Brussels ready to reopen Russia talks

Financial Times
Tony Barber in Brussels
November 10 2008 17:27

The European Union said on Monday it was ready to reopen talks with Russia on a long-term partnership agreement in spite of eastern European complaints that such a step would smack of weakness after the Kremlin’s de facto partition of Georgia.
At an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels, the UK and Sweden appeared to swing the argument in the 27-nation bloc when they issued a statement supporting the resumption of dialogue so long as the EU maintained a “hard-headed approach”.
EU leaders decided on September 1 to postpone the talks indefinitely after Russia, responding to a Georgian attack on the pro-Moscow enclave of South Ossetia, invaded Georgia proper and then recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region.

Since then France, Germany, Italy and other western European states have pressed for a return to normal, saying the overall relationship with Moscow, including the EU’s reliance on Russian energy, is too important to be left adrift.

The difficulty of achieving unity inside the EU was illustrated on Monday when Lithuania held out against the pressure and made clear it would agree to restart the EU-Russian talks only with the greatest reluctance.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s external relations commissioner, said the next round of partnership talks could be held after November 18, when Russian and Georgian officials are scheduled to meet in Geneva.

On Friday EU and Russian leaders meet in Nice, in the south of France, for a regular biannual summit.

Valdas Adamkus and Lech Kaczynski, the presidents of Lithuania and Poland, said last week the time was not ripe to resume talks with Moscow, not least because Russian forces had not fulfilled an EU condition that they should withdraw to positions in Georgia occupied before the fighting started on August 7.

However, Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s EU ambassador, said Moscow had complied with all the terms of the EU-brokered ceasefire.

The UK-Swedish statement criticised Russia’s policies in Georgia but made clear London and Stockholm did not want to be identified exclusively with the former communist states in the EU’s Russia policy debate.

The postponement of the talks was the only concrete measure the EU took against Russia. Tougher measures, favoured by some eastern Europeans, ran up against the German and Italian argument that Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, had been partly responsible for the war in the first place.

The EU’s relationship with Russia, plagued with difficulties over energy, trade and air travel as well as Moscow’s attitude to the former Soviet bloc, was tested again last week when the Kremlin announced the deployment of missiles in Kaliningrad, near Poland and Lithuania, to counter planned US anti-missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic.

But Germany said this move merely underlined the need to have a dialogue with Russia. “There is only one way to speak concretely about these difficulties, and that is by continuing these negotiations,” said Günter Gloser, Germany’s European affairs minister.