Sarkozy tells Russia to end 'threats' against Georgia
Visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy told thousands of cheering Georgians on Friday that Russia must stop making "threats" and intimidating its neighbour after their brief 2008 war.
"France sees Russia as its friend, as a strategic partner. But to restore confidence, intimidation, threats and attempts to destabilise (the situation) are fully unacceptable," said Sarkozy, who brokered the peace deal to end the five-day clash between the ex-Soviet states.
At an elaborately-staged rally on Tbilisi's Freedom Square to welcome Sarkozy on his first return to the country since the deal was finalised, the French leader stressed that he was committed to "the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity" of Georgia.
Georgia accuses Russia of violating the agreement and its sovereignty by not pulling its troops back to pre-war positions and "occupying" the rebel provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow recognised as independent states after the 2008 conflict.
Sarkozy insisted that Russia must withdraw its forces in line with Moscow's "word and honour".
"Against all strategic logic and contrary to undertaken commitments, significant military forces are still stationed and were reinforced," he said.
The strong comments delighted Tbilisi but will irritate Moscow, which says its troops were invited by sovereign states to protect them against attempts by Georgia to seize back territory it no longer controls but still claims.
Russia's recognition of the two rebel provinces came shortly after the war and was followed quickly by its refusal to deal directly with the pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili.
But in firm remarks that echoed the two sides' recent split over action in Libya and Syria, Sarkozy noted that Russia must stop the Soviet-era practice of bossing territories that once answered to Moscow.
"Everyone must admit that the Soviet Union does not exist anymore and that a policy of spheres of influence is not intended to succeed it," said Sarkozy.
"Everyone must admit that Georgia, like any other country, has the right to define its path and to freely choose its friends and its alliances. It must be free to express its aspiration to join NATO, if its people wish," he said.
In unusually encouraging words that drew cheers from his Tbilisi audience, Sarkozy also held out the distant hope of EU membership for the impoverished Caucasus state, saying that Georgia also "must be free to express its aspiration to move towards the European Union and to one day join it".
He cautioned however that any progress towards EU membership "depends, primarily, on your reforms and the deepening of your democracy".
Saakashvili, who is no longer on speaking terms with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and is set to remain in power until 2013, told the rally that he had no doubt where the country's future lies.
"Georgia's and Russia's ways have parted. We choose Europe and we choose European democracy," Saakashvili said.
Freedom Square had been completely redecorated for the rally and draped with huge Georgian, French and EU flags, while national television channels repeatedly screened government advertisements urging a massive turnout.
© 2011 AFP