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Russia Expresses Regret Over EU's Decision To Freeze New Partnership Talks

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner (right) and Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze in Brussels
Moscow has sent a mixed message following the EU's stronger-than-expected response to Russia's recent military action in Georgia.

At a press conference in the Russian capital, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko expressed regret over the EU's decision that followed an emergency summit on September 1 to examine ways to respond to the crisis.

"We regret the [EU] intention to suspend negotiations on the new partnership agreement -- although in the past two years Moscow has already become used to artificial obstacles on the path to this document," he said. "We are interested in signing it equally as much as the European Union is."

Nesterenko went on to say that the entirety of Russia's cooperation with the EU should not be "held hostage" to differences on individual issues, and said Russia disagreed with "a whole number of biased statements" in the EU statement, "including the idea of a disproportionate reaction by Russia to Georgian aggression."

But the ministry spokesman also put a positive spin on the EU's move, considering that some EU members had called for sanctions to be imposed on Russia. That cooler heads prevailed shows that the EU realizes the importance of mutually beneficial cooperation with Russia, Nesterenko said.

"It is more important, however, that they [EU countries calling for sanctions against Russia] found themselves in a minority, while most of the EU member states demonstrated a responsible approach, reaffirmed their course for cooperation with Russia, understanding very well the significance of mutually beneficial cooperation, where a lot has been achieved in recent years," Nesterenko said.

Brussels has objected to Russia's failure to fully withdraw from undisputed Georgian territory as called for in the French-brokered cease-fire that stopped fighting between Georgia and Russia last month. But the EU's response was widely expected to be tempered by the bloc's weak position owing to its dependence on Russia for energy.

Russia's dominant position as an energy supplier was one reason the two sides entered into talks in July on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. They had planned to hold their next round of talks on the agreement on September 15-16, but talks are suspended pending Russia's withdrawal from Georgia proper.

Immediately after the decision, Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov appeared indifferent, saying Russia doesn't need the talks any more than the EU and that Brussels had missed an opportunity to improve its relations with Moscow.

"It is more of a self-punishment for the European Union because this does not improve the EU's credibility as a negotiating partner," Chizhov said on September 1. "The EU has missed a good opportunity to promote its strategic partnership with Russia by expressing solidarity [with Moscow] rather than supporting the aggressor, which is in this case certainly Georgia."

EU Support For Georgia

EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, speaking alongside Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze in Brussels on September 2, expressed the bloc's commitment to helping in the reconstruction of Georgia.

Ferrero-Waldner said a donors conference will likely be held to examine ways of assistance, and discussed measures intended to facilitate Georgia's integration with the EU.

"On this whole package, there are two most important issues: one is the question of a free-trade area between the European Union and Georgia, and the second is the question of visa facilitation versus readmission agreement that we will also start rather quickly," Ferrero-Waldner said.

The EU's strong response followed an internal struggle during the emergency summit. The decision to freeze the partnership talks was absent in the first draft of the summit declaration circulated by France at the beginning of the meeting. Officials said, however, that pressure from Britain, Sweden, Poland, and a number of other Eastern European countries -- all critical of Russia -- tipped the scale.

Germany was said to be crucial for the mood swing that took place in the course of the summit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has voiced unusually strong support for Georgia's NATO bid in the aftermath of the Georgia crisis, and is seen as sympathetic to the views of states in the former Soviet sphere.

But some observers have suggested that the West could benefit from backing off issues known to irritate Moscow, such as NATO expansion.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a former German justice minister, suggests such tactics will only make relations with Russia worse.

"I think that possible NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia should not be treated as a priority," Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger says.

"Doing so would, with reason, only render the situation even more tense, and states that have internal conflicts are not is a position to become members of NATO as that would only draw all other NATO member states directly into these conflicts. That is why the issue is not one for immediate discussion, and I hope the EU summit will send that particular message."
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