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EU Stakes Hopes On Sarkozy's Mission To Moscow

  • Ahto Lobjakas

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (right) and External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in Avignon

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (right) and External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in Avignon

The European Union's 27 foreign ministers have ended their two-day informal meeting in Avignon with a show of unity ahead of the French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Moscow and Tbilisi on September 8.

Sarkozy, accompanied by other top EU officials, will make another effort to persuade Russia to abide by the terms of the cease-fire and remove its forces from Georgian territory.

But ministers and officials privately admit the chances of success are slim.

For the time being, unity is arguably the European Union's most potent weapon in its standoff with Russia.

That is perhaps best understood at this point by the EU's eastern member states, traditionally critical of Russia.

They closed ranks behind the bloc's French presidency in anticipation of Sarkozy's mission to Moscow.

Key to Sarkozy's efforts is securing a phased pullout of Russian troops, first from within Georgia proper and later -- in part, at least -- from Georgia's breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The EU stands ready to contribute observers to an OSCE mission currently in the process of being deployed in Georgia, and on September 15 will also formally declare itself ready to send its own, separate team of 200 monitors to the country.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after the meeting in Avignon that he expects Russia to comply with the EU requests in short order.

"I do hope that we will not have to discuss the issue of dispatching the monitoring mission in the course of the coming weeks and months," Steinmeier said. "I believe that the phased six-point plan [requiring] the withdrawal of troops from Georgia proper into South Ossetia and Abkhazia is something Russia must accept -- as it has itself agreed to this -- and assume that Russia will [also] proceed from this in making its own decisions."

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner refused to speculate about how long the EU is willing to wait. "We will wait until [September 8] -- at least. Then we will see," he said in response to a reporter's question in Avignon.

The signs emanating from Moscow are not encouraging.

Apart from increasingly defiant rhetoric from President Dmitry Medvedev, Russian officials and diplomats have made clear that they disagree with the EU's interpretation of the six-point cease-fire negotiated by Sarkozy on August 12.

Crucially, Moscow says the cease-fire entitles it to a continued military presence in a "buffer zone" abutting the territory of South Ossetia along its border with Georgia. Russian checkpoints have in recent days turned back EU diplomats trying to enter the area. They also block deliveries of humanitarian aid by international organizations.

The foreign minister of Finland, Alexander Stubb, who currently also chairs the OSCE, told his EU colleagues over the course of the meeting that Russia continues to stymie the build-up of the organization's monitoring mission from its present 28 members to the full strength of 100. According to the terms of the cease-fire, Russia will only withdraw its troops from Georgia proper once a full international monitoring presence is in place.
The EU's hopes are pinned on Sarkozy.

No official appeared prepared to contemplate the cost of possible failure when Sarkozy goes to Moscow. The EU is already in uncharted waters and, for the time being at least, there are few signs of division. Informally, ministers from Eastern Europe stressed that they do not hold France responsible for the current impasse. On the contrary, one said that the EU can count itself lucky it did not find itself headed by a smaller country on August 8.

"[There are] no grounds to abandon the unity that has been encouragingly on display," Steinmeier said. "You see this in the shared position of the [ministers], the readiness [of the member states] to participate in the missions, and lastly also in the interest shown here in clarifying what took place in the region in early August."

But that unity could crumble if the EU's stance proves ineffectual in Moscow. Some officials in Avignon were speaking of the need for a "Plan B."

Given the paucity of the levers at the EU's disposal, however, any alternate plan is likely to be confined to a further freeze in relations. After EU leaders suspended partnership talks with Russia on September 1, some Eastern European countries have sought a halt to talks on visa-free travel, scientific cooperation, and more equal treatment for Russia in the area of financial cooperation.

The EU ministers also broadly agreed to move ahead with easing the current visa restrictions on Georgia and establish free trade with that country. A donors' conference will be held for Georgia in October, and the EU pledged 100 million euros ($143 million) in aid.

There were also calls to offer Ukraine a clear -- if distant -- prospect for EU membership at the EU-Ukraine summit at Evian on September 9. Such a move is likely to be blocked by the Benelux countries and others skeptical of further enlargement or unwilling to antagonize Russia.

The ministers also urged a thaw in the bloc's chilly relations with Belarus, where strongman President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has recently released a number of political prisoners. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the EU is looking at ways to "reward" Minsk for its actions. EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner went further, saying said it is time to reopen a high-level political dialogue with Belarus.