European Union foreign ministers on Monday, Oct. 13, postponed any decision to resume partnership talks with Russia amid disagreements over whether Moscow has complied with a peace deal in Georgia.
France proposed to re-launch talks in November
Meeting in Luxembourg, the foreign ministers of the EU's 27 member states "noted with satisfaction that ... Russian troops have withdrawn from the zones adjacent to (the Georgian breakaway regions of) South Ossetia and Abkhazia," a joint statement said.
However, while the move is "an essential additional step" in the implementation of an EU-sponsored peace plan, the ministers "called on the parties to implement their commitments," including by giving access to EU and UN observers, the statement said.
The decision dashes the hopes of those EU member states which had said that Russia's withdrawal from the so-called "buffer zones" outside Georgia's breakaway regions was enough for the bloc to re-open talks on a wide-ranging strategic deal.
Ahead of the meeting, Germany and Italy stressed that it was "in the EU's interest" to re-open talks on a successor to the current EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA).
Many Russian troops have pulled out but some remain
German deputy foreign minister Guenter Gloser said, "There will always be some people who think the EU is doing Russia a favor" with the negotiations. But we must ask whether (the EU) would be doing itself a favor by blocking relations, given, in particular, the importance of Russian fuel supplies to Europe."
And the French government, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, proposed that ministers respond to Russia's pull-out by agreeing to re-launch talks in November.
But that proposal fell foul of resistance from EU states such as Britain, Poland, Sweden and the Baltic States, who argued that Russia had not pulled its troops back to the positions they occupied before war with Georgia broke out on Aug. 7, as EU leaders had demanded.
"They have made some withdrawals, primarily from the buffer zones, but there are areas which they are occupying now where they were not on Aug. 7," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on his arrival in Luxembourg.
"We have to take it fairly slowly," added Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, who currently chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Russian troops allegedly still in Georgia
On Thursday, OSCE monitors said Moscow had pulled its forces out of the buffer zones adjacent to the separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, one day ahead of the Oct. 10 deadline brokered by the EU.
But OSCE officials also said Russian troops were still present in the Akhalgori area of Georgia, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Monday acknowledged that "problems remain."
Those problems dominated talks, with ministers agreeing to make no move until they see how events unfold on the ground in Georgia and how Russia behaves in international talks on the crisis, set to open in Geneva on Wednesday.
"In due course we can address the PCA (successor)," British foreign minister David Miliband said, "but at the moment we should be focusing on ensuring that all the elements that were agreed in September, including the Geneva talks, get going with proper speed."
From left, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn acknowledged that a decision on re-starting the post-PCA talks would not likely be made much before an EU-Russia summit, due to take place on Nov. 14 in Nice.
"One solution could be to wait for the (European) Commission's report and then start the negotiations before the Nov, 14 summit," Asselborn said.
Some parts of agreement still unfulfilled
Kouchner noted that the ceasefire deal ending the Russia-Georgia conflict in August was not being entirely respected.
While still contesting Russia's backing for breakaway Georgian territories South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the ministers are expected to decide that Russia has kept its commitments by withdrawing troops from a buffer zone around the contested territories.
Kouchner reaffirmed that Russia had withdrawn its troops from buffer zones near the two breakaway Georgian regions, in line with a French-brokered ceasefire agreement. "The Russians have withdrawn, and apart from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, there are no more Russia soldiers in Georgia," he said.
"We postponed" the partnership negotiations at an emergency summit on Georgia on Sept. 1, called after Russia recognized the independence of rebel Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he recalled.
But he said that of the six-points in the peace agreement reached on Aug. 12 between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, "we have fulfilled between two and three" points.
"Problems remain and we will analyze them," he said. "This is not something that can be resolved in two minutes."