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Europe

Eastern Europe's Leaders Meet to Debate Stance on Russia

Relations with Russia are likely to be the focus when a group of former presidents, prime ministers and other regional leaders descend on the Latvian capital of Riga for a NATO-sponsored conference.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Georgia's Saakashvili is the main draw on his first visit to the Baltics since the war

Topping the bill for the two-day meeting, which begins Saturday, Nov.1, will be Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, on his first visit to the Baltic region since his country went to war with Russia in August.

Baltic and central European nations gave Saakashvili strong backing during that war and will be heavily represented at the conference. Saakashvili will appear with Latvian President Valdis Zatlers, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during a debate titled "A vision of Europe, whole and free."

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus was originally scheduled to attend, but opted to stay home as he is playing a vital role in forming a new government following recent elections.

Adamkus did, however, contribute a statement which will surely prompt debate over the weekend when he said that Russia's failure to fully respect the EU-brokered ceasefire in its war with Georgia was a humiliation for the European Union.

Lithuanian president talks of EU humiliation

"Not all the efforts of President Sarkozy to guarantee Georgia's territorial integrity have been implemented," Adamkus told reporters Friday. "This is a humiliation for the entire European Union," he added.

Lithuania's President Valdas Adamkus

Adamkus said Russia had humiliated the EU

In August French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation EU, brokered a cease-fire with his Russian opposite number Dmitry Medvedev to end Moscow's brief war with its neighbor Georgia.

Lithuania, like Georgia, was part of the Soviet Union until the communist bloc collapsed in 1991.

The Baltic state is now firmly anchored in the west, having joined the EU and NATO in 2004, and is a vocal supporter of Georgia's drive to become part of the club.

The issue of Georgia is due to be discussed at a summit next month between the leaders of the EU and Russia.

There, Adamkus said, Lithuania would "ask a question of principle: are there values for which European Union's members stand united, and which must be respected?"

Adamkus pledged to "draw the attention of the heads of state to the current situation and spotlight the dangers threatening Europe."

The Georgia conflict left the EU deeply split, with some western member states anxious not to anger Russia with a tough stance, and others, notably ex-Soviet republics such as Lithuania, seeking a hard line.

EU members eventually agreed to suspend talks launched in July with Russia on a new pact to reinforce ties between the bloc and the resurgent energy giant.

Lithuania earlier this week sharply criticized a proposal by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to unfreeze these negotiations at next month's EU-Russia summit.

Emergency personnel at work in front of buildings destroyed in an air raid in a Georgian village

Five days of violence engulfed parts of Georgia in August

Russia moved into Georgia on Aug. 8 to repel a Georgian military attempt to retake South Ossetia.

The breakaway region's administration had long enjoyed extensive support from Moscow and its troops, stationed there as peacekeepers since the Soviet Union fell apart.

Russian forces have left the buffer zones they seized in Georgia and pulled back into South Ossetia and fellow-separatist Abkhazia, under the terms of the cease-fire agreement.

But Lithuania argues that Moscow was also meant to reduce troop numbers within both regions, which Moscow has recognized as independent states, and to give free international observers unfettered access.

On Tuesday, a Lithuania official said Russian troop numbers had risen and pointed out that observers had not been allowed into the separatist regions.

Adamkus, Ilves and Yushchenko, along with Latvian Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis and Polish President Lech Kaczynski, went to Tbilisi in August in a show of solidarity with a fellow former communist state.

They also signed a declaration condemning what they called Russia's "military aggression."

A summit heavy with symbolism

From left: Estonia's President Toomas Ilves, Poland's President Lech Kaczynski, Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, Lithuania's President Valdas Adamkus and Latvian Prime Minister; Ivars Godmanis in Tbilisi

From left: Estonia's President Ilves, Poland's President Kaczynski, Georgia's President Saakashvili, Lithuania's President Adamkus and Latvian Prime Minister Godmanis

Before the closing debate on Sunday, a range of other topics will be discussed in Riga's historic House of Blackheads including one provocatively titled: "Russia - no business as usual?"

The medieval House of Blackheads was itself demolished by the Red Army after the end of World War II and rebuilt in a highly symbolic act as soon as Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

However, despite the preoccupation with Russia in debates on defense and "military threats emanating in the nearest neighborhood" the most senior Russian attendee will be Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister of Russia and now chairman of the Russian Union of Oil Exporters.

Saakashvili arrives in Latvia after holding talks with Scandinavian leaders this week on Tbilisi's aim of joining NATO in future.

The Georgian leader held talks Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg to discuss developing energy cooperation and Norwegian support for various reform programs before moving onto Sweden.

Saakashvili continues lobbying for NATO membership

Concerning Georgia's prospects of joining NATO, Stoltenberg said "the door is open," citing the decision taken by NATO leaders at a summit in Bucharest in April.

"What we are discussing is the timetable, the development and reforms that are needed in Georgia," Stoltenberg said, adding that NATO and Georgia were in "close dialogue."

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer

NATO chief de Hoop Scheffer keeps the door open for Georgia

At the Bucharest summit, some NATO members supported early membership, while others wanted a slower approach, deferring a decision on a membership action plan until December.

Touching on the brief war with Russia in August, Saakashvili said it "might not have happened if not for this ambiguous message from Bucharest."

He repeated his view that the war was a "clear cut case of aggression" similar to what happened in Europe during the 1930s.

Saakashavili said Georgia had "nothing to hide" when asked about recent allegations that war crimes were committed by Georgian forces during the war including in the separatist region of South Ossetia.

Stoltenberg said he welcomed Saakashavili's readiness to allow an investigation and "transparency" into the August events.

The Georgian leader, who Monday dismissed his prime minister and named the country's ambassador to Turkey as a replacement, said the new premier Grigol Mgaloblishvili had "full autonomy" to form his government.

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