EU foreign ministers on Monday gave the go-ahead for a 200-strong observer mission to Georgia but questions still remain over whether the force would be deployed in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The war with Russia has displaced thousands of Georgians
EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana said on Monday, Sept. 15, the bloc's priority was to deploy 200 observers in Georgia before Oct. 1, in compliance with a ceasefire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy earlier this month.
"After that, we will see how the situation evolves," Solana said ahead of talks with EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
On Sunday, Russia completed the withdrawal of its troops from western Georgia, including the strategically important Black Sea port of Poti, in accordance with the EU ceasefire deal.
The agreement reached on Sept. 8 states that the EU must have at least 200 observers in Georgia by Oct. 1 if Russia is to withdraw its troops from the buffer zones that it has since created.
"The withdrawal is a process, and we are glad that it has started," said EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
Diplomats say that 11 countries --- the Baltic states, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden -- have already pledged support for the EU mission.
"We are very committed to making sure that we play our full part in that important mission, meeting the deadline and getting the right number of people in at the right time to the right places," British Foreign Minister David Miliband said.
Russia against EU observers in breakaway regions
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is already mandated to post observers in South Ossetia, and talks are under way to boost their number by another 80, said Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, who currently holds the OSCE's rotating presidency.
"We have a mandate to go into South Ossetia for 80 people. What the final outcome of the 80 will be we don't know, that's what the Georgians and Russians are discussing and I think it's a very positive development because they're sitting together around the table," he said.
Russia resists the idea of EU observers in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia
Russia has so far rejected any suggestion that the EU should send its own observers into the breakaway regions, leaving the EU's foreign ministers walking a tight-rope as they draw up the mission's mandate.
"We need the agreement of all sides involved, because we do not want to act as an occupying force," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.
Some member states are pushing for a specific reference to the breakaway regions, while others argue that the wording should be left ambiguous to avoid antagonizing Moscow, diplomats said ahead of the meeting.
"We are ready and disposed to go beyond the (EU's) commitments into other places, but we have to see how the situation evolves on the ground," Solana said Monday.
Brussles pledges more aid to Georgia
Separately, Benita Ferrero-Waldner said on Monday the EU Commission is ready to provide "up to 500 million euros" ($714 million) in additional aid to Georgia to help rebuild its infrastructure after the war with Russia.
The additional money comes on top of the roughly 100 million euros already being planned for Georgia this year, and it will add to any bilateral aid being provided by the EU's individual member states.
The money would be spread over the 2008-2010 period and would be used in four major areas: refugees and internally displaced people, economic recovery, financial stabilization and infrastructure.
The war has battered buildings in some Georgian towns
The package would be made conditional on Georgia enforcing democracy and political reform, Ferrero-Waldner said.
"The European Commission is at the heart of efforts to rebuild stability and shattered confidence in Georgia," the commissioner said.
"It is obvious that additional funds will be necessary," she added.
Though the package is also intended to cover Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a decision to this effect would have to be taken "in phases," the commissioner said.
Ferrero-Waldner also stressed the Commission would do its utmost to ensure the money is not used by Georgia to buy weapons. Some recent reports have claimed that the Georgian authorities are using current EU funding to purchase arms.