EU foreign ministers have agreed to send a new top envoy to Georgia in a move that could signal crumbling support for a tougher line in response to Russia's recent actions in the South Caucasus.
The move comes as members struggle to find unity amid sharp disagreements over how to redefine the bloc's relationship with Moscow in the wake of the Russia-Georgia war.
Ministers meeting in Brussels on September 15 appointed Pierre Morel, a French official and the current envoy to Central Asia, to serve as the EU 's special envoy for the Georgia-Russia crisis.
The EU special representative for the South Caucasus, Swedish diplomat Peter Semneby, will lose all or part of his mandate in Georgia for the duration of the conflict.
Morel said he was "honored [by] this measure and the high difficulty of the mission -- the very [tight deadlines and] the demanding tasks" of the new post.
"It's quite a strong challenge, but I think it's in line [with] what the EU has been trying to do, to restore things in the region," he added.
The division of labor between Morel and Semneby will be hammered out in the coming weeks.
The swap is likely to have significant implications for EU policy in Georgia, and is a blow to the advocates of a harder line against Russia. Sometimes dubbed the "Polish-Swedish axis," that group includes Britain and most Eastern European member states. Those countries would like to bring Georgia and Ukraine closer to the EU and reduce the bloc's energy dependence on Moscow.
France, in turn, has for long been a proponent of a "balance-of-power" approach to Russia -- openly described as such by Prime Minister Francois Fillon in November 2007 -- that recognizes Moscow has certain legitimate interests with regard to the countries in its immediate vicinity.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the subject of Fillon's comments at the time, returned the compliment in an interview in the September 15 issue of the French daily "Le Figaro," in which he says Russia has a "privileged" relationship with France. Putin also says it is no accident that Moscow has allowed French companies to develop Russia's hydrocarbon resources, noting that Total has a 25 percent stake in the massive Shtokman field.
Morel has consistently advocated a nonconfrontational approach to Russia. His critics accuse him of taking an overly positive view of Uzbekistan, in particular, a country subject to a largely suspended EU sanctions regime that will come up for review in October.
Semneby, on the other hand, is seen in some EU quarters as being too accommodating toward Georgia's present government.
The EU's "special representatives" fulfill an important function in setting and guiding the EU foreign policy agenda in their regions.
Morel's replacement of Semneby as the top EU representative in Georgia came despite a vigorous rearguard action by Sweden and was criticized sharply by Britain, Poland, and the Baltic members in the run-up to the Brussels meeting.
France is the current holder of the rotating six-month EU Presidency, which has given it a privileged position in managing the bloc's response to the Russia-Georgia crisis.
Sarkozy has staked his personal reputation on handling the crisis and Morel's appointment appears to represent an attempt by Paris to ensure a degree of future control over the situation after it turns the EU Presidency over to the Czech Republic in January.
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here