May 23, 2015

RUSSIA CASTS A SHADOW OVER EUROPEAN MEETING

[Moscow has avoided condemning the meeting outright. But the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, speaking in Brussels this week, said that Europe needed to take care that its Eastern Partnership “does not damage the legitimate interests of the Russian Federation.” He did not explain those interests.]
Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, center left, greeted President 
Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine.
RIGA, Latvia — Prime Minister David Cameronof Britain showed up hours late, but the absentee who really mattered — and haunted all discussion during a two-day meeting of leaders from Europe and former Soviet lands — was President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who had not even been invited.
The gathering in Riga, the capital of Latvia, a former Soviet republic now deeply entrenched in both the European Union and NATO, was originally billed as a chance to give new impetus to the European bloc’s so-called Eastern Partnership, a six-year-old push into six former Soviet territories that Moscow still views as being in its own sphere of influence.
But Mr. Putin has put so much pressure on Ukraine and the five other countries to back away from any shift toward the West that theEuropean Union on Friday declared its Riga meeting a success simply because leaders had managed to stand still.
Eschewing any need for “dramatic decisions and giant steps forward,” Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who is now president of the European Council, said that a joint declaration issued by the leaders in Riga showed that “our intentions remain just the same as they were five years ago.”
This meant reaffirming an earlier acknowledgment of the “European aspirations” of countries like Ukraine and Georgia while making clear that this was in no way an invitation to actually join the 28-nation European Union.
“They are not ready, and we are not ready,” Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said on Thursday. The meeting also disappointed Georgian and Ukrainian hopes of movement toward visa-free travel in Europe, a right so far granted only to Moldova.
“This is the maximum of what we could achieve today,” Mr. Tusk said Friday.
The Eastern Partnership meeting was the first since an ill-fated gathering at the end of 2013 that set the stage for months of pro-European protests in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, and led to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor F. Yanukovych. That was followed in March last year by Mr. Putin’s swift seizure of Crimea, and conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that continues today.
“This new geopolitical reality was the focus of all our discussions,” Petro O. Poroshenko, Ukraine’s pro-European president said at a news conference in Riga. The European Commission, confirming a 1.8 billion-euro loan package, worth about $2 billion, for Ukraine that was announced in January, signed an agreement in Riga for the money with Ukraine’s national bank.
Outside the meeting at Latvia’s vast new national library, a few dozen pro-Russian protesters held up banners accusing leaders of seeking to divide Europe and stoke conflict. “The Eastern Partnership — the fuse for war,” read one banner.
Moscow has avoided condemning the meeting outright. But the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, speaking in Brussels this week, said that Europe needed to take care that its Eastern Partnership “does not damage the legitimate interests of the Russian Federation.” He did not explain those interests.
The only hint of drama in the Riga meeting hall was a last-minute squabble over the text of the joint declaration, with Azerbaijan objecting to a line about Nagorno-Karabakh — contested territory now controlled by Armenia — and Belarus and Armenia complaining about a reference to a European Union declaration in April on the “illegal annexation” of Crimea.
Mr. Tusk helped resolve the standoff by telephoning Azerbaijan’s authoritarian leader, Ilham Aliyev, who had stayed at home and sent his foreign minister to the Riga meeting. All eventually agreed to the statement.
The European Union’s laborious decision-making process, slowed by the interests of 28 countries, has left the bloc severely handicapped in its outreach efforts to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, all of which have faced swift and far more direct pressure from Russia.
Some members of the bloc, notably Cyprus, Greece and Hungary, have sought to improve relations with Russia and argued against what they see as “provocative” actions in former Soviet territory.
Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban, who has riled fellow leaders with his approving comments about Mr. Putin and the death penalty, was welcomed in Riga by Mr. Juncker with a jocular “Hello, dictator,” Reuters reported.
The six former Soviet republics are themselves deeply divided over what direction they want to take and have often zigzagged between East and West, drawn to Moscow by their dependence on Russian energy and markets, but tugged toward Brussels by the promise of financial and other help to modernize.
“Moscow is the bullying old brother you know and can’t avoid,” said Thomas de Waal, an expert on the former Soviet Union at the Carnegie International Endowment for Peace in Washington. “Brussels is the nice new neighbor making you offers you like the sound of but don’t properly understand.”
He added that members of the European Union had wildly different views on how to deal with the six prospective partners. Some see them as eager to embrace Western ways with the same gusto as Baltic States like Latvia. Others consider them firmly in Russia’s backyard.
“We are not talking about six Polands; these are still countries with a strong Soviet legacy,” Mr. de Waal said. He said opinion polls suggested that most people in them want relationships with both Russia and the European Union, “not either or.”
“Half the trade is with Russia, most people speak Russian, the elites studied in Moscow,” he said.
Mr. Tusk, in remarks at the start of the Riga meeting, insisted that the Eastern Partnership was not “directed against Russia” and was “not a beauty contest between Russia and the E.U.” Still, he went on to declare Europe a more attractive suitor.
“Let me be frank, beauty does count,” he said. “If Russia was a bit softer, more charming or more attractive, perhaps it would not have to compensate its shortcoming with aggressive and bullying tactics against its neighbors.”
Another problem hobbling Europe’s efforts to counter the far blunter and more focused strategy of Mr. Putin is the fact that Western European leaders tend to have far less interest in the Eastern Partnership than those in the East with direct and mostly painful memories of Soviet power.
Prime Minister Cameron of Britain, who arrived in Riga early Friday, hours after other leaders had already started their talks, evinced scant interest in Europe’s role in former Soviet lands. Instead, he focused on Britain’s own concerns, notably its determination to reshape the European Union ahead of a referendum planned for next year on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European bloc.
“Today I will start discussions in earnest with fellow leaders on reforming the E.U. and renegotiating the U.K.’s relationship with it,” Mr. Cameron said early Friday. It was a position that chagrined leaders who wanted to focus on the East.
Speaking later at a news conference, he insisted that “Britain has done as much as any other country in standing up to Russia.”
But he devoted most of his comments to the need for changes in the way the European Union operates. He said he “was confident at getting those changes,” but acknowledged that “I was not met with a wall of love when I arrived.”
Also preoccupied with immediate domestic concerns was Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s leftist prime minister, who came to Riga hoping to break a logjam on negotiations aimed at unblocking funds for his nearly bankrupt country. He met late Thursday with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Fran├žois Hollande of France, but their talks yielded no breakthrough.