EU wins half victory with Russia promising retreat

9th September 2008, Comments 0 comments

French President Nicolas Sarkozy wins partial victory as Russia agrees to withdraw troops from Georgia but retains a hold on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

9 September 2008

BRUSSELS -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy won only a partial victory by convincing Russia to withdraw troops from Georgia in a month as Moscow retains a hold on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, experts said Tuesday.

At a summit with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev late Monday, Sarkozy received assurances that Moscow would pull troops out of Georgia proper but no guarantees that they would leave the disputed Georgian rebel regions.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, welcomed the "important progress accomplished" during the impromptu meeting, where the French leader was backed by senior EU officials.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini expressed satisfaction that "for the first time, a timetable was set", for the withdrawal of Russian troops and the deployment in their wake of an EU monitoring mission.

For Antonio Missiroli, from the European Policy Centre, setting a deadline was "very positive" because it constitutes "a measurable time period and 'measures'," meaning that some 200 EU observers can deploy from the end of September.

"Even if the time of one month is longer than the Europeans and the West would have liked," Russia remains "under pressure" because an international donors conference and EU summit follow in early October, he said.

Sarkozy warned Monday that if Russian troops did not withdraw by that time to positions they held before they moved into Georgia - "then five days later, Europe will have to draw its conclusions".

EU leaders, who sidestepped sanctions against Russia at a summit on 1 September but froze talks on closer ties, could pull the rug on certain trade advantages Moscow enjoys under their present framework for ties.

They could also cancel an EU-Russia summit planned for 14 November in Nice, France, according to Andrew Wilson, from the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But Sarkozy said nothing to support calls from President Mikheil Saakashvili for Georgia's territorial integrity to be defended - in other words that rebel Abkhazia and South Ossetia should remain under Tbilisi's control.

For many experts, it is this omission that makes Sarkozy's victory a partial one.

The agreement seems "to consolidate Russia's control of the two territories, which could mean that Georgia will have trouble accepting (the EU) mission," said Sabine Freizer, from the International Crisis Group think tank.

This was highlighted by the fact that Russia did not confirm assurances from the French leader that EU observers would be able to enter Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which have been recognised as independent by Moscow.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even insisted that his country's troops are likely to stay inside the Georgian rebel regions for a "long time".

Without any guarantees about how it will be able to operate, the EU observer mission - due to be given a greenlight by European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels next Monday - could find itself in the uncomfortable position of having to monitor the new frontiers defined by Russia's military intervention.

"The good news is that Russia responds to pressure," said Tomas Valasek, from the Centre for European Reform in London.

"The bad news is that it will put the EU in a difficult place ... and it will be very difficult for the EU to avoid accusations that it is helping Russia impose the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," he said.

[AFP / Expatica]

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