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THE WORLD

EU-Russia partnership talks hinge on retreat

Moscow must fulfill a cease-fire accord with Georgia, a European special summit says.

September 02, 2008|Achrene Sicakyuz and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

BRUSSELS — Facing their toughest foreign policy challenge in years, European leaders on Monday warned that they would postpone talks with Russia on a proposed partnership if Moscow does not pull back its troops in Georgia to positions stipulated by a cease-fire accord.

The leaders of the 27 European Union nations ended a three-hour special summit here declaring that relations with Moscow are "at a crossroads" as a result of Russian military action last month in the Caucasus region. Despite pressure from Poland and other former Soviet bloc nations, however, the statement did not mention more muscular responses such as diplomatic or economic sanctions.

The debate has displayed internal rifts and other obstacles to a strong, unified European foreign policy, especially because Russia is a top supplier of oil and natural gas to the continent. Nonetheless, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who convened the summit because he holds the rotating EU presidency, insisted that Europe had sent "a very strong message."

Sarkozy will lead a delegation to Moscow and Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, next week to discuss issues such as sending several hundred civilian EU monitors into contested territory. Georgia sent troops to regain control of its breakaway region of South Ossetia on Aug. 7. Russia, which had peacekeepers in the territory, responded by sending its military into Georgia proper, where some units remain.

If Russian troops do not withdraw to positions they held before Aug. 7, as agreed to in the cease-fire pact, the EU will suspend a scheduled Sept. 15 meeting about an EU-Russian partnership, a broad strategic initiative on energy and trade that has been in the works for two years, leaders said.

"What does Russia want: trust and cooperation or defiance and rising tensions?" Sarkozy said at a news conference. "The EU wants a real partnership with Russia, but in order to build a partnership, you have to be two. The EU will therefore continue to examine the consequences of this crisis on its relations with Russia."

Referring to a 1945 meeting during which Russia and the West carved post-World War II zones of control, he added: "The return of spheres of influence is not acceptable. Yalta is over!"

Sarkozy and other leaders congratulated themselves on Monday's outcome, recalling the open strife that marked the last EU emergency meeting five years ago, when leaders met to debate U.S. plans for military action in Iraq.

It "ended up with a divided Europe, therefore powerless and inaudible," Sarkozy said. "Today Europe is united."

There were nonetheless voices of discord Monday. Britain and new members from the east took a tougher stance than moderates such as Italy, whose pro-Russian tone reflected Italian dependence on Russian oil and gas as well as a friendship between Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

"There are politicians, also in Europe, who would prefer empty conclusions because of their intensive bilateral relations with Russia," said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk after the meeting.

In contrast, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini urged his colleagues to regard Russia not as a "hostile country" but a "strategic partner."

The Russian incursion has become a test not just of what the EU does, but what it is, analysts say. The work-in-progress of a unified Europe has functioned rather smoothly on issues such as a single currency and internal borders. But the alliance struggles with the hard carpentry of national security, foreign policy and other high-stakes issues.

The Russia-Georgia clash is thornier than Iraq because it has taken place on Europe's doorstep.

"Arguably this has been the toughest test for the EU, perhaps even tougher than Iraq, because it's within Europe," said Kataryna Wolczuk, a senior lecturer in East European politics at Birmingham University in England. "Since it has emerged as an independent state, Russia has been playing off EU states against each other . . . exploiting the divisions and fostering closer ties with individual member states like France and Germany."

Many European leaders argue that hitting Russia with sanctions or other tough retaliation would be premature and counterproductive. Asked whether the EU is a "paper tiger," Sarkozy said: "We haven't witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the communist dictatorship, the end of the Warsaw Pact, to restart a new Cold War during which we assess that the relations between Russia and Europe can only exist through a military confrontation. I call on everyone to remain calm."

The future of the EU-Russia relationship will be shaped by a series of meetings in coming weeks, leaders and analysts said. But if that process ends without progress, one beneficiary could be Washington, according to Robin Shepherd, a Europe expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

"I think ultimately the great victor in this whole problem, in Europe, is America," Shepherd said in an interview. "This crisis has really reaffirmed for those countries and the Poles as well that the American guarantees through NATO are absolutely fundamental for their security. And when they look at the European response, they'll ask: Can we really rely on these people?"

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rotella@latimes.com

Sicakyuz reported from Brussels and Rotella from Madrid. Janet Stobart of The Times' London Bureau contributed to this report.

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