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EU to forge pact with ex-Soviet states

The European Union will provoke fury in Moscow when it launches an unprecedented drive to forge a new pact with former Soviet states.Ignoring Russian condemnation, EU ministers will effectively open up a third front in an escalating East-West row on Thursday by meeting ex-Soviet bloc leaders in Prague for two summits that could reduce Moscow's energy stranglehold over Europe and its political influence over neighbouring states.

Kremlin anger with the West has grown steadily in recent days, culminating with the formal expulsion on Wednesday of two Canadian diplomats assigned to the Nato mission in Moscow. The ejections came after Nato withdrew the accreditation of two Russian diplomats at its Brussels headquarters after accusing them of spying.Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, condemned Moscow's actions and the Russian ambassador to Ottawa was summoned for an explanation.

"We are concerned about Russia's behaviour on a number of fronts," said Mr Harper. "We would like Russia to behave in a more acceptable manner."

Further stoking tensions in what Moscow calls its "near abroad", Nato meanwhile began a military exercise in Georgia, a move denounced by Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, as "blatant provocation".

Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war last year that some commentators said was partly triggered by the Kremlin's opposition to the Nato membership ambitions of Georgia and Ukraine.

Western aspirations for an improved relationship with Russia have been further dented by Kremlin objections to the EU's summit with its recently created "Eastern Partnership", a six-member bloc incorporating the ex-Soviet states of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Mr Medvedev, outlining his foreign policy doctrine last year, insisted Russia was entitled to a sphere of "privileged interest" in the former Soviet Union.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, gave warning yesterday that the Prague summit represented an encroachment into that sphere.

"Any processes leading to developments within the EU should ensure no overlap in the post-Soviet era," he said.

Ironically, few observers expect the Eastern Partnership summit to achieve much. Although Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, are among those representing the EU, the leaders of Moldova and Belarus are staying away under Russian pressure.

The ex-Soviet states are also dismayed that the EU has removed any promise of future membership from the talks and has even moved away from agreeing a visa waiver agreement.

More worrying for Moscow, commentators say, is an energy summit, attended by the gas-rich countries of central Asia, that will be take place on Friday.

The meeting could see the first significant breakthrough in the EU's torturous attempts to reduce energy dependence on Russia.

Until this year Moscow appeared to have beaten the West in the "New Great Game" to secure control over the gas resources of Central Asia, seen as a vital alternative for Europe to Russian energy.

But a rare show of European unity over a long-stalled pipeline project in the Caspian sea region and the blossoming of relations with gas-rich Turkmenistan have revived hopes that a last-minute deal to cut out Russia could be secured at the summit.

"It is a make or break summit," one European diplomat said. "If there is no deal, the gas goes to Russia or China."





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