EU mission to press Moscow on troop withdrawal

A top EU delegation is heading to Russia to convince the country's leadership to withdraw its troops from Georgian territory to positions held before the conflict over South Ossetia erupted on 7 August.

The message will be delivered by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and EU chief diplomat Javier Solana when they speak to Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.

"Let him first respect his [Russian president] own signature," French chief diplomat Bernard Kouchner said ahead of the visit (6 August).

Speaking after an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Avignon, Mr Kouchner referred to the fact that Moscow has fulfilled "only two or let's say two and a half or three" parts of a six-point peace plan brokered by France on 12 August.

"What about the rest?" he asked.

Despite the wording of the truce - calling on Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions - some 500 personnel remain in the 15 km buffer zone surrounding the Georgia's rebel region of South Ossetia. In addition, there are security checkpoints near the Georgian towns of Gori and Poti.

"We want Russians to return to the lines existing before 7 August," Mr Kouchner said, while stressing that sanctions are not an option. "Should we shout 'sanctions, sanctions'? What does that change? We won't achieve anything by doing that."

Moscow, for its part, claims that its "peacekeepers" may operate on Georgian soil under the ceasefire deal as the wording allows it to take "additional security measures."

"The EU is knocking on an open door...Only a small detachment of Russian peacekeepers has stayed in the buffer zone and will be prepared to cooperate with OSCE military monitors as soon as they are able to get there to be on the ground," Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told journalists on 2 September.

He also did not exclude that talks on a new EU-Russia partnership - postponed by the union as a consequence of Moscow's behaviour in South Caucasus - might take place as planned, on 16 September.

EU observers to go to Georgia

In order to oversee compliance with the six-point peace plan on the ground, the EU is set to launch an European Security and Defense Policy [ESDP] mission of up to 200 civilian monitors in Georgia.

Observers should work alongside the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE], which is expected to increase its presence at the same time.

"If we have an agreement [from Russia] on Monday, we will be able to start from 15 September when the common action will be approved by the union," Javier Solana said on Saturday (6 September).

In addition, the 27-nation bloc wants to see "an international inquiry" into the facts of the conflict over South Ossetia, which has seen both sides accuse each other of war crimes. The probe "must be launched as soon as possible," Mr Kouchner stressed.

According to commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, the EU and Russia should start "having diplomatic discussions on the issues of the status of those [Georgian breakaway] regions."

"It is through diplomacy, through dialogue, that Russia can and should defend its legitimate interests...It's important to know that we need cool heads, not a Cold War," Mr Barroso said before leaving for Moscow.

Territorial integrity

The peace plan's six point envisages "international talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia" - a phrase criticised by some as it falls short of mentioning Georgia's territorial integrity.

But Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvilli, cited by AP during the weekend, reiterated his belief that his country's borders will be "restored."

"This will not be an easy process, but now this is a process between an irate Russia and the rest of the world," he said, adding "Our goal is the return of our territory and the peaceful unification of Georgia."

The Sarkozy-led delegation will travel for talks to Tbillisi immidiately after the Russia talks.

[Source: By Renata Goldirova, Euobserver, Brussels, 08Sep08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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