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EU Summit Defers Decision Over Relations With Russia

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (left) with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the summit in Brussels
BRUSSELS -- The bloc's "Georgian camp" has scored a small victory, forcing the EU to delay resuming talks on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia by at least another month.

A final summit declaration adopted by EU leaders says the bloc's foreign ministers will revisit the issue on November 10, by which time the European Commission will also have completed an "audit" of the EU-Russia relationship.

Poland, Britain, Sweden, the three Baltic states, and the Czech Republic had wanted the talks -- suspended on September 1 to protest Russia's military action in Georgia -- to remain on ice until at least November 14, when the next EU-Russia summit is scheduled.

Germany, backed by the current holder of the EU Presidency, France, and most Western European members, is pushing for an early resumption of negotiations on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy argued during the first day of the summit on October 15 that, given the protracted history of Georgia's tensions with its separatist regions and their main backer Russia, further "confrontation" would be counterproductive for all.

"If on top of that we create the conditions for a confrontation [between] Russia and Europe, then the difficulties in which this debate will find itself, I really ask, would this be reasonable?" Sarkozy said. "In any case, this is not the policy that we have pursued."

Diplomats say stark divisions were evident when EU foreign ministers broached the issue over dinner.

Some Dialogue With Russia Needed

Eastern European diplomats have said they fear they are fighting a losing battle in the long run. They say their governments are finding it increasingly difficult to fend off the charge that they reject all dialogue with Moscow. This would automatically put them at odds with broader EU interests, which require extensive coordination with Moscow in many fields.

Sarkozy obliquely made this point on October 15 when he invoked the example of Lithuania, which has promised the EU to close down its Ignalina nuclear power station by the end of 2009. "How do we discuss energy provisions to Lithuania if we can't even put it on the agenda [with Russia]?" the French president asked rhetorically.

Russia's critics already subtly shifted their position in the run-up to the summit. No one argues any longer that for the EU to resume talks with Russia, Moscow must restore the status quo ante -- which would involve a Russian reversal of its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries and the withdrawal of all nonpeacekeeping Russian troops there.

Instead, Georgia's backers in the EU want a return to the lines of conflict as they stood prior to August 7, when Georgia still controlled the overwhelmingly Georgian-populated Alkhagori district in South Ossetia and the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia.

France, Germany, and like-minded countries argued that the recent Russian withdrawal from buffer zones on undisputed Georgian territory suffices to relaunch talks.

Diplomats say this change of emphasis has caught France by surprise. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who discussed the issue at some length at a news conference on October 13, did not seem optimistic.

In the end, France blocked a Swedish-led drive to insert a phrase in the summit declaration saying the EU "hopes the Russian forces will be withdrawn to preconflict lines" as required by the August 12 "Medvedev-Sarkozy" plan.

This means that even though Russia's detractors have won this battle, they are far from assured of winning the war. The link between a further Russian withdrawal from Georgia and the continuation of EU-Russia talks is becoming increasingly more tenuous.

However, the hand of Russia's detractors within the EU was slightly strengthened after Moscow pulled out of the October 15 talks in Geneva with Georgia. Moscow made the decision after officials from Abkhazia and South Ossetia were not allowed to take part in the talks as equal parties.

EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, however, played down the collapse of the talks. "It will be very difficult to get, in the first meeting, the solution of all the problems," he said. "We will continue in bilateral talks from here until the next meeting, which will probably be in a month. That is more or less what was agreed. But we have to continue working in that direction."

French President Sarkozy said on October 15 that the abortive Geneva meeting was still an "amazing" development given the still fresh memories of the Russian-Georgian conflict.