Sarkozy steps up mediation efforts over Georgia

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French President and EU Presidency holder Nicolas Sarkozy has insisted that Moscow should comply “immediately” with the peace plan he brokered between Moscow and Tbilisi two weeks ago.

After holding telephone conversations with his Russian and Georgian counterparts Dmitry Medvedev and Mikheil Saakashvili on Wednesday (27 August), Sarkozy made the Georgian crisis the central focus of his speech at an annual gathering of French ambassadors in Paris. 

“The six-point ceasefire agreement of 12 August, which bears the signatures of President Medvedev, President Saakashvili and myself, must be applied in full,” Sarkozy said. 

He also called for international monitors to replace Russian patrols in security zones around the rebel region of South Ossetia as soon as possible, and said talks on “security and stability modalities” there and in the region of Abkhazia should start quickly. 

French concessions to Russia? 

But critics have accused the French president of giving in to Russian demands to set up “security zones” inside Georgia, after he said he had agreed to “special operations” by Russian troops in Georgia after the ceasefire. 

Sarkozy is also blamed for his conciliatory tone, most notably in calling the Russian decision to recognise the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia “unacceptable” and “aimed at changing the borders of Georgia unilaterally,” but neglecting to make any mention of sanctions. 

Speaking to his ambassadors, the French leader stuck to this line, saying that no one wanted to go back to the days of the Cold War, that “NATO is not an adversary but a partner for Russia”. The EU, he said, “has the will to build a positive relationship [with Russia]”. He added that he hoped next Monday’s European Council in Brussels (EURACTIV 24/08/08) would enable the union “to define a common line on this essential dossier”. 

But the president’s assertion that “the crisis in Georgia has shown for the first time that Europe can, if she wants to, be on the front line at the beginning of a conflict to search for a peaceful solution,” was termed “dubious” by the British press. 

Kouchner sees more threats from Russia 

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner rushed to defend the concessions made to Russia as the lesser evil, adding that otherwise Russian tanks would have crushed Tbilisi. Speaking for Europe 1 radio in a style some observers find unusual for a foreign minister, Kouchner was quite outspoken on Western fears over what Russia could do next. 

Asked whether Russia would now regularly choose to confront the West rather than cooperate with it, Kouchner said: “That is not impossible.” 

“I repeat that it is very dangerous, and there are other objectives that one can suppose are objectives for Russia, in particular the Crimea, Ukraine and Moldova.” 

Black Sea build up 

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin lashed out at the US on Wednesday for using military ships for delivering humanitarian aid to Georgia. In a scenario resembling fiction in a Cold War context, Russian military ships closely followed NATO vessels, while Russian commanders warned that the number of the alliance’s warships in the Black Sea outnumbered the Russian fleet. 

In an interview for the BBC, Medvedev went as far as saying that what the Americans call humanitarian cargo is in fact “bringing in weapons”. The Russian media immediately overblew the perception that the US was bringing Tomahawk missiles to Georgia. The White House dismissed those allegations, calling them “ridiculous”. 

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. Tensions in both regions have been increasing since Kosovo declared independence last February. 

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. According to Russian officials, about 2,000 civilians have died in South Ossetia. Both sides accused each other of genocide. 

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, helped broker a cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia, in which Russia agreed to withdraw all its troops to their pre-war positions by 22 August. On 25 August, Russia announced that its withdrawal was complete, but the West kept pressuring Moscow for a full withdrawal. 

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