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Europe

EU Seeks to Bolster Ties to Former Soviet States

The European Union's foreign ministers are to seek ways of boosting their influence in the former USSR following the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia when they meet for informal talks in France.

The Building housing the European Commission delegation in Russia

The EU hopes to expand and deepen its influence in Moscow's former satellite states

The meeting on Friday, Sept. 5, comes just days after an emergency EU summit on Georgia and ahead of crucial talks next week between the French and Russian presidents on the Georgia crisis.

It also coincides with US Vice-President Dick Cheney's visit to Georgia and Ukraine, widely seen to signal that Washington has not turned its back on former Soviet allies following the conflict in Georgia.

The five-day war between Georgia and Russia last month has sparked turmoil in the Caucasus and heightened tensions between Russia and the West. Russia sent tanks and troops into Georgian territory on Aug. 8, a day after a Georgian offensive to retake rebel South Ossetia. It has since withdrawn some forces but left others inside Georgian territory.

Though the EU has stopped short of imposing sanctions on Russia for its military push and occupation of Georgian territory, it has frozen talks with Moscow on a new strategic partnership pact until all Russian forces withdraw from Georgia.

Wide-ranging talks

A gas plant outside the Ukrainian capital Kiev

The EU wants to cuts its reliance on Russian gas by creating alternative routes

But the informal talks in the French city of Avignon won't just focus on the EU's fraught relations with Russia. Officials say they are likely to take in issues including energy security and relations with states such as Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus.

"The EU considers that it is more necessary than ever to support regional cooperation and step up its relations with its eastern neighbors," EU leaders concluded at the emergency summit on Monday -- a meeting held in response to the Russian-Georgian war.

The foreign ministers of the EU's 27 member states meet informally every six months to discuss broad policy issues without the pressure to reach formal decisions.

Friday's meeting is to "review the whole range of the EU's relationship" with Russia and Georgia in order to see where it could "reinforce" its current policies, sources in the French government, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, told the DPA news agency.

EU hopes to push democratic reforms

The talks are also likely to focus on how the EU can promote democratic reforms and reconciliation in parts of the former USSR where Russia and the West are competing openly for influence.

Diplomats said the meeting could include talks on how to handle Belarus, where the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko in the summer released the country's last political prisoners in what was seen in Brussels as a step towards greater freedom.

A woman casting her vote at the ballot box

Europe hopes to promote democracy in former Soviet states

Ukraine also looks set to feature prominently ahead of an EU-Ukraine summit scheduled for Tuesday.

The ministers are also likely to discuss how the EU can use its relations with Moscow's former satellites to boost its own energy security by creating supply routes which do not go through Russia, officials in Brussels said.

That follows a call from EU leaders Monday that "recent events illustrate the need for Europe to intensify its efforts with regard to the security of energy supplies."

However, the ministers are not expected to propose a sudden leap towards membership for countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, officials said.

Rather, they are likely to discuss how they can improve their use of current diplomatic agreements, partnerships and financial incentives to tighten their links with their eastern neighbors without giving up on their long-standing calls for reform.

They are also expected to discuss EU relations with the United States and the EU's role in the Middle East peace process.

Ministers are also to discuss an EU observer mission to monitor the ceasefire in Georgia.

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