French foreign minister says the EU is back on track to restart partnership negotiations with Russia. But that does not mean Moscow and the bloc have settled their differences over the Caucasus.
Kouchner, left, and Lavrov are trying to look ahead without giving ground
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner announced the resumption of talks on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement after a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in St. Petersburg.
Those talks had been put on hold, after Russia launched military action against Georgia's attempt to retake control of the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in late summer.
"I want to underline the EU-Russian partnership talks were never suspended, they were simply delayed," Kouchner told journalists after his talks with Lavrov.
Kouchner added that negotiations would resume at an EU-Russia summit on November 14. But France, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, must first get the go-ahead of all EU foreign ministers, when they meet on Novermber 10.
The new agreement is aimed at updating the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement of 1997, which encompassed political, commercial and cultural projects.
Georgia still on their minds
Russian troops have withdrawn from Georgia proper, but not from the breakaway regions
Critics of Russia's military operations against Georgia had objected that Moscow had not done enough to merit a resumption of the talks. In particular, they criticized Moscow for not allowing EU monitors access to the two disputed regions.
But Russia's foreign minister was not striking a conciliatory tone on the issue.
"Security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is assured by Russian military contingents after the recognition of their independence by Russia," Lavrov said at the press conference with Kouchner.
He added that Russia felt itself to be in line with the French-brokered ceasefire agreement in so far as it was allowing observers into areas bordering on South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Moscow has recognized the independence of the two regions, which have ethnic Russian majorities, while the EU insisted that they are part of Georgia.
Kouchner said the EU would seek Moscow's cooperation with an international commission that will investigate how the conflict in the Caucasus escalated. A Swiss expert has been nominated to head that commission.