Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Russia's second chance?

EU leaders condemned Russia's military moves in Georgia but decided against sanctions Monday at an emergency summit on the Caucasus crisis.

Leaders did, however, postpone talks on a long-overdue new partnership agreement with Russia until Moscow withdraws its troops from Georgian territory.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was leading the summit, said he and his colleagues "strongly condemned" Russia's military reaction to the Georgian attack on separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the recognition of the two breakaway provinces as independent states.

"We must say that Russia's behavior over the past few weeks, its disproportionate response and its recognition of the two entities that declared independence has caused considerable concern in Europe and beyond," Sarkozy said.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso added the West "couldn't continue as if nothing happened."

Sarkozy and Barroso are part of a diplomatic task force that will travel to Moscow next Monday to meet with the Russian leadership. The EU team will urge the Kremlin to adhere to a French-brokered six-point peace plan and then decide whether talks over the partnership agreement can resume.

"We will ask Russia to apply the six-point plan scrupulously," Sarkozy said.

According to Angela Merkel, there is hope for a swift improvement of the situation.

The German chancellor revealed Monday that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had told Sarkozy the Kremlin "seems to be ready" to withdraw its troops to pre-conflict positions.

The Germans, together with France, Italy and Spain, had lobbied for a milder statement than Britain, some of the Baltic states and Poland did.

"I think we found an excellent compromise not going back to business as usual, but still making clear that we want to maintain contact with Russia," Merkel said.

All participants underlined the summit participants' -- at least external -- unity, with Merkel noting that each of the 27 member states was "very willing" to find a joint position.

"Europe has spoken with one voice," Sarkozy said proudly, brushing aside a reporter's question whether the EU wasn't more than a paper tiger to Russia.

"We do not want to create tension," he replied. "We do not want to be flexing our muscles talking about sanctions and counter-sanctions. Who would benefit from that? Nobody."

Internally, there were significantly more differences, as revealed by Polish Premier Donald Tusk, who spoke of European politicians who "would prefer empty conclusions because of their intensive bilateral relations with Russia."

Indeed, Germany, Italy and also Austria, for example, have extensive economic ties with Russia; they are dependent on Russian gas deliveries, and an outright conflict isn't in their interest.

Yet it remains to be seen if Russia is susceptible to the soft approach favored in Berlin and Paris.

The summit in Brussels was preceded by several tit-for-tat exchanges between Russia and the West, with EU officials talking about sanctions, which Moscow in turn called "sick ideas." Medvedev even indicated that Russia could itself level sanctions.

Several Russian officials have noted that the EU would only hurt itself with punitive measures and that the EU-Russian partnership agreement, which also aims to regulate the bilateral energy relationship, is more in Brussels' interest than in Moscow's.

"We don't need these talks or this new agreement any more than the EU does," said Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's envoy to the EU. "It's more a self-punishment for the EU because it doesn't improve its credibility as a trading partner."

Russia has talked about supplying energy to Asia at a higher rate, which would hurt deliveries to the West. Yet not everything Moscow says needs to be taken too seriously, observers say. It is muscle-flexing caused by Russia's new self-confidence.

What the West will have to do is shed some light on who really did launch the first attacks in Georgia, and identify how Russian and Georgian operations killed civilians, and how many of them. Russian sources speak of attempted genocide in South Ossetia.

Merkel, who is known to be critical of the Georgian leadership, underlined that there "never is only one side to blame in such a conflict."

No matter the findings, there are more than 20,000 displaced people in Georgia, and for them, help needs to come sooner rather than later, no matter the speed at which diplomatic progress is made by the West and Russia.

The EU has already committed roughly $15 million in aid and said Monday it would help organize a donors' conference to raise the additional money needed to help people in Georgia -- in the mainland and in the two breakaway provinces.

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