Heads of state and other officials from countries of Central and Eastern Europe as well as three post-Soviet states of South Caucasus have met in the Czech capital at a two-day conference dedicated to the European Union’s Eastern Partnership programme, an initiative founded five years ago in Prague with the aim to strengthen the European Union’s relations with six states of the former Soviet Union. But discussions about the programme’s five-year existence as well as its future prospects were overshadowed by the current situation in Ukraine.
The Eastern Partnership conference in Prague entered its second day on Friday amid reports that the Czech Army plans to send over 1,000 soldiers to help police protect the Czech Republic’s border should the situation in Ukraine deteriorate significantly. In an effort to contribute to de-escalation of the tension between Moscow and Kiev the participants agreed to offer mediation to both parties involved in the conflict. The host of the Eastern Partnership summit, Czech President Miloš Zeman, summed up the outcome of the talks.
“We unanimously agreed on the term ‘recommendation’. It means the participants of the meeting recommend to the Russian Federation to withdraw its troops from Ukrainian borders as a peaceful gesture contributing to de-escalation of the existing tension.”
Mr. Zeman also said the Czech Republic offered to play a key part in the mediation process which might take the form of shuttle diplomacy between Kiev and Moscow.
“The Czech Republic in its national capacity may assume the part of providing mediation services. Of course, this offer stands only in case both parties accept it. It would entail the mediation of negotiations which would prevent further escalation of the conflict, including tanks labelled as peacekeeping forces. Let me add that while negotiations are going on, there is no war. Once there is war, all our calls will become empty words.”
Ukraine’s acting foreign minister Andrii Deshchytsia, also present at the conference, said his country welcomed the initiative, and Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič said his country, as Ukraine’s neighbour, might also get involved in that process.
The conference participants also agreed to recommend to Ukraine to decentralize its government in line with the Geneva agreement and guarantee its citizens free and fair elections.
Representing the EU at the summit was its Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Štefan Füle. He said on Friday the situation in Ukraine was the gravest crisis in Europe since 1945 and in its light the European Union should give more backing to the Eastern Partnership programme.
On the fifth anniversary of the foundation of the multinational project, the summit agenda also included the programme’s outcomes including visa facilitation, as well as ways to boost future cooperation between the member states who despite of different foreign policy orientation strive for good neighbourly relations.
The Eastern Partnership project was joined by Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine during the Czech presidency of the European Council in 2009. Its aim is to strengthen political and economic ties between the EU and the six post-Soviet countries.
This week’s summit in Prague, however, was definitely dominated by the increasingly tense situation on Ukraine’s borders.