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Europe

NATO Re-Opens Talks With Russia, Hold Off on Ukraine, Georgia

NATO and EU officials on Tuesday decided to rekindle the dialog with Russia after suspending it following Moscow's conflict with Georgia in the Caucasus. But they didn't have good news for Ukraine and Georgia.

NATO logo superimposed on a Russian flag

NATO and Russia are back at the table

NATO should open informal diplomatic talks with Russia after it broke off formal ties following August's Russian invasion of Georgia, alliance foreign ministers agreed Tuesday.

And while Georgia and Ukraine can be certain of joining the alliance at an unspecified point in the future, they will not get a fast track to membership by sidestepping the formal procedure of the Membership Action Plan (MAP), the meeting in Brussels agreed.

At the meeting, NATO members "agreed on what I'd qualify as a conditional and graduated re-engagement with Russia," said NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. "I have been mandated as I see fit … to see what political contacts can be possible.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer

"This doesn't mean that we now suddenly agree with the Russians on their disproportionate use of force in August," Scheffer added. "We fundamentally disagree, but we'll try to re-engage."

In August, NATO foreign ministers condemned Russia's invasion of Georgia, and declared that there would be "no business as usual" as long as Russian troops remained in the country, and decided that there would be no more high-level meetings of the formal NATO-Russia

Council as long as the situation lasted.

Pushing for talks

But ahead of Tuesday's meeting, a number of NATO member states, especially European powers such as Germany and France, pushed for a re-launch of talks, saying that the alliance would have nothing to gain from refusing to talk with Russia.

"From our point of view there's no other solution with this very special neighbor, no other way to be sure of their demands and concerns, except to talk to them," French Foreign Minister Bernard

Kouchner said.

But states such as Britain, the United States and Poland said that the alliance should be careful to avoid any appearance that it was softening its stance on the Georgian war -- leading ministers to agree on a tentative and informal approach.

"This isn't an issue of isolating Russia, but it's a question of what kinds of contacts are appropriate," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "And this (call for informal

talks) is a completely appropriate thing to do.

Ukraine , Georgia must wait

The ministers also re-stated a promise made by their political leaders in April that Ukraine and Georgia would join the alliance at an unspecified future point.

They called on the commissions which NATO has set up with the two aspirants to intensify work on promoting reform, in a bid to move them closer to NATO military and democratic standards.

But they stressed that there would be no short cuts to membership, saying that the aspirants would both have to carry out deep political and military reforms and gain unanimous approval to enter the Membership Action Plan, which prepares countries for NATO entry.

Observers saw that as a victory for Germany and France, who have long maintained that the two countries are not ready for membership, and a blow for the US, which is their most vocal backer.

The meeting is set to continue on Wednesday with a discussion of operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Gulf of Aden.

EU resumes talks

The European Union and Russia on Tuesday re-opened high-level talks on a new strategic treaty which EU leaders froze in September to protest Russia's military conflict with Georgia.

Russian and EU flags

The EU is also re-engaging with Russia

The meeting between Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, and EU negotiator Eneko Landaburu was intended to discuss the "general architecture" of a future deal, sources in the European Commission, the EU's executive, said.

Relations between Russia and the EU are currently governed by a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) reached with the government of Boris Yeltsin in 1997. It covers issues such as trade, cultural exchanges, the promotion of democracy, education and environmental protection.

Since then, Russia has rapidly re-built its military and political power, while the EU has expanded all the way to the Russian border, leading both sides to call for a new deal.

After many internal rows within the EU, the first round of talks on the "New EU-Russia Agreement" was held on July 4. However, on Sept. 1, following the Russian-Georgian war, EU leaders postponed any further talks as long as Russian troops remained in Georgia.

Although Russia still has troops in Georgia, and has recognized the independence of the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, EU foreign ministers decided on Nov.10 to re-launch talks on the new deal.

Advocates for such a move argued that the EU would only be able to exercise leverage over Russia if it returned to the negotiating table.

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