By Robert Wielaard, AP

EU foreign ministers on Monday considered increasing economic and other aid to Ukraine and four other ex-Soviet republics to try to counter Moscow's continuing influence.

After Russia's war against Georgia last August and the cutoff of Russian gas to the European Union in January "we see a clear imperative for stepping up our game in the neighborhood," said EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

The EU's bid for closer ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine is welcomed by these neighbors but not by Belarus' authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has close ties with Moscow and runs a Soviet-style economy.

The EU hopes it can launch an "eastern partnership" on May 7 with the leaders of all six countries.

"There is still much to do" to get Belarus on board, said Dutch Deputy Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans.

Others said the EU may have to do without Belarus, especially if it recognizes the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

"We must not be overly optimistic," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The European Commission has drafted a plan offering free trade, economic assistance, regular security and defense consultations and far-reaching economic integration with the EU for each of the eastern neighbors.

In exchange for EU money, expertise, goodwill, visas and economic outreach, the countries must step up progress toward democracy, the rule of law, sound economics and human rights.

The EU executive has budgeted euro1.4 billion ($1.8 billion) for the plan between now and 2013. It added euro600 million ($769 million) after the Russian-Georgian war in August and Russia's cutoff of natural gas in January.

The proposed partnership does not promise EU membership — something Ukraine, in particular, wants. The plan is expected to be formally approved at a mid-March meeting of the 27 EU leaders.

It came about after French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 pushed for a Mediterranean Union linking the EU to Israel and its Arab neighbors. That was watered down because of objections in Germany and because other countries said it was more crucial to reach out to eastern neighbors.

The eastern partnership plan says the EU must seek a "diversification of energy routes" by enabling the ex-Soviet nations to build new and better-connected pipelines and oil- and gas-storage facilities.

The EU wants to see a gas pipeline from the Caucasus fully skirting Russia. Russia is pushing for deals under which Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan will ship their Caspian Sea gas through Russia.


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