France and Italy urge dialogue with Russia

EU heavyweights France and Italy insisted on Monday the bloc should not take steps to isolate Russia, hours before an emergency summit due to issue a tough verbal condemnation of its actions in Georgia.

The meeting in Brussels follows weeks of talks between EU capitals over how far to go to punish Russia for its military campaign in Georgia and its recognition of Georgian breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

Russia shrugged off the prospect of strong words from the EU, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisting the Georgia campaign had set a standard for how Moscow would defend its interests in future.

France, the current holder of the EU presidency, Germany and Italy have said any punitive action against the bloc's largest energy supplier would be premature. But others including Britain and ex-Soviet states say Moscow must face some consequences.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said President Nicolas Sarkozy would embark on a new mediation effort between Georgia and Russia, and stressed the need for dialogue with Moscow.

"Either we want to relaunch the Cold War, point our finger at Russia, isolate it and stamp on it as was the case for a decade -- that is not the choice of France or Europe -- or we choose the option of dialogue," Fillon told French radio.

"Today the word 'sanctions' is not on the agenda, today the word is 'dialogue'," he added, conceding that EU states would go into the 2-1/2-hour meeting with "very different positions".

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Russia was a power to be reckoned with and that he did not expect any steps from the Brussels meeting that would "aggravate" the situation.

"It still has a nuclear potential able to destroy 10 times the population of the world. It's a country growing at a rate of 7-8 percent a year. It's a country which has oil and gas," he told Canale 5 TV.

EU presidency sources expect the summit to warn Moscow that EU-Russia ties will be put "under observation" before a long-scheduled EU-Russia summit in Nice, France, on November14

The EU is also due to offer closer ties with Georgia, including talks on a free trade deal, an easier visa regime for its citizens and the deployment of a civilian EU monitors.

The tussle within the EU is complicated by the bloc's dependence on Moscow for much of its oil and gas, and the struggle to develop other sources such as the Nabucco pipeline due to bring Azeri gas to Europe via Georgia and Turkey.

It is also made difficult by the West's desire to retain Russia's cooperation on difficult diplomatic issues like Iran's nuclear program.

Defend Interests

Russia sent its troops into Georgian territory after Georgia's military tried to retake South Ossetia, like Abkhazia a Moscow-backed region which rejects Tbilisi's rule.

Moscow has withdrawn most of its forces in line with a ceasefire deal but has kept soldiers and equipment in "security zones", which include undisputed Georgian territory around South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Western governments have demanded Moscow pull its troops back to pre-conflict positions, as it agreed to do under a French-brokered peace plan. The Kremlin says the troops are peacekeepers needed to protect the separatist regions from new Georgian aggression.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said his country did not want confrontation or isolation but it will defend its interests when they are threatened.

"The absolute priority for us is the defense of the life and dignity of our citizens, no matter where they are located," Medvedev told Russian television on Sunday.

In a speech on Monday, Lavrov said in a speech to diplomatic students that Russia's response to Georgia's bid to take back South Ossetia had "set a kind of standard for reaction, which fully complies with international law".

Some of the options being considered by the EU include sanctions and isolating Russia diplomatically.

Baltic states want a second round of talks over a planned EU-Russia partnership pact, scheduled for September 15-16, to be postponed and Britain has raised the possibility of excluding Russia from Group of Eight meetings and review its NATO ties.

"All things have to be re-evaluated," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said.

Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze called in a Reuters interview for "smart" EU sanctions against officials and firms doing business with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

[Source: By Mark John, Reuters, Brussels, 01Sep08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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