Russia, EU at odds over Georgia peace deal

Russia on Wednesday ruled out allowing European Union observers into the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, contradicting claims by French President Nicolas Sarkozy over the mission.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threw into doubt the remit of the EU mission just two days after Sarkozy brokered the deployment of 200 observers to monitor a complete Russian withdrawal from Georgian territory outside the rebel regions.

“Additional international observers will be deployed precisely around South Ossetia and Abkhazia and not inside these republics,” Lavrov told journalists in Moscow.

Sarkozy said on Monday—when he went to Moscow and Tbilisi to shore up the terms of a deal that halted last month’s Russia-Georgia war—that the observers would have wider powers.

“The spirit of the text is that they [the EU observers] will have a mandate to enter [Abkhazia and South Ossetia], to observe, to report,” Sarkozy said in Tbilisi alongside Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The latest deal requires Russia to withdraw all its troops from Georgia—outside of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow considers to be independent countries—within 10 days of the EU deployment on October 1.

Experts say ambiguity over where the EU team might go has been the key weakness in the deal, with some saying the bloc could be accused of consolidating Russia’s hold over the regions by not deploying there.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Wednesday that the location of the observers had not actually been discussed during talks, but that access to the rebel territories was clearly in the “spirit” of the agreements.

“This is something that was not discussed at that point in time,” he told members of the European Parliament.

He said the mission “will be deployed with the spirit that it can deploy everywhere”, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but that initially the EU observers would deploy on the basis of “the accords signed Monday” in Moscow.

The spat has raised the spectre that Monday’s deal could be undermined by the kind of ambiguities that plagued the original August 12 ceasefire agreement, also brokered by Sarkozy.

Russia interpreted that deal as allowing it to retain troops in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and deep inside Georgian territory. Tbilisi understood the same deal to mean Russian troops should leave all three areas.

Lavrov on Wednesday angrily rejected the EU suggestion its monitors would have access to the rebel regions.

“This is an absolutely immoral attempt to explain dishonestly to Mr Saakashvili what obligations were taken on by the European Union and what obligations by Russia,” Lavrov said.

He said peacekeeping inside Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be carried out by the same number of military observers as before last month’s conflict—when Russia had the main role—although agreements would have to be changed to take account of Russia’s recognition of their independence.

Russia has said it will deploy 3 800 troops in each of the regions and establish military bases there.

Solana said the EU mission was vital to the pulling out of Russian troops.

“This mission is key… because the withdrawal of the forces is linked not to anything else but to the deployment of the EU,” he said.

Solana said the mandates of two other international operations in Georgia—the United Nations mission in Abkhazia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer team—had not changed.—AFP

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