Poland is welcoming European Union leaders on Thursday for what is expected to be a key event of its EU presidency: a two-day summit aimed at keeping alive the prospect of the bloc's eastward enlargement.
The summit in Warsaw is to focus heavily on Ukraine, which has been negotiating free trade and association agreements with the EU _ a milestone for the former Soviet state in its hoped-for path toward deeper integration with its wealthier neighbors.
The landmark deals, however, are now threatened by signs of Kiev's wavering commitment to democratic standards, including the detention and trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which EU and U.S. leaders have criticized as politically motivated.
Poland champions deeper integration with Ukraine and other countries on the bloc's eastern periphery, eager to see its post-communist neighbors evolve into stable, prosperous democracies. Warsaw, however, is finding little passion for its eastern agenda these days among the West European members focused on the Greek financial crisis and upheavals in the Arab world.
A former communist country with a leading role in the 1989 revolutions, Poland wants to see its eastern neighbors build strong trade and investment ties with the West that would distance them from Russia's sphere of influence.
The Eastern Partnership is a Polish and Swedish initiative launched in 2009 to promote greater integration between the EU and six countries: Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. Fearful of instability and corruption on its doorstep, Poland hopes greater integration could also set the stage for eventual EU membership for some, including Ukraine.
"All our eastern neighbors are European countries and therefore should be offered a European perspective, as we call it. They have the right to become part of the European Union," Roman Kuzniar, foreign policy adviser to Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, said in an interview on state radio ahead of the summit. "Our position, unfortunately, so far is not shared by the majority of the members of the EU."
Polish leaders hope to use the summit to remind Germany, France and other Western countries that the countries east of Poland still matter, while also pushing those countries to reverse recent backsliding on democratic reforms.
Poland had made it a key goal of its presidency to see the talks on the free trade and association agreements with Kiev completed before its six-month EU presidency ends on Dec. 31.
Invigorating the Eastern Partnership and bringing Ukraine closer to the EU are the only goals Poland can realistically achieve during its presidency, according to Eugene Chausovsky, an analyst with the global intelligence think tank Stratfor.
Poland is not in the euro zone and has therefore been sidelined during the recent European struggle to solve the sovereign debt crisis, leaving it with little chance to assert itself during its presidency, Chausovsky said. Progress at the summit would also be a welcome foreign policy victory for the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk as it heads toward national elections on Oct. 9. Tusk's centrist Civic Platform party is leading in opinion polls but has seen its margin over its key rival, Law and Justice, narrow in recent weeks.
Leaders expected at the summit include Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, the head of the Europe Commission Jose Manuel Barroso, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Yanukovych will likely face questions about a proposal for legal reforms that he published Wednesday. Western leaders had hoped the proposed legal changes would open the way for Tymoshenko's release but it now appears they will not affect her.
Olaf Osica, director of the Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies, said the participation of so many top leaders attests to the importance of the summit, and said he hopes they will reaffirm that "the East still does matter."
The Eastern Partnership "is about trade, investments, energy _ all sectors very important not only for us, as neighbors of the Eastern partners, but also for Western business," Osica said. "We don't have the luxury to sideline the eastern agenda."