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EU includes Belarus in Eastern Partnership program

BRUSSELS, February 24 (RIA Novosti) - The European Union has announced the inclusion of Belarus in its Eastern Partnership (EaP) program. The announcement was made on Monday after a meeting of foreign ministers from the 27-nation alliance in Brussels, and comes less than a week after EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana's visit to the former Soviet republic. The EaP program is a forum intended to facilitate the discussion of visa agreements, free trade deals and strategic partnership agreements with a number of countries from Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus. It does not imply future membership of the European Union. "There's been a general consensus that the concept of an Eastern Partnership is viable," Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the EU rotating presidency, said after the meeting. "And [that] the concluding of association agreements, deep and comprehensive free trade areas, and creating a common platform for issues of mutual interest such as energy security, is the way forward." Apart from Belarus, the other countries in the program are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Belarus's long-serving leader, once dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, has moved recently to improve ties with the EU, which had long criticized his records on human rights and democracy. Schwarzenberg was cautious however with regard to Minsk, saying that Belarus would create "a very difficult situation" if it were to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. The two republics were recognized by Russia last August after a five-day war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia that began when Georgian forces attacked the republic in a bid to bring it back under Tbilisi's control. So far, only Nicaragua has joined Russia in recognizing the republics. Also speaking at a news conference after the Brussels meeting, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, said it was "imperative" for the EU to work in the post-Soviet space, citing the Russia-Georgia war and the recent Russia-Ukraine gas dispute. The EU, she said, had "crucial interests" in the region. She also expressed confidence that the EU would approve at a March summit an extra 350-million euro ($445.3 million) in funding for the program. The money is on top of 250 million euros already approved. The EaP program will be formally launched at a summit in the Czech capital of Prague on May 7.
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