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By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU leaders offered Ukraine closer ties on Friday at a summit meant to cement Kiev's ties with the West, but they declined to promise that the country could one day join the bloc.
As fighting escalated in Ukraine's industrial east, EU leaders held a summit with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and five other former Soviet republics, part of a tug-of-war with Russia for influence through trade and cooperation.
In a summit statement also signed by Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus, EU leaders agreed to "the European aspirations and European choice of the partners" - code for deeper integration without offering membership.
Ukraine, which ousted a Russian-backed president in February 2014 in a pro-European uprising, wants the promise of future membership of the EU, the world's biggest trading bloc, as it seeks to overcome entrenched corruption and economic neglect.
"A promise of EU membership is important, it's symbolic," said Ukraine's Finance Minister Oleksandr Danylyuk on the margins of the biennial summit. "No other country was willing to pay such a high price as we did," he told Reuters.
Kiev, fighting a Russian-backed insurgency in the east, sees a promise of membership as a morale-boosting next step after agreeing a free-trade accord with the bloc and winning visa-free travel to the EU for its citizens.
Some EU leaders are sympathetic to Kiev and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he promised Poroshenko a formal study into how Ukraine might join the EU's customs union.
The summit's chairman Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, said: "I would have preferred that the wording of the (summit) agreement were more ambitious" without giving details.
But other leaders warned Ukraine not to push too hard, in part because governments are seeking to curb immigration and face down far-right political parties at home, and also because Ukraine's fragile economy is not yet ready to meet EU norms.
"Stubbornness is good, but the most important thing is not guarantees on entering (the EU), but to be stubborn about reforms," said Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite.
"Any membership is only as valuable as it is beneficial for Ukraine," she said, referring to the country's need to reform to meet EU business, health and other trade standards.
Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel echoed that position, saying it was "not the right moment" to be discussing any future Ukrainian membership of the European Union.
"THIS IS A FIGHT"
Backed by Washington, the European Union is seeking to build an outer ring of market democracies from the Caucasus to the Sahara without offering EU membership, a policy that has had limited success so far.
Ukraine is also unhappy about being grouped in with Belarus, a Russian ally whose authoritarian leader, President Alexander Lukashenko, did not attend the summit on Friday despite being invited for the first time.
On leaving the summit, Poroshenko said he expected a breakthrough soon on a stalled 600 million euro ($712 million) loan to the financial sector from the EU that is held up by Ukraine's failure to meet conditions.
Danylyuk told Reuters he also saw the next IMF aid tranche coming early next year.
Wary that reforms will slow as Ukraine moves closer to elections in 2019, the EU and IMF governments are using their financial support to push anti-corruption reforms.
European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who oversees EU integration, said it was "ridiculous" that 1.5 million Ukrainians signed up to a wealth declarations register last year but only 100 people had been assessed to date.
Danylyuk countered that he was facing a campaign against his economic reform efforts from powerful business groups that benefited from corruption and legal loopholes.
"This is a fight," he said. "For vested interests, it's like we are taking their money."
(Additional reporting by Peter Maushagen and Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Andrew Roche)