Russians hail Georgia deal as big win

This week's deal to end the Russia-Georgia war may drive wedge between US and EU.

Dmitry Astakhov/Kremlin/Ria Novosti/Reuters
Pals? French President Nicolas Sarkozy (l.) met Monday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow.

Russian experts are hailing this week's new deal to withdraw Russian troops from Georgia as a big diplomatic win for fledgling Kremlin leader Dmitry Medvedev.

Under the deal, hammered out between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President Medvedev, and later affirmed by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Russian forces will decamp from their "observation posts" inside Georgia within a month, to be replaced by up to 200 observers from the European Union, who are due to arrive by Oct. 1.

Mr. Sarkozy, who holds the EU's revolving presidency, brought Medvedev a Georgian pledge not to use force against its two breakaway republics – a key Russian demand – and Medvedev promised to begin dismantling Russian military checkpoints around the Georgian towns of Poti and Senaki within a week. Georgian officials confirmed Tuesday that Russia had already started withdrawing troops.

The deal may help to drive a wedge between and Washington, which struck a tough note by freezing a US-Russia nuclear cooperation deal on Monday, and a more dovish Europe.

"Moscow is playing on the contradictions between Europe and the US, aiming to show that Sarkozy's pragmatic and respectful approach, rather than Washington's hard-line rhetoric, is the way to achieve concrete results with Russia," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign-policy expert with the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant. "You can't help but notice that the harsher the Kremlin's tone toward the US becomes, the gentler and more subtle becomes its approach to Europe."

If Moscow fulfills the agreement, Sarkozy said, the EU may lift its main punitive measure taken against Russia during the war, which was to suspend ongoing talks on a new strategic partnership deal. "There is no reason why meetings between Russia and Europe ... cannot be resumed in October," he said. "We want partnership and peace, and hardly anyone wants a confrontation between Europe and Russia."

Russian analysts insist that the commitment of EU observers to hold the security zones between Georgia and the rebel statelets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is exactly what the Kremlin wanted all along.

"It's no problem for Russia to withdraw its military forces from Georgia, because that decision was taken weeks ago," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "Now the responsibility for what happens there, and Saakashvili's behavior, will rest on the Europeans and not on us."

That tone of satisfaction appears to be matched in Europe, where much of the media Tuesday lauded Sarkozy's ability to finesse the Kremlin and avoid what could have been an awkward breach between the EU and its biggest energy supplier.

"[Sarkozy] can be proud: Not only did he reach a consensus among 27 EU members on Russia, the most divisive subject for members ... but made the Russian bear bow through diplomacy.... This is a demonstration that, united, Europe can obtain much," noted Jean Quatremer, a Brussels-based specialist on Europe writing in a weblog for the Parisian daily Liberation.

Some were more skeptical. Dominique Garraud in the west French daily La Charente Libre said the price of the accord is that "Europe must witness the dismemberment of Georgia."

Under the accord, talks will begin in Geneva on Oct. 15 to address long-term security issues in the wake of the conflict, and the return of refugees. Both sides have accused the other of "ethnic cleansing" during the brief August war, and their clashing arguments are set to play out in hearings that opened Monday at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The status of the two rebel statelets remains the key source of disagreement, and one that appears unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

Russia's Foreign Ministry pointedly announced that it had exchanged official notes of diplomatic recognition with Abkhazia and South Ossetia on Tuesday. Medvedev told Sarkozy that decision is "final and irreversible."

The two broke away from Georgia amid bitter civil wars after the Soviet Union collapsed, and have had de facto independence under Russian protection ever since, even though the international community recognizes them as part of Georgia's legal territory.

Moscow claims that Georgia's attempt to seize South Ossetia by force, which triggered the war, disqualified Tbilisi's claim on the tiny republic. But, speaking to journalists after meeting Sarkozy, Mr. Saakashvili vowed to win the rebel regions back. "We have a long way ahead toward restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity," he said. "There is no way Georgia will ever give up a piece of its sovereignty, a piece of its territory."

This won't be easy, however. Russia announced Tuesday that it will station about 7,600 troops in Georgia's separatist regions, a sharp increase from the number deployed before Moscow sent in troops last month.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said troops would stay in South Ossetia and Abkhazia for a long time to prevent any "repeat of Georgian aggression."

Sarkozy indicated the status of the two territories would be raised in the coming talks with Russia. "If the international discussion begins in Geneva [on Oct. 15], then there is something to discuss," he said.

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