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E.U. talks tough on Russia

In an emergency session Monday, European Union leaders threatened to postpone talks on a pact with Russia unless Russian troops pull back from positions in Georgia.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 2, 2008



Brussels

The first European Union (EU) meeting on how to deal with a different and more assertive Russia ended here Monday with patches of strong language in a statement condemning Moscow's blitz into Georgia and Russia's subsequent recognition of the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

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"With the crisis in Georgia, relations between the EU and Russia have reached a crossroads," reads the 10th point in a joint EU statement from the first emergency session called in Brussels since the 2003 Iraq war.

The statement urged Russia "not to isolate itself from Europe."

But particularly for frontline Eastern European states like Poland and the Baltics, and for Britain, the final communiqué, issued by EU president Nicolas Sarkozy of France, was too general. It did not spell out any specific actions or plans to censure Moscow – even as Russia again turned up the rhetoric in a speech Sunday by President Dmitry Medvedev describing Russia's right to a special sphere of influence on its borders known as Russia's "near abroad." Sanctions were not seriously considered diplomats said.

Instead, Mr. Sarkozy will go to Moscow on Sept. 8 to discuss whether Russia is adhering to a six-point EU plan for a cease-fire. Europe also agreed not to talk with Moscow about an upcoming "partnership" plan involving better trade and exchange until Russian troops in Georgia move back to positions held on Aug. 7 – inside the two breakaway republics.

While EU members met to consider the greatest challenge from Russia since the end of the cold war, most diplomats said the real challenge in the meeting was achieving unity among 27 members. The French, Germans, and Italians were advocating a more conciliatory approach, offering strong words, but not "cutting ties to dialogue with Moscow," as a French diplomat stated.

"All of Europe is united," against Moscow's behavior in Georgia, Sarkozy told a press conference after the meeting, and trying to throw responsibility for the crisis back to Russia: "The question is, 'What does Russia want?' Does it want …cooperation, or confrontation?

"We can't go back to the age of spheres of influence," Sarkozy told reporters, in a direct reference to Medvedev's speech on Sunday. "Yalta is behind us," he said, referring to the post-World War II conference that divided the world and created new borders throughout Europe, Russia, and the Middle East.

Ahead of the half-day Brussels session of 27 EU members, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for the EU to "review – root and branch – our relationship with Russia." The Poles had also been working behind the scenes ahead of Monday's meeting to emphasize a long-term, massive aid and assistance plan for Georgia and Ukraine – in lieu of a project of sanctions or direct confrontation with Russia.

The final agreement here does offer EU monitors for Georgia, and aid. The statement did not reflect any size or emphasis on the aid, though Sarkozy told reporters, "We will not disappoint [the Georgians]."

Eckart van Klaeden, spokesperson for Germany's Christian Democratic Union in Brussels, told the Monitor that sanctions were a nonstarter, but that a statement that was strong and serious would mean something.

"What happened in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is not acceptable," Mr. van Klaeden said. "They have violated international law by recognizing the republics and by invading Georgia's heartland. I don't know what happened between Aug. 7 and Aug. 9. But I know what happened with Russia's position before the war, its provocations, and I know what happened after the war, occupation and recognition. So the Russian actions can't be justified, or seen to be so. That's why we are here."

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