU’s big powers are wary both of provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin and of burdening the Union with impoverished and unstable new members.

“Association agreements do not in any way make membership a foregone conclusion,” French President Francois Hollande said of trade pacts signed last year with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

“We mustn’t turn this Eastern Partnership into yet another conflict with Russia,” said Hollande, who with German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been leading mediation in eastern Ukraine. He called for “more pressure” on Moscow to bolster a ceasefire but also said the EU must engage with Russia despite the conflict.

EU leaders have long dismissed Kremlin concerns that their embrace of its “near abroad” is targeted against Russia. But on Friday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov again accused them of presenting ex-Soviet republics with a “false choice” that amounted to “Who are you with, the West or Russia?”

UKRAINE WELCOMES “SOLIDARITY”

President Petro Poroshenko, whose predecessor was overthrown by pro-Western Ukrainians incensed by his 11th-hour rejection of an EU pact at the Vilnius summit in late 2013, declared himself satisfied by the “very strong solidarity” EU leaders had shown.

By far the biggest of the six partner states, Ukraine signed a 1.8 billion-euro aid deal with the EU on Friday and, like Georgia, won assurances its citizens would soon join Moldovans in no longer needing visas to the EU if they continued reforms.

All 34 governments signed up to a 13-page joint declaration of common positions and aspirations that included a condemnation of Russia’s “illegal annexation of Crimea” last year. Poroshenko glossed over the fact Armenia and Belarus insisted on a twist in the drafting that let them stick to pro-Russian positions.

Disparities among the six-year-old group have seen the EU adopt a “differentiated” approach. Belarus remains a pariah over human rights. Authoritarian but oil-rich Azerbaijan less so.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev held up the conclusion of the meeting, talking to summit chairman Donald Tusk on the telephone from Baku to smooth concerns on the way the communique referred to Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, stressed the positive:

“Nobody promised the Eastern Partnership will be the automatic way to membership in the European Union,” he said. But the EU remained committed to its partners despite “the last year’s intimidation and even war”. Given internal divisions, the outcome was “maybe the maximum we can achieve today”, he added.

There was no lack of problems among existing EU members:

Hollande and Merkel urged Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to speed up a vital debt deal; David Cameron confessed he did not meet a “wall of love” at his first occasion to explain to colleagues reforms he wants before asking Britons to vote on whether to stay in the bloc;

And Hungarian premier Viktor Orban found himself greeted by EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker, only part in jest, with a cheery “Hello, dictator!”

Additional reporting by Adrian Croft, Kylie MacLellan, Andreas Rinke, Renee Maltezou, Marine Hass, Clement Rossignol, Gunta Gaidamavica and Ints Kalnins in Riga; Writing by Alastair Macdonald

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