The Eastern Partnership is an EU attempt to expand its "sphere of influence" in the quest for hydrocarbons, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has said, in Moscow's first major broadside against the new policy.
"We are accused of having spheres of influence. But what is the Eastern Partnership, if not an attempt to extend the EU's sphere of influence, including to Belarus," the minister said on Saturday (21 March) at the Brussels Forum, a high-level symposium.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov sees spheres of influence in Europe (Photo: wikipedia)
He added that the Czech EU presidency and the European Commission are putting undue pressure on Belarus by suggesting it might be marginalised if it follows Russia in recognising the independence of Georgian breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"Is this promoting democracy or is it blackmail? It's about pulling countries from the positions they want to take as sovereign states," Mr Lavrov said.
The EU on Friday formally launched the Eastern Partnership, a €600 million policy to forge closer political and trade links with six former Soviet countries - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
Azerbaijan and Georgia are important for the EU's pursuit of alternative gas and oil import routes from the Caspian Sea region. Belarus also hosts a major gas pipeline system.
The invitation of Belarus leader Lukashenko to an Eastern Partnership launch summit in May and the pace of EU-Belarus rapprochement in the partnership process continue to hang in the balance, however. Czech foreign minister Karl Schwarzenberg in February said it would be "difficult" to make progress if Minsk takes the Russian line on Georgia.
Mr Lavrov's choice of words on Saturday was piquant, with former-Communist EU members often accusing Moscow of blackmailing its neighbours or thinking in terms of Cold War-era spheres.
He said Russia has special relations with eastern European countries because of "hundreds of years of common history" and Russia's open labour market.
Sweden, the co-author of the Eastern Partnership project together with Poland, rejected Mr Lavrov's position as "completely unacceptable."
"The Eastern Partnership is not about spheres of influence. The difference is that these countries themselves opted to join," Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt told EUobserver at the Brussels Forum.
The EU's position on Georgia is not 'blackmail' but "is about upholding the principles of the EU and international law, which Russia should also be respecting," he added.
'Appeasement won't work'
The Lavrov speech should dispel the idea that Russia will agree to a formula of more EU, less NATO for its former vassals, according to EU and NATO-aspirant Georgia.
"Mr Lavrov just confirmed that whatever choices Eastern European countries make, be it NATO or EU, they are not acceptable to Russia. Moscow continues to see the Euro-atlantic aspirations of these countries as an attempt to leave its sphere of influence," Georgian minister for reintegration Temuri Yakobashvili told this website.
"The fact that Russia sees the European Partnership as a zero-sum game proves wrong those who believe that giving up NATO aspirations would solve the problems with Moscow. Appeasing Russia will not work."
Ukraine, home to a large ethnic-Russian minority hostile to NATO expansion, is taking a more nuanced approach.
"There is a difference, NATO has a huge legacy from the bipolar world of the Cold war, which the EU does not have," Ukraine deputy premier Hryhoriy Nemyria said.
"The strategic priority of our country is integration in the EU. This is the way to modernise our country and we welcome the Eastern Partnership policy, because it uses de facto the same instruments as for EU candidates. We know it's not about membership, but membership is also not completely ruled out for the future."