(Bate Felix, Reuters) - The European Union will draw up terms for talks on closer ties with the Southern Caucasus states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in November which could lead to agreements on issues such as trade and security.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Tuesday played down any Russian concerns about forging closer links with states that were once part of the Soviet Union and gave the go-ahead to the EU executive to start work on the terms of the talks.
The move will open the way for the countries to negotiate association agreements, in which states commit to political, economic, trade and human rights reforms in return for tariff-free access to some or all EU markets and financial or technical assistance.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Ollie Rehn told a news conference: "We will be able to prepare the draft negotiating mandates in the course of November which would facilitate moving forward at the speed that the presidency and the member states decide appropriate."
The European Union is keen to establish closer ties with former Soviet states that are either rich in oil and gas or are key for transit of energy from Russia and other states.
Rehn said the EU's objective was to establish comprehensive free trade areas with the countries. When asked about possible Russian concerns about closer EU ties with a region Russia considers part of its sphere of influence, the Swedish EU presidency said the countries were sovereign nations that wanted to engage with the EU economically
"They have the right to chose their own destiny, they have expressed the views for a close relationship with the European Union," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. "They have the right to choose their own future, not to be restricted by anyone," he told the news conference.
The European Union has also proposed negotiating association agreements with Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus under its "Eastern Partnership" scheme which provides for closer cooperation on energy and offers some 350 million euros ($442 million) in new aid for the six countries for strengthening state institutions, border control and assistance for small companies.