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EU offers closer links with eastern neighbors

  The European Union agreed plans on Friday for strengthening ties with Ukraine, Georgia and four other former Soviet republics in a move that is likely to irritate Russia.

EU leaders said in a statement the bloc should provide total aid worth €600 million until 2013 to the six, which also include Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and Belarus, and seek better cooperation with them on energy supplies.

Diplomats said the aid under the 27-nation EU’s Eastern Partnership scheme for non-member states was approved despite attempts by some southern European countries to prevent the aid figure being included in the official summit declaration.

“We have been able to start the Eastern Partnership... That is a great victory, not just for the countries themselves but for EU itself,” said Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the EU’s presidency until the end of June and was once part of the Soviet bloc.

The summit declaration offered vaguer prospects for easing visa restrictions for citizens of the six countries than had been proposed only weeks ago.

The global economic crisis has made rich western European countries wary of migrants and foreign workers and less eager than before to promise easier travel arrangements.

Under the scheme, the EU is to negotiate new association agreements -- accords setting terms for cooperation with non-member states -- in reward for democratic and free-market reforms.

The plan envisages the gradual creation of a free trade zone with the countries. Of the €600 million aid, some €350 million will be new funds for strengthening state institutions, border control and assistance for small companies.

RUSSIAN IRE

Although the scheme is modest and offers no prospect of EU membership, it is likely to upset Russia because Moscow regards these countries as part of its traditional sphere of influence, EU diplomats say.

Russia has also opposed efforts by Georgia and Ukraine to join the NATO defense alliance.

EU officials said adoption of the plan took on more urgency after Russia fought a brief war with Georgia last August over South Ossetia, a breakaway pro-Russian province in Georgia.

The plan provides for closer cooperation on energy with the countries as the EU looks for ways to diversify its energy supplies following a price row between Russia and Ukraine which temporarily halted gas supplies to Europe in January.

EU leaders are to hold summits every two years with their counterparts from the six countries. The first will be in the Czech Republic in May but it is unclear whether Belarus will be invited because of questions over its democratic credentials.

France and southern EU members would prefer the bloc to focus on boosting ties with Mediterranean countries. The EU has created a “Mediterranean Union” for this reason, diplomats say. (Reuters)