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Is EU's eastern Europe policy in tatters after Russia row?

Russia's President Vladimir Putin visits the 'RusSki Gorki' Jumping Center at the Krasnaya Polyana resort near the Black Sea city of Sochi, on November 27, 2013
Russia's President Vladimir Putin visits the "RusSki Gorki" Jumping Center at the Krasnaya Polyana resort near the Black Sea city of Sochi, on November 27, 2013.

Though the European Union appears to have lost to Russia in the first round of an East-West tussle over winning friends and influence in eastern Europe, some analysts would disagree.

Moscow instead may be on a slippery slope.

Europe's leaders headed home disappointed and dragging their feet after a two-day Eastern Partnership summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, this week designed to draw six ex-Soviet states closer to the West, first and foremost among them mighty Ukraine.

The president of the country's 46 million people, Viktor Yanukovych, handed the 28 leaders of the 500-million strong European Union a stinging snub. He refused to sign a historic deal negotiated over years that was to have been the centrepiece of the EU's Eastern Partnership project.

The project spawned in 2009 and dear to the heart of the EU's newest members -- onetime Soviet satellites -- aims to strengthen ties between the bloc and countries lying on its eastern flank that remain very much in Russia's orbit.

Though the countries themselves see special ties with the EU as a stepping-stone to membership, there is decreasing appetite within the bloc for bringing in new members as anti-immigrant movements across Europe take root.

Yanukovych blamed his sudden change of mind on economic pressure from Russia that has caused Ukraine's exports to its former Moscow master to drop 25 to 40 percent.

With Ukraine caving in to Russia -- though the president says talks with Brussels will continue and the EU says the door remains open -- that leaves Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan as candidates of the EU's Eastern Partnership drive.

But Belarus is already a member of Moscow's competing Customs Union and Armenia, though once seen as a staunchly pro-Western nation, recently chose to join the union in fear of Russian retaliation.

Azerbaijan is simply not interested in Europe.

"The idea of a regional approach of the EU towards its eastern neighbourhood flounders with the drop-out of Ukraine," said Steven Blockmans of the European Centre for Policy Studies.

"What remains are enhanced bilateral relations with Moldova and Georgia, which could also come under Russian pressure over the issue of the breakaway republics of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russia has a military presence," he added.

Moldova, with 3.5 million people, and Georgia with 4.5 million, both initialled "historical" trade and political deals with the EU at the Vilnius summit, but face the threat of Russian retortion in the months before the agreements are officially signed and sealed.

'Short-term triumph for Russia'

Georgia's new president Giorgi Margvelashvili said his country was wary. "We try to deliver the message to all capitals that a prosperous, democratic Georgia can only be a benefit for any of Georgia's neighbours, including the Russian Federation", he said.

But clearly Russia can exert energy supply and trade issues and use its political influence inside these countries to influence decision-making.

"I think Moldova and Georgia may face bigger pressure," said Ramunas Vilpisauskas, who heads the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius university.

That is exactly why analyst Jan Techau, who heads Carnegie Europe, says the Vilnius summit trumpeted by most as a failure in fact marks a success for the Eastern Partnership.

"It is a small, short-term triumph for Russia that it prevented Ukraine from signing now," he told AFP.

"In the long run, Russia's diplomatic brutality will not pay off."

With countries already trying to become more independent from Russian pressure by building new pipelines to avoid dependence, for example, "Russia has only accelerated this trend", he said.

So while some commentators saw the Vilnius summit as the end of the Eastern Partnership "in my opinion it is the beginning of it", he added.

"So far it was a technical game on rules, agreements and trade. From now on it is about geopolitics. The real Eastern Partnership has only just started."

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