'Peacemaker' Sarkozy admonishes Russia and Turkey

7th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

French President Nicolas Sarkozy criticised Russia for "threats" against Georgia during a Caucasus tour that also saw him draw ire from Turkey over comments about the "genocide" of Armenians.

Seeking to portray himself as a peacemaker during the three-nation trip, Sarkozy -- who brokered the deal to end the 2008 Georgia-Russia war -- told thousands of cheering Georgians packed into Tbilisi's Freedom Square that Moscow was still intimidating its defeated neighbour.

"France sees Russia as its friend, as a strategic partner. But to restore confidence, threats, intimidation, threats and attempts to destabilise (the situation) are fully unacceptable," he said.

Georgia accuses Russia of violating the peace agreement 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.

In comments likely to irritate the Kremlin, which says its troops in the provinces are there to protect them from Georgia, Sarkozy said Russia must withdraw its forces and fulfill its "word and honour".

"Against all strategic logic and contrary to undertaken commitments, significant military forces are still stationed and were reinforced at your (Georgia's) door, on the other side of the dividing lines," he told the flag-waving crowd.

Using firm language that echoed the recent split with the Kremlin over action in Libya and Syria, Sarkozy said that Russia must stop the Soviet-era practice of bossing sovereign 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," he said, adding that Georgia should be able to express its aspirations to join the EU and NATO despite Russian opposition.

The French leader -- who is expected to seek re-election despite current difficulties at home -- also courted controversy in Armenia by demanding that Turkey recognise the World War I-era massacres of Armenians as genocide before his first term ends next year.

"From 1915 to 2011, it seems to be enough (time) for reflection," he said in Yerevan.

Turkey, which denies genocide, responded with fury.

"It would be better... if Monsieur Sarkozy abandons the role of historian and puts his mind to getting his country out of the economic gulf in which it finds itself," said Ankara's European Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis.

Armenia and Turkey have gone through decades of hostility over the Ottoman empire massacres, but Sarkozy said "the time has come to find the path of lasting peace", citing the example of France and Germany after World War II.

He warned that if Turkey did not make a "gesture of peace" and a "step towards reconciliation", he would consider proposing the adoption of a law criminalising denial of the killings as genocide.

Armenians say that up to 1.5 million of their kin fell victim to genocide, but Turkey counters that 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife.

The French leader previously angered Ankara ahead of his election in 2007 by backing a law aimed at prosecuting those who refused to recognise the massacres as genocide.

France's lower house of parliament later rejected the measure, infuriating the Armenian diaspora in France estimated at around 500,000 people.

Before his visit, Sarkozy also indicated an ambition to aid Armenia and the third country on his Caucasus tour, Azerbaijan, in their stalled peace process over Nagorny Karabakh -- the focus of a bitter unresolved conflict that erupted into war in the 1990s, leaving some 30,000 dead.

The French leader urged the two rivals to "take the risk of peace", but on the eve of his arrival three soldiers were killed on the front line in a sign of continuing tensions over Karabakh, which Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized from Azerbaijan during the war.

© 2011 AFP

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