BERLIN (Reuters) - The crisis in Ukraine makes the European Union's partnership with the bloc's eastern neighbors more important than ever, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday, insisting that the initiative is not directed against Russia.
Speaking in parliament before joining a summit in Riga with six of the EU's ex-Soviet neighbors, Merkel said Europe's peaceful order had been shaken in the last 18 months by Russia's "illegal annexation" of Crimea and fighting in eastern Ukraine.
"Not least under these circumstances, the eastern partnership is more important than ever," Merkel told the Bundestag.
"We will further support our eastern neighbors on their path to a society based on democracy and the rule of law," added Merkel, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Communist East Germany.
The eastern partners include Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, whose governments are keen to join the EU but also the more pro-Russian Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus.
She said the partnership was aimed at boosting economic growth and helping improve the every day life of people in these countries but it also meant acknowledging basic values like democracy, a free market economy and human rights.
Addressing critics' concerns that it could result in a tug-of-war for influence between Brussels and the Kremlin, she said:
"The eastern partnership is not an instrument of EU expansion."
"And it is directed against no-one, especially not against Russia," said Merkel, adding it did not represent an 'either/or' choice for those countries between closer ties to the EU or Russia. But she said each country had the right to decide for itself whether to get closer to the values of the EU.
"No-one has the right to block this decision for them."
Russia, pursuing a Eurasian Customs Union, describes the toppling of a pro-Russian president in Ukraine after mass protests and its shift towards the EU as a Western-backed coup.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; editing by Erik Kirschbaum and Toby Chopra)