RIGA (Reuters) - European Union leaders began a tense summit in Latvia on Thursday with ex-Soviet neighbours that was overshadowed by the continuing confrontation with Russia triggered by the last such event 18 months ago.
Disagreement over the conflict in Ukraine, and over the EU's reluctance to hold out membership prospects to the six states in its "Eastern Partnership", has marked the preparations.
But as he arrived for the opening dinner in Riga, summit chairman Donald Tusk insisted the bloc was still determined to support its poorer neighbours in the face of Russian anger: "The European Union stays the course despite the intimidation, the aggression, even the war, of the last year," he said.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko insisted he was "not disappointed" with a draft joint statement that will reaffirm on Friday only Kiev and others' "European aspirations". But he stressed that a "perspective" of EU accession remained a goal.
Though they insist their eastern policy is not directed against Russia, big EU powers are wary of provoking President Vladimir Putin by making big gestures toward Moscow's former vassals -- a hesitation that frustrates some newer EU members.
Regretting the caution being shown toward Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas said: "We have to show a very clear perspective of membership already."
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel was clear, telling the Berlin parliament: "We must not create false expectations."
The draft, which renews an offer of visa-free travel to the EU for Georgians and Ukrainians -- but only after both complete reforms -- also stressed that EU relations with the six would be "differentiated". Some embrace Western ideas and are clamouring to join, while others like Armenia are closer to Russia and Belarus and Azerbaijan scorn EU complaints on human rights.
Leaders of the latter two sent ministers in their places.
In an exercise in EU linguistic gymnastics, participants are also likely sign up to a condemnation of Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine while letting Armenia and Belarus stick to their backing for Moscow on the issue in a U.N. vote last year.
However, Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland, did not mince his words in rejecting Russian suggestions the EU is trying to turn the Kremlin's "near abroad" against it.
"The Eastern Partnership is not a beauty contest between Russia and the EU," said the president of the European Council.
"But ... beauty does count; if Russia were a bit softer, more charming, more attractive perhaps it wouldn't have to compensate for its shortcomings by destructive, aggressive and bullying tactics against its neighbours."
Pursuing a process it launched six years ago to offer trade and aid in hopes of fostering stable democracies on its flank, the EU was plunged into Europe's deepest crisis since the Cold War when it offered Ukraine free trade at a summit in late 2013.
The 11th-hour refusal by Ukraine's then president to sign the EU pact in Vilnius brought pro-Western protesters onto Kiev's Maidan square. That led to a bloody revolt which Russia denounced as a fascist coup and used to justify taking Crimea and supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine.
EU officials take pains to stress achievements of the policy and the summit draft calls for more economic cooperation and efforts to improve energy, transport and network links.
As well as problems in the east, Merkel faces another to the south when she and French President Francois Hollande meet Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras after dinner on Thursday, though officials see no breakthrough on Athens' talks with creditors.
The gathering will also be a first chance for EU leaders to meet British Prime Minister David Cameron since he was re-elected two weeks ago, winning a mandate to reform London's ties with the EU before putting its membership of the bloc to a referendum. Peers said they want to hear Cameron's demands.
(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, Gederts Gelzins and Renee Maltezou in Riga and Jan Strupczewski in Brussels; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Andrew Roche)
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