Sarkozy, Solana in Russia to clarify Georgia ceasefire

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Accompanied by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Commission President José Manuel Barroso, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in Moscow today (8 September) before heading to Tbilisi this evening to discuss the implementation of the peace plan he brokered at the outbreak of the Russia-Georgia conflict a month ago.

According to the Russian media, the fact that Sarkozy will this time be accompanied by other EU representatives – unlike his first visit on 12 August – follows US pressure, with Washington not keen for the French president to remain the main peacemaker in the Caucasus. But other observers consider the enlarged EU delegation as a reaction to criticism that Sarkozy’s peace plan was too foggy and allowed Russian interpretations that contradicted the EU’s view (EURACTIV 29/08/08). 

Lost in translation 

Speaking at an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Avignon (EURACTIV 05/09/08), French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner blamed differences in the interpretation of the six-point plan, notably concerning what Russia calls “buffer zones” around South Ossetia and Abkhazia, on “a translation problem”. 

“[It’s] the translation, as always,” Koucher lamented, referring to the fact that the document was signed in French and then translated into English and Russian. 

The main glitch involved a passage in the Russian version that spoke of security “for South Ossetia and Abkhazia” – whereas the English version spoke of security “in” the two areas. 

The wording matters because it refers to “buffer zones” that Russia has created in undisputed Georgian territory – zones that Moscow says it must hold to prevent Georgian forces from threatening the breakaway provinces. 

The EU envoys will try to convince Russia to reverse its recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But this will not be an easy task, with European diplomats already starting to use such terms as “Georgia proper” in reference to the territories of Georgia without the two breakaway regions recently recognised as independent by Russia. 

The “translation” glitch serves as an example of the kind of problems the EU may expect to encounter during the Moscow talks. 

Unclear mandate for observers 

At the Moscow meeting, the EU intends to discuss sending aound 200 EU observers to the conflict area. Their main aim would be to replace Russian forces in the so-called buffer zone around South Ossetia. But the EU observers’ mandate and area of responsibility remains unclear, while Solana himself admitted that new observers could only go to the region with the blessing of the Russian authorities. At the moment, there are 20 European observers in the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict area under the banner of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in which Russia is an important stakeholder. 

The EU envoys also plan to discuss the possibility of creating an international commission to investigate war crimes and atrocities, which both sides accuse one another of perpetrating. 

At the Avignon meeting, Poland, Britain, Sweden and the Baltic countries again pressed for a hard line toward Russia (EURACTIV 02/09/08), but officials said specific sanctions were not discussed. Kouchner also refused to discuss how the 27-nation bloc would respond if Russia continued to delay compliance. 

Commission President José Manuel Barroso said in Avignon: “We are interested in having a constructive relationship with Russia. […] We need cool heads. Not a cold war.” 

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev condemned the US Navy's delivery of humanitarian aid to Georgia and accused the US of rearming the country following last month's five-day war between the two former Soviet nations. "The armament of the Georgian regime continues, including under the flag of humanitarian aid," Medvedev told Russian regional governors today in Moscow on 6 September. "It would be interesting to see how they would feel if our fleet sent humanitarian aid to the countries of the Caribbean that recently suffered a devastating hurricane," he added, invoking the 1962 Caribbean crisis, which almost triggered a nuclear war. 

Sergei Mikheyev, a security analyst  at the Centre for Political Technologies, was sceptical about the EU's plan to replace Russian peacekeepers with an international presence. "Russian decision-makers firmly believe that Tbilisi, strongly backed by Washington, is capable of mounting a new military offensive against the separatist republics, at least for as long as Mikheil Saakashvili remains Georgian president," Mikheyev said. "So the military pullout will be very slow and gradual," he added. 

On 7 August, Georgian troops invaded the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which is - like the other disputed province of Abkhazia - officially part of the territory of Georgia, but in fact autonomous and largely under Russian influence. Russia responded with massive military action, invading part of Georgia and prompting fears in the West that it may seek to use the occasion to topple Mikheil Saakashvili, the pro-Western Georgian president, and turn Georgia into a vassal state like during Soviet times. 

France brokered a deal to end the war over South Ossetia last month, but Moscow has since defied the West by leaving troops in "security zones" along the lines separating Georgia from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another rebel region. Russia's decision to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia further stretched ties with the West. 

On 1 September, EU leaders held an extraordinary summit and decided to freeze talks on a new basic EU-Russia treaty until Moscow fully complies with the peace plan. For this reason, they also decided to send international monitors to Georgia on the understanding that their increased presence would mean that Moscow could no longer justify keeping troops in those areas, thus accepting international talks on a new security blueprint for the rebel regions. 

But officials acknowledge that Russia's response is uncertain and that the success of the plan could hang on Sarkozy's 8 September trip to urge Moscow to pull troops back to pre-conflict lines. 

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