EU leaders act against Russia with freeze on strategic pact talks

Posted in Europe | 02-Sep-08 | Author: Ian Traynor and Luke Harding| Source: The Guardian (UK)

Georgians demonstrate for peace with a giant European Union flag in Tbilisi's Freedom Square. Russia has hit out at EU leaders for freezing strategic talks over the Georgia crisis, but Moscow was also relieved that no economic sanctions were ordered by the EU.

European leaders launched a "crucial" mission last night to mediate with the Kremlin over the Caucasus crisis, saying that relations between the EU and Russia were at a crossroads and freezing talks on a strategic pact with Russia until Moscow observes the terms of a ceasefire in Georgia agreed three weeks ago.

An emergency summit of 27 EU leaders in Brussels delivered a strong signal of support for Georgia and demanded that no country follows Russia in recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. "That decision is unacceptable," the leaders said and condemned Russia for failing to keep promises it made when signing the French-brokered ceasefire.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French and current EU president who convened the summit, said Moscow's relations with the west were at stake in the Caucasus and that he would go to Moscow next week, along with the European commission president, José Manuel Barroso, and the EU foreign policy head, Javier Solana, to mediate over Georgia but also to gauge Russia's commitment to a values-based relationship with Europe.

"The question is what does Russia want," Sarkozy said of the Kremlin's decision to invade and partition Georgia. "It takes two to tango. The meeting [in Moscow] on September 8 will be crucial for relations between Russia and the EU."

The summit called on Russia "not to isolate itself" and shelved negotiations, scheduled for a fortnight's time, on the new strategic partnership unless Moscow pulls back its forces in Georgia to pre-conflict positions.

"Relations between the EU and Russia have reached a crossroads," a summit statement said last night, announcing that "the various aspects of EU-Russia relations" would be subjected to "a careful in-depth examination" during an EU-Russia summit scheduled in November.

Gordon Brown had insisted on the suspension of negotiations on the accord with Moscow but that was resisted by some EU governments who cautioned against "the situation spiralling out of control", according to a European diplomat.

However, Germany, the Scandinavian countries and the central Europeans backed Britain's demand. Brown also successfully lobbied for the summit statement to pledge Europe to reducing its dependence on Russian energy supplies.

The meeting condemned Russia's redrawing of Georgia's borders and said Georgia was entitled to resist Russian pressure and to freely determine which "alliances" to join.

"We cannot go back to the age of spheres of influence. Yalta is dead," said Sarkozy of the 1945 agreement between the victors of the second world war.

"Russia has shown its true face," said one EU foreign minister. "The problem for us is how are we going to respond."

The EU is reluctant to punish the world's biggest energy supplier at a time of record prices. But the leaders agreed to send dozens of EU military ceasefire monitors to Georgia. EU leaders had previously floated the idea of European armed peacekeepers but that option was ditched.

The decision to freeze the strategic partnership negotiations provoked an angry Russian response. "Any attempt to punish another country is counter-productive or illegal. We need to resolve our problems in a civilised way, through dialogue," said Andrei Nesterenko, Russia's foreign ministry spokesman. The move could also be seen as counter-productive since the EU is keener than Russia on the new pact. The negotiations had been frozen for almost two years on the European side until July, with Poland and Lithuania vetoing talks.