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AFP
The European Commission on Wednesday proposed closer ties with Armenia and other ex-Soviet states, but denied it seeks a "sphere of influence" in Moscow's former fiefdom.

The new "Eastern Partnership" scheme, which EU member states must yet endorse, will offer "a step change in the EU's relations" with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, plus Belarus, if it embraces democracy, the commission said. What the new partnership will not be, officials were swift to say, is a promise of eventual EU membership,

EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, unveiling the proposals at a Brussels press conference, admitted that the EU was seeking influence in the region but said Cold War-style "spheres of influence" were no longer valid. "We have said clearly that the Cold War is over. Where there is no Cold War there should be no spheres of influence," he said.

"I believe all countries have the right to decide what way they should go," he said.

"When we want to do more for this region it is not in the way of confrontation with anyone else," he said. "We are interested in influence, but in influence when it comes to promoting our values. This is soft power. We are interested in the promotion of democracy and open societies, respect for human rights, of press freedoms and independence."

Barroso said that the idea for closer ties with the region gained steam after Russia fought a short war in Georgia in August. "The Georgia crisis did cause our member states to think about whether or not we should do something more for this region of the world. It is not in Europe's interests to have crises on our doorstep of the Georgian kind."

The Eastern Partnership offers the prospect of "a substantial upgrading of the level of political engagement," including far-reaching integration into the EU economy, easier travel to the EU, enhanced energy security arrangements and increased financial assistance. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said that a total of 600 million euros ($758 million) would be made available for the program up to 2013. It would be in addition to current financing to the six nations which are already part of the EU's "neighborhood program".

The initiative would also counterbalance the new Mediterranean union, launched in July by the French EU presidency. However, the Eastern Partnership will not offer the prospect of eventual EU membership, something which Tbilisi, and particularly Kiev, are hoping for.

As with NATO membership, European nations are divided on the question of offering up a place at the EU table. Britain, Sweden and eastern European EU members are in favor of expanding the EU eastwards, notably to bring those countries out of Russia's sphere of influence. Germany leads a group of western European nations opposed to such a move.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, is recommending a measured approach, proposing to negotiate an "association agreement" with each of the six eastern European nations. Ukraine, which Barroso said was in the vanguard of the region's rapprochement with the European Union, is already on the path to an association agreement.
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