The European Union's French presidency has said the bloc is in a position to relaunch Partnership and Cooperation Treaty talks with Moscow that were broken off in the wake of the war between Russia and Georgia.
The announcement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy that Russia has complied with EU demands in Georgia stunned some Eastern European leaders who were in Brussels for an EU crisis summit on the global economy.
The talks are now all but certain to resume on November 14 when the EU and Russia meet for a summit in the French city of Nice. Eastern European Opposition
In a move which was partly an audacious bluff and partly a complex legalistic gambit, the French president faced down determined opposition from Lithuania and Poland to open the door to normalizing the EU-Russia relationship three months after the Georgian conflict.
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus had arrived at the summit threatening to veto any such move. In an article published on November 6 in the Brussels weekly, "European Voice," he said it would be a "disaster" to act before Russian forces had quit all of Georgian territory.
Adamkus had the public backing of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, and the sympathy of a number of other leaders.
Addressing a post-summit news conference on November 7, Sarkozy effectively said Adamkus and his supporters misunderstand what they had agreed to on September 1, when an emergency EU summit broke off talks.
Sarkozy resorted to a fudge -- or something which unkind observers might be inclined to see as an act of diplomatic vandalism
"Let me remind you that these negotiations were never suspended -- because [the EU] points the way here -- because if there had been a suspension, there would have had to be a summit decision," Sarkozy said. "Together with [European Commission] President [Jose Manuel] Barroso, we simply postponed the date."
However, the EU said in a summit statement on September 1 that "till troops have withdrawn to the positions held prior to August 7, meetings on the negotiation of the Partnership Agreement [with Russia] will be postponed."
As it turns out, "postponement" can be read to mean that EU member states never withdrew their prior underlying consent for the negotiations, leaving it up to the bloc's executive -- the presidency and the European Commission -- to proceed as it sees fit.
Any decision as momentous as this one requires some justification, however. Recognizing this, Sarkozy on November 7 resorted to a fudge -- or something which unkind observers might be inclined to see as an act of diplomatic vandalism.
He said Russia had met all the commitments it had undertaken under EU mediation with respect to Georgia: they implemented a ceasefire, allowed EU observers to deploy, and launched international talks on the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.Russian Withdrawal
But, most controversially, Sarkozy also said Russia has fully complied with the requirement to withdraw its forces to pre-conflict positions, as required by the EU-mediated accords of August 12 and September 8.
"The second commitment -- the retreat of Russian forces to pre-conflict borders before the crisis on August 8. Has this been fulfilled? Yes," Sarkozy said.
Everything hinges on Sarkozy's substitution of the word "borders" for the original -- and correct -- term, "lines." According to Sarkozy's interpretation, Russia was never obliged to remove any troops from the separatist regions.
Russia and Georgia fought a short war in August
Georgian claims to areas held by its forces before the conflict within Abkhazia and South Ossetia are thus also without merit.
The impression that Sarkozy's remarks -- appearing as they did as an afterthought in the margins of a summit devoted to an entirely different subject -- are part of a carefully crafted master plan is borne out by reports that behind closed doors, the French leader placated his opponents with a different view.
One official present at the meeting said Sarkozy had assured his EU colleagues he would express the bloc's dissatisfaction with Moscow's insufficient compliance with the bloc's terms when the two sides meet in Nice on November 14.
The French diplomatic offensive was assisted by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who said he had warned the Lithuanian and Polish leaders that, if prevented from acting in concert, individual member states would start striking separate deals with Moscow.
Aiming his news conference remarks directly at Warsaw and Vilnius, Barroso said, "You may not like the common EU position entirely, but it is in your own interest to have one rather than three or four different positions."
Both Barroso and Sarkozy represent a school of thought within the EU which holds that keeping lines of communication open with Moscow is crucial for the bloc's broader interests, which range from securing energy provisions to cooperation with Russia in the UN Security Council on issues such as Iran.
Conceding defeat, Lithuania's and Poland's backers in the EU said they would now set their sights on the November 10 meeting of the foreign ministers in a bid to secure a joint statement which makes clear that although the partnership talks will continue, Moscow has not fully met EU conditions.
Fearing intractable divisions, France is resisting the adoption of any EU statement at the meeting.
Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip told RFE/RL that he and like-minded leaders within the EU will also strive to get the bloc to acknowledge that pragmatic cooperation, not a fully fledged partnership, is the most it can hold out for Russia.
"We can talk about cooperation with any country in the world. In Russia's case, we're not in a position now, considering its military attack on a sovereign neighbor, to talk about a partnership or the sharing of common values," Ansip said.
Adamkus emerged from the summit insisting that there could be no talk of renewed partnership talks with Russia before it has withdrawn its troops from all of Georgian territory, but he did not elaborate.