EU says Ukraine, Georgia progress toward visa-free access

An European flag flies at the entrance of the EU Commission Berlaymont building in Brussels on May 21, 2014 (AFP Photo/Georges Gobet)

Brussels (AFP) - The EU said Friday that Ukraine and Georgia, both embroiled in conflict with Russia, have made progress in gaining visa-free access to Europe, a key pay-off to boosting ties with the 28-nation bloc.

Ukraine and Georgia have signed Association Agreements to build a future with the European Union but in doing so they have sparked deep hostility and suspicion in their Soviet-era master Russia.

The European Commission said a review of both countries showed distinct progress in meeting the standards required to allow citizens from both countries to enter European Union nations for short stays without needing a visa.

"The assessment found that, despite the exceptional circumstances that Ukraine currently faces, the progress achieved ... has been noteworthy," the Commission said in a statement.

"Georgia's progress has been significant in a short period of time ... (but it) still needs to address the remaining recommendations and sustained efforts by all stakeholders involved will be needed," it added.

The review comes ahead of a May 21-22 Riga summit which will gather European Union leaders in the Latvian capital with their six Eastern Partnership counterparts from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova plus Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus.

Moldova also has an Association Agreement and a visa liberalisation accord with the EU but the other three have been much more reluctant to cast in their lot with the bloc.

Instead, they have kept ties open with Moscow as Russian President Vladimir Putin builds a Eurasian Customs Union designed to counter the attraction of the EU for former communist east European states.

The Riga summit was originally meant to showcase the success of the EU's Eastern Partnership policy but the war between pro-Russian rebels and Kiev forces in east Ukraine threatens to overshadow it.

Russia also fought a brief war with Georgia in 2008 and has since backed its two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abhkazia.

"The Commission will continue to monitor and to do its utmost to support Georgia and Ukraine throughout the (visa liberalisation) process," it said.