(RFE/RL) BRUSSELS -- The leaders of the European Union and the six Eastern Partnership countries will meet in Brussels on November 24 in an effort to deepen ties between the EU and the former Soviet republics.
The summit’s main event will likely be the signing of an enhanced EU partnership deal with Armenia. That pact, however, omits free trade and is less ambitious than the association agreements secured by Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Like those three countries, Armenia previously negotiated an EU Association Agreement. But Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian walked away from the deal in 2013 under pressure from Russia.
Armenia later joined the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
The EU launched the Eastern Partnership in 2009 to promote economic integration and European values in six eastern European and South Caucasus countries.
The run-up to this year’s summit has otherwise been dominated by speculation about whether authoritarian Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka would show up. Minsk said on November 21 that Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makei would lead its delegation.
In October, EU sources told RFE/RL that Lukashenka had received an invitation “without restrictions,” just like the leaders of the other five Eastern Partnership states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
This was a U-turn compared to the previous four summits, when he was blocked after being hit with EU sanctions following a violent crackdown on protesters after the Belarusian presidential elections in 2010.
Most of the sanctions, including those on Lukashenka, were lifted in February 2016.
This year’s summit in Brussels could also see clashes over the gathering’s final declaration, according to EU diplomats familiar with the talks.
One paragraph concerning conflicts in the region has been left open after both Armenia and Azerbaijan wanted specific, but conflicting, statements on the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh, according to a draft text seen by RFE/RL.
The current text also fails to mention the war between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014.
“The summit participants call for renewed efforts to promote the peaceful settlement of conflicts in the region on the basis of the principles and norms of international law,” it reads.
It adds that “the resolution of the conflicts, building trust and good neighborly relations are essential to economic and social development and cooperation.”
EU diplomats told RFE/RL that they wanted neutral wording in the statement and to omit any mention of specific conflicts in the Eastern Partnership countries, citing squabbles between Baku and Yerevan over the 2015 declaration that delayed the summit by several hours.
Ukraine is also likely to make a final push to secure more positive wording concerning its prospects of eventually joining the EU.
The current draft language on that topic is identical to that of the previous summit, stating that “the summit participants acknowledge the European aspirations and European choice of the partners concerned, as stated in the association agreements.”
The text references a December 2016 decision by EU heads of state that included a legally binding supplement to its association agreement underscoring that Brussels will not give Kyiv the right to automatic EU membership or guarantee any EU military aid for Ukraine.
The addendum allowed the Netherlands to finally ratify the Ukraine Association Agreement earlier this year despite the fact that 61 percent of Dutch voters disapproved of the deal in a citizen-driven, nonbinding referendum held in April 2016.
The draft declaration also outlines some future EU strategies in the Eastern Partnership countries.
These include “facilitating access to local currency lending” for local small and medium-sized enterprises, supporting “increased access to high-speed broadband,” and “progressing towards reduced roaming tariffs among the partner countries.”
Rikard Jozwiak covers the European Union and NATO for RFE/RL from his base in Brussels