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EU Secures Russian Withdrawal, At Cost To Georgia

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (center) with Abkhaz separatist Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba (left) and his South Ossetian counterpart, Marat Djioyev in Moscow on 9 September

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (center) with Abkhaz separatist Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba (left) and his South Ossetian counterpart, Marat Djioyev in Moscow on 9 September

In a bout of intense shuttle diplomacy on September 8, an EU delegation led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy secured a promise from Moscow to withdraw its troops from Georgian territory.

However, the precise terms of the new agreement are almost certain to be disputed by the parties for weeks to come.

The new agreement came at a high price for Georgia -- Tbilisi had to sign away the right to use force in either Abkhazia or South Ossetia -- effectively giving up its sovereignty over the two separatist provinces.

As some EU diplomats on the ground in Georgia predicted weeks ago, Russia appears to have always viewed the presence of its troops on Georgian territory outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a bargaining chip.

Moscow recognized those republics' independence on August 26, in a move that exacerbated relations with the West.

Now, having agreed to withdraw the troops after talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy and other EU officials in Moscow on Monday, Russia secured a commitment from Tbilisi not to use force against Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

In Tbilisi on September 8, Sarkozy spoke of the "scientific precision" of the new terms he had secured from Moscow.

"Having negotiated of this text, I can tell you with absolutely scientific precision: on October 15, not a single Russia soldier must be in a position he did not find himself in before this [conflict broke out]," Sarkozy said. "This is clear and simple."

Otherwise, Sarkozy said, Moscow would have an EU summit five days later to reckon with. The French daily "Le Figaro" reported that Sarkozy came close to walking out of the talks in Moscow after the Russian side initially rejected his demand of troop withdrawal.

Given Russia's record of foot-dragging, skeptics might wonder whether Moscow will honor the new terms negotiated by Sarkozy.

EU officials have also earlier conceded the pre-conflict situation and the precise status of the various Russian formations in South Ossetia prior to the outbreak of the conflict is far from clear.

Privately, senior foreign policy makers in Western Europe say they have no realistic hopes of Russia's removing its excess troops from either province in the foreseeable future.

On September 8, Russia chose to shift the focus to the international deliberations scheduled to start in Geneva on the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on October 15. Foreign Minister Lavrov openly courted controversy by saying Russia insists representatives of both provinces be granted "full representation" at the talks.

"The document does not specify who will take part in these discussions [on Georgia in October in Geneva], but we have stated clearly that South Ossetia and Abkhazia should get full representation at the discussion table," Lavrov said. "The principal subject of discussion will be examining ways to ensure security and stability in the region."

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili said after his meeting with the EU mission led by Sarkozy he expects an "EU force" eventually replace Russian troops in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He said both provinces remain integral parts of Georgia.

Lavrov simultaneously strove to cast Georgia as being in need of international tutelage to prevent its "militarization" and guarantee Tbilisi's honoring of its commitments.

"We will continue to do everything to meet our commitments under the agreement," Lavrov said. "We hope very much that now that the European Union has become the guarantor of Georgia's actions essentially, the Georgian leadership will keep to its obligations."

The Georgian president said an international summit will be held in Tbilisi in October, dedicated to the reconstruction of Georgia and affirming the international community's support for the country's territorial integrity. He said Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has agreed to attend, as has Sarkozy, a number of heads of international organizations, and possibly U.S. President George W. Bush.

Sarkozy, speaking alongside Saakashvili, said the summit would be conducted at the level of foreign ministers.