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Poland takes on Russia with 'Eastern Partnership' proposal

Poland takes on Russia with 'Eastern Partnership' proposal

Poland will take on its mighty neighbour Russia today when it proposes that the European Union extends its influence deep into the former Soviet Union by establishing an "Eastern Partnership".

The text of the proposal is being finalised and is due to be announced at the EU Council of Foreign Ministers, potentially stoking new tensions with Russia.

The Eastern Partnership would be particularly galling for the Kremlin if its aspiration to include Belarus is achieved.

Belarus is under the sway of Moscow and has been described by the Bush administration as "Europe's last dictatorship".

The Polish initiative marks a new diplomatic engagement with the EU by Warsaw, which was left politically isolated after the abrasive rule of the Kaczynski twins.

Since their Law and Justice Party was comprehensively beaten in elections last autumn, Donald Tusk, the new Polish prime minister, has sought to repair bilateral ties.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to arrive in Warsaw for talks this week. The Eastern Partnership appears to be an equivalent of the Mediterranean Union the French president is to unveil at an EU summit in Paris in July.

"We are getting very positive feedback from our EU partners," a Polish foreign ministry source said. "It will be open to all countries, including Belarus. We hope to encourage democratic reform there."

Officials insist that the proposal, which is to be presented jointly by Poland and Sweden, is no alternative to EU membership. Nonetheless, officials are keen to ensure that Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan look to Brussels, not Moscow, for future leadership.

"These are very practical things that Russia will also be able to profit from," Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, said, referring to the partnership's proposed easing of visa restrictions for member states as well as free trade agreements.