EU displays commitment to Georgia

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The EU opened talks on an association agreement with Georgia yesterday (15 July) in a move that will boost the former Soviet republic's hopes of forging closer ties with the West. The agreement, however, does not promise future EU accession.

Attending the launch of the negotiations in the Black Sea port of Batumi, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton welcomed the move, calling the eventual agreement ''a foundation to bring Georgia closer to the European Union''.

Under the EU's Eastern Partnership programme, a first round of talks has begun on a bilateral 'Association Agreement' with the Caucasian country, which engaged in a brief but deadly war with Russia in August 2008 (see 'Background').

Russia, Georgia and its pro-Russian breakaway territories South Ossetia and Abkhazia have held ongoing negotiations since the war, with EU mediation. Russia recently moved to establish a long-term military base in Abkhazia, despite condemnation by the West (EURACTIV 18/02/10).

The EU's Association Agreements establish political and economic cooperation between the bloc and non-EU countries, based on joint commitments to a set of values and covering a range of areas including political dialogue, trade, sectoral and justice, freedom and security policies.

Similar negotiations are being launched with Georgia's neighbours Azerbaijan and Armenia – today (16 July) and Monday (19 July) respectively – while the process has already begun with Ukraine and Moldova.

At a joint press conference with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, EU foreign affairs chief Ashton said the agreement ''will provide the framework for a new relationship''.

"I strongly believe that by strengthening the relationship between Georgia and the European Union we can contribute to Georgia's democratic development, its long-term stability [and] prosperity," she said, quoted by AFP.

EU Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle sees the talks as an important step towards enhanced EU engagement in the Caucasus. "These Association Agreements will lay a new legal foundation for our relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia,'' he said.

'Georgia is Europe'

Georgian leader Saakashvili, who came under intense pressure following the 2008 conflict, hailed the talks as a key step forward for the country's orientation towards the West.

"Georgia is Europe, Georgia is coming back to Europe," stated Saakashvili alongside Ashton. "The goal of our reforms is to create the first European state in the Caucasus," he added.

Georgia's foreign ministry also issued a statement saying that the agreement "will give Georgia the possibility of political association and phased economic integration with the European Union," AFP reported.

After meeting President Saakashvili on Thursday (15 July), French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner affirmed France's support for Georgia's aspirations to become an associate member of the EU and warned Russia it would not be able to stand in its way.

"We will always help Georgia in its talks with the EU to become an associate member," he said, quoted by Reuters. "Russia does not decide who should become an EU member."

Kouchner also called on Russia to withdraw its troops from the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in line with the ceasefire agreement signed after the war.

"According to the accords that we signed, Russian troops should withdraw to positions held prior to the conflict and this has not been done and we are continuing to pursue this effort,'' he said.

"For us the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia [...] are Georgian regions and territories and we want to work as much as possible and in the most productive way possible [...] so that the regions are again Georgian," he added. 

Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in August 2008. The conflict saw Russian troops repel an assault on the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, which broke free from Tbilisi's rule in the early 1990s. 

As the conflict took place during the French EU Presidency, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was actively involved in brokering a peace plan (EURACTIV 28/08/08).

Russia later recognised South Ossetia and Georgia's second breakaway region of Abkhazia as independent states. Russia has thousands of troops stationed in both regions. 

Privately, EU representatives generally recognise that Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili was to blame for the war. However, he still enjoys Western support as a symbol of the 2003 'Rose Revolution' in the country. 

In 2009, the EU launched the Eastern Partnership – the Eastern dimension of its European Neighbourhood Policy – with the aim of enhancing cooperation with six countries: Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine (EURACTIV 08/05/09).

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