Summit aims to renew push for democracy east of EU

AP News
Posted: Sep 30, 2011 1:01 PM
Summit aims to renew push for democracy east of EU

These are frustrating times for those yearning to see Western democratic standards take root in Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet states wedged between Russia and the West.

Most of the troubled region's countries have been backsliding or stagnant regarding democracy recently, damaging their on-and-off struggle for deeper integration with the West.

Meanwhile, the European Union, which has tried to inspire transformative change with promises of eventual EU membership for some, is mostly focused these days on solving its own economic crisis in the euro zone, showing less interest than before in a region still mired in corruption and other problems.

That declining interest comes as the United States also has played a less visible role in countries such as Georgia as President Barack Obama "resets" ties with Russia.

At an EU summit in Warsaw, European leaders tried to re-ignite the passion in both the EU and the East for closer integration, reminding both sides of why they should continue their courtship.

The two-day summit closed Friday with a declaration in which EU leaders said they "acknowledge the European aspirations" of a group of ex-Soviet countries _ indicating that the EU's doors remain open to them in the future, if they make far-reaching democratic changes.

None, however, have any realistic chance of joining for years to come. This is because of their recent track records and because the EU itself is so bogged down by the Greek debt crisis and questions about the euro's future that some are now questioning if the EU can even survive in its current form.

The summit in Warsaw was devoted to the Eastern Partnership, an initiative launched by Sweden and Poland in 2009 to deepen the EU's ties with Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

"You can see just from the names that these are countries which each have their own problems to solve, and even in some cases regional conflicts," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told those gathered on Friday.

Of the six countries in the group, only Moldova has shown any significant progress on reforms recently, according to Olaf Osica, director of the Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies.

Inspiring democratic change in eastern Europe is a mission of existential importance to Poland, which holds the rotating EU presidency and is using that role to keep eastern European issues on the bloc's agenda.

Poland, a leader of the revolutions that toppled communist regimes across Eastern Europe in 1989, is eager to see the region on its eastern border evolve into a space of stable and prosperous democracies. That would have implications on a range of issues, from fighting the flow of illegal drugs and migrants across borders to boosting the economy by increasing trade with neighboring countries.

Warsaw also would like to see a weakening of Moscow's influence in the region, fearing Russia's resurgence.

Key to the summit was Ukraine, a country of 46 million people to Poland's east that has been negotiating association and free-trade agreements with the EU, landmark deals that could help pull Ukraine closer to the West.

Because of Ukraine's size and key strategic position, the deals could also mobilize Ukraine's neighbors to embrace greater reforms.

However, the deals have lately been threatened by the ongoing trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the main opposition figure and a hero of the Orange Revolution.

EU leaders view the trial as politically motivated and some warned Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych recently that the talks on the association and free-trade deals could be threatened by them.

However, EU President Herman Van Rompuy said the bloc still expects to finalize the talks with Ukraine by the end of the year _ even though he stressed that the EU is concerned about the ongoing Tymoshenko trial.

"This is a serious matter in our relations and we are expressing ourselves very clearly on this matter," Van Rompuy said.

EU leaders also struggled over how to deal with Belarus, where the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko rigged elections in December to hold onto power, then rounded up and imprisoned political challengers.

Friday's summit session began with news that Belarus was boycotting the event to protest the bloc's pointed decision not to invite Lukashenko. It ended with an EU declaration calling for the release of political prisoners and an end to repression of civil society and the media.

The declaration expressed "deep concern at the deteriorating human rights, democracy and rule of law situation in Belarus."

But the statement also reminded Belarus that the EU has been offering it closer ties in exchange for reforms, continuing a policy of trying to engage the country and not isolate it.

David Bakradze, the chairman of Georgia's parliament, said in Warsaw a day earlier that the possibility of eventual EU membership remains an important incentive for change "in a part of the world where it's easy to fall into chaos."

He said there is more motivation for reforms when people believe their children might one day belong to Europe's civilization.

"It gives us a sense of our final destiny," Bakradze said at a conference organized by the Center for Eastern Studies and the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

Yet Van Rompuy warned that partnership with the EU is only for those "who have chosen the path of reform, who have chosen the path of democracy."


Monika Scislowska contributed from Warsaw and Jim Heintz from Moscow.