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Russia proposes NATO talks on Georgia to ease ties

Brussels — Russia is ready to discuss its war in Georgia to help unblock ties with NATO but alliance nations are divided over resuming formal talks and no de-freeze is likely before April, diplomats said Thursday.

The war in early August brought NATO-Russia tensions to a head, especially Moscow’s decision to recognise the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and its plans to base troops there.

"We are proposing a special session of the NATO-Russia Council on the Caucasus," Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin told AFP, a day after he made the proposal to alliance ambassadors in Brussels. "The only condition is that this meeting happen in the presence of a representative of the Russian chiefs of staff, so we can explain our view of the events that led to the conflict with Georgia in August."

Rogozin said the meeting could also focus on "our project to install bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia," the breakaway Georgian regions which Russia has recognised — to widespread western condemnation.

Official high-level talks between NATO and Russia have been frozen since Moscow sent its troops into Georgia last August but resumed informally in December.

A NATO spokeswoman declined to say whether the alliance, whose foreign ministers will discuss the issue in Brussels on March 5 with new US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton present, would accept the proposal.

"We speak about Georgia at all our meetings,” she said. “The allies expressed (Wednesday) their concern about the bases that Moscow wants to install" in the breakaway Georgian regions.

According to diplomats, several nations want to resume formal meetings of the so-called NATO-Russia Council, which meets routinely among ambassadors, but also at ministerial and head of state and governmental level.

France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Spain maintain that the sanction against Russia is counter-productive and have called for a resumption of official ties for months.

Britain came around to that position at the end of last year.

One diplomat said that NATO "must ask what it has to win by isolating itself", when the European Union — which has 21 members in common with the alliance — relaunched partnership talks with Moscow in November.

Were NATO to decide next week to unblock ties, Clinton could use that momentum on March 6 in Geneva, where she is set to hold talks with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

But several eastern European countries — notably the Czech Republic — and Canada, which has a big Georgian community, refuse any early return to normal relations.

In preparing to set up bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, they believe, Russia has crossed an important red line.

"Because of the Russian bases, the allies are not going to be able to re-engage and launch the dialogue this time around," another diplomat said. "They would prefer to wait until the summit," in Strasbourg, northern France and the neighbouring German city of Kehl on April 2 to 3.

Much will depend, as usual at NATO, on the position of the United States, the biggest and most powerful of the allies.

"It seems that the United States wants to send positive messages to everyone, to Russia as well as Ukraine and Georgia," which are both trying to join NATO, an alliance official said.

Pascal Mallet/AFP/Expatica