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EU seeks to keep partnership with ex-Soviet nations on track

RIGA, Latvia (AP) — European Union leaders on Thursday will seek new ways to bolster ties with six post-communist nations in Eastern Europe, a year and a half after a previous summit of the Eastern Partnership ended with a fateful standoff over Ukraine.

Just ahead of the two-day summit in the Latvian capital, Riga, the EU promised grants of 200 million euros ($223 million) over the next 10 years to promote small and medium-sized businesses in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The EU said the grants were expected to unlock investments of 2 billion euros by companies for the three countries.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel dampened the hopes of some that the talks would pave the way for EU membership, saying the Eastern Partnership is not a tool for the bloc’s enlargement policy.

“We should therefore not raise any false expectations that we cannot fulfill later,” Merkel told lawmakers in Berlin before heading to Riga.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership program engages the bloc with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. It suffered a major setback at the end of 2013 as Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych withdrew from signing an association agreement and opted for closer links with Moscow and President Vladimir Putin.

Since that meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, the pro-EU government elected after Yanukovych’s ouster has learned the costs of turning away from Moscow: Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, large swaths of eastern territory bordering Russia are embroiled in conflict and the nation is in deep economic decline.

“Under these circumstances the idea of the Eastern Partnership is even more important than ever,” Merkel told German lawmakers.

She said eastern nations still had many challenges to overcome, including improving justice systems and economic structures and fighting corruption.

In Riga, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said his country was “ready to demonstrate a real fight against corruption and improve the investment climate.”

On the eve of this year’s summit, Russia again drew the line on how far neighbors could go.

“We don’t see our neighbors’ aspirations to strengthen ties with the European Union as a tragedy, but to make those processes develop positively they mustn’t hurt the interests of the Russian Federation,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the upper house of the Russian parliament.

For dinner Thursday, almost all of the EU leaders, including Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, will line up for sobering talks with their counterparts or top officials from Eastern partners.

Putin will be nowhere in sight, but is still expected to dominate discussions.

Since the Iron Curtain came down, many former communist nations have been pulled out of Moscow’s orbit, including summit host Latvia and Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania — former Soviet republics that are now EU and NATO members. Under the leadership of Putin, opposition has stiffened and turned into sometimes open political conflict.

Carl Bildt, then Sweden’s foreign minister, was a key player at the Vilnius summit, seeing the hand of Moscow behind Ukraine’s sudden about-face to dismiss the EU. He said the Riga summit will reaffirm ties between the EU and the post-communist states rather than yield any headline-grabbing new agreements.

“With everything from massive disinformation to tanks and soldiers thrown against the Eastern Partnership since 2013, just staying the course is a powerful sign of success,” Bildt wrote Wednesday on the Project Syndicate website for international opinion pieces.

Instead of a joint approach to the six nations, the EU must go forward with piecemeal action, since Armenia and Belarus have decided to join Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union.

Belarus and its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko have also been kept at arm’s length because of political and human rights complaints that earned the nation the moniker of the last dictatorship in Europe. Icy relations have somewhat warmed recently and Belarus is expected to send its highest delegation yet, though it won’t include Lukashenko himself.

“It’s important to stress that countries can make this progression individually, according to their own circumstances and demands,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said. “I think that’s one of the strengths of this partnership.”

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Associated Press writer David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

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