Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized on Saturday the European Union's new partnership with six former Soviet states, suggesting the 27-member bloc was seeking to extend its own sphere of influence.
"We are accused of trying to have spheres of influence," Lavrov said during the annual Brussels Forum in the Belgian capital. "What is the 'Eastern Partnership'? Is it a sphere of influence, including Belarus?"
On Friday, after a two-day summit in Brussels, EU leaders approved the new partnership, which would allow the union to increase its aid to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and possibly Belarus by 600 million euros ($814 million).
"Our dream has come true, we have been able to adopt the Eastern Partnership," said Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.
Under the scheme, the EU is to negotiate new association agreements -- accords setting terms for cooperation with non-member states -- as reward for democratic and free-market reforms.
The plan envisages the gradual creation of a free-trade zone with the countries. Of the 600 million euros in aid, some 350 million euros will be new funds for strengthening state institutions, border control and assistance for small companies.
Giving Belarus a chance?
The EU's interest in its eastern neighborhood has surged since Russia's August invasion of Georgia. The bloc is now keen to strengthen its ties with its neighbors to counter-balance Moscow's growing assertiveness in the region.
As a gesture of goodwill towards Russia's staunch ally Belarus, EU foreign ministers on Monday extended until December the suspension of travel restrictions for the country's top government officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko.
The EU put the ban into effect in 2006 in response to human rights violations allegedly committed by Lukashenko, whose regime former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once called "the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe."
But the bloc put the visa ban on ice in October in a bid to encourage the Belarus president to take a more pro-Western and pro-democracy course as part of a carrot-and-stick policy.
A sore spot for Russia
Lavrov, however, condemned the union's effort to draw ex-Soviet countries closer to the West as meddling into other countries' internal affairs.
"When my good friend Karel Schwarzenberg publicly says that if Belarus recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia it could forget about "Eastern Partnership", is it blackmail or is it democracy at work?"
"After those kinds of statements, we have questions," Lavrov added. "Is it about pulling countries (away) from the decisions that they are supposed to take freely?"
Russia recognized the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions following its short war in Georgia in August to widespread international condemnation. Moscow has been urging its neighbor to follow suit.
The official launch of the EU's partnership with six eastern European countries, which is backed strongly by Poland and Sweden, is set for May 7, although doubts remain about whether Lukashenko will be invited.
"That will depend on the behavior of Mr. Lukashenko and the Belarus government in the coming weeks, but Belarus should be in the 'Eastern Partnership'," Schwarzenberg said on Friday.