Don't mention the war: Ukraine off the agenda at EU summit

Damon WAKE
An armoured vehicle next to government buildings in eastern Ukraine's rebel-held Lugansk after an apparent standoff between the rebel region's self-proclaimed leader Igor Plotnitsky and the interior minister, who's been accused of seeking to destabilise the war-scarred city

The EU's bid to deepen ties with six former Soviet states enters its latest round in Brussels on Friday with anxiety about Russian influence running higher than ever in the bloc.

But with Russia and the war in eastern Ukraine off the official agenda, the Eastern Partnership summit looks likely to be more of a stock-taking exercise than a substantive statement of intent.

The EU says Friday's set-piece with Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus will focus on 20 "deliverables" -- plans to tackle corruption, improve the rule of law and modernise their economies.

The war rumbling on in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists gets no mention in a joint declaration to be made at the summit, according to a draft seen by AFP.

The statement limits itself to a bland call for "renewed efforts to promote the peaceful settlement of conflicts in the region" -- a sharp contrast with the strong language on Ukraine after the last summit in 2015, which criticised Russia's annexation of Crimea outright.

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.

"An Eastern Partnership summit is not an instrument of conflict resolution, it is an instrument to discuss how we can develop and deepen our partnership," the official said.

- Give us a sign -

The conflict in Ukraine, which has killed more than 10,000 people, began after Russia invaded Crimea in the wake of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych's ousting, following his refusal to sign an association accord with the EU.

Ukraine has been pushing 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.

"What Ukraine ultimately wants is a simple message: 'Once you're ready - you're in'," Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, a senior aide to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, wrote in an editorial for the EU Observer news site last week.

Moldova's pro-European Prime Minister Pavel Filip also urged the EU to send a strong political signal to help combat what he called "very aggressive" propaganda from Moscow.

"It's a courtship process -- the more positive messaging, the more we date, the more our society is resilient to messaging from Moscow," he told reporters in Brussels.

"Never underestimate the fact that people in Moscow are using Moldova's relationship with the EU and the quality of the relationship with the EU to send their messaging across."

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 Ukraine crisis and a billion-dollar corruption scandal in Moldova has cooled the enthusiasm the EU had in the early days of the Eastern Partnership.

"Back then the EU was desperate to get a success story, and we all know what happened (with Ukraine)," Amanda Paul, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, told AFP.

"Then we had the effort to get a success story with Moldova and there was a huge corruption scandal and the EU ended up with egg on its face."

The draft declaration for Friday's summit goes no further than acknowledging the "European aspirations and European choice" of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, which have all signed association agreements with the EU in the face of bitter opposition from Russia.

Getting all 28 EU members to agree even this mild wording was "extremely difficult", an EU source told AFP.

- Belarus bails -

Some big names will be missing Friday, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko -- who turned down his first invitation to attend, issued after the EU lifted sanctions against him.

Belarus is a close ally of Russia and some observers say Lukashenko's rejection is aimed at reassuring the Kremlin about where his loyalties lie.

The EU for its part insists the Eastern Partnership is "not against any country" and does not entail making a binary choice between Brussels and Moscow.

Armenia is set to sign an enhanced partnership pact with the EU on Friday, and an EU official stressed the bloc had gone to "great lengths" to ensure it was compatible with Armenian membership of he Moscow-backed Eurasian Economic Union.

But a bitter row between Armenia and Azerbaijan festers in the background over the region of Nagorny Karabakh, under Armenian control since a bloody conflict in the early 1990s.

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