EU, US back post-Soviet states amid Russian pressure
The European Union and the United States on Saturday threw their support behind post-Soviet states seeking closer ties with the EU and warned Russian counter-pressure was unacceptable.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who joined the 28 EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Lithuania, called the EU's Eastern Partnership programme "a very important economic plan" to boost business standards, trade and jobs.
Launched in 2009, the Eastern Partnership is aimed at drawing post-Soviet states closer to the EU, something Russia sees as encroaching on its sphere of influence.
The programme involves Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said all his EU counterparts expressed solidarity with the six countries in the programme, but warned that Russia would increase its pressure on key participant Ukraine.
"Arguments should compete, not pressure -- be it economic threats or some other political pressure. It is not acceptable," Linkevicius told journalists in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Lithuania, which holds the rotating EU presidency, will host a summit in November between the EU and Eastern Partnership states.
The EU expects to clinch a landmark association and free trade accord with Ukraine at the summit and start talks on similar deals with Georgia and Moldova.
Soviet-era master Russia recently warned Ukraine and Moldova of retaliatory measures should they sign the accord with the EU.
It set up its own customs union in 2010, which it currently shares with ex-Soviet Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin views the customs union as the foundation of a future Eurasian economic union with its own executive body and a single currency.
Last week, Armenia said it would join the Russian-led customs union, thus blocking its chances of signing a free trade deal with the EU.
Linkevicius is set to meet Armenia's foreign minister later on Saturday to discuss the current situation, his spokeswoman told AFP.
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said there was "huge pressure" on Russia's neighbours, but warned they had to show more progress to win EU deals.
"The point about our relations with our Eastern partners is we want them to be free to make the choices that they wish to make about their economic and political relationships," she told reporters.