E.U. Eases Off on Economic Threats After Russia Suggests Troop Pullback

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

MOSCOW, Sept. 1 -- The European Union on Monday backed off threats to impose economic sanctions on Russia but said it would suspend talks on a wide-ranging partnership agreement with Moscow until Russian troops withdraw from positions inside Georgia.

The decision, made at an emergency summit of European leaders in Brussels, followed Russian statements suggesting a renewed willingness to pull back its troops if international forces replaced them and guaranteed the security of the two breakaway Georgian republics at the center of the crisis.

Britain and some Eastern European nations had called for tougher action against Russia after it recognized the two republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as independent states last week. But other nations urged further dialogue with the Kremlin, arguing that trying to isolate Russia would be counterproductive, especially given Europe's dependence on Russian oil and natural gas.

"I think we found an excellent compromise, not going back to business as usual but still making clear that we want to maintain contact with Russia," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Brussels after the meeting.

She added that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, by telephone that Russia planned to pull its troops back to positions they held before their five-day rout of the Georgian army last month.

The Reuters news agency quoted Merkel as saying that troops were expected to withdraw from Poti and Senaki, two key cities in western Georgia that are still patrolled by Russian soldiers.

The European decision came as huge crowds in Georgia rallied in solidarity against Russia in cities across the country, including Poti. Some of the protests occurred near Russian checkpoints.

In Tbilisi, the capital, residents held hands to form human chains, recalling the 1989 protests in which residents of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia lined up to protest Soviet occupation. "We came here to show the world that we are a strong nation," said Sophio Jikidze, 31, whose 7-year-old daughter was among the multitude waving red-and-white Georgian flags.

Russia, which sent troops deep into Georgia during the war, has withdrawn from most of the territory it seized but is keeping troops in what it calls security zones around South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The United States and Europe say that violates cease-fire terms, but Russia says the troops are necessary to deter further Georgian attacks and are allowed under the terms.

Before the European leaders' decision, the Russian Foreign Ministry declared that Moscow did not want to keep its forces on Georgian soil beyond Abkhazia and South Ossetia permanently. In a statement, the ministry said that up to 100 European military observers were expected in Georgia soon, and added, "Russia is ready for further enlargement of this number."

The statement also proposed an "international police presence" in the Georgian security zones. "Once the international mechanisms are ready and start to function," it said, Russia would reexamine the need for its troops in the buffer zone.

In tougher remarks, though, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West to stop supporting the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whom Moscow blames for starting the war and has portrayed as an unstable war criminal. "If instead of choosing their national interests and the interests of the Georgian people, the United States and its allies choose the Saakashvili regime, this will be a mistake of truly historic proportions," Lavrov said.

But European leaders seized on the possible softening of Russia's position on the troop withdrawal and adopted a resolution saying "the urgent issue at the moment is to finalize the international monitoring mechanism . . . so as to replace the Russian additional security measures."

The resolution also condemned Moscow's "disproportionate" military response to Georgia's attempt to seize South Ossetia and the Kremlin's formal recognition of the two republics. It said nothing about economic sanctions, announcing instead a thorough review of Europe's relations with Russia as well as its dependence on Russian energy supplies. Russia supplies as much as a third of the E.U.'s oil and about 40 percent of its natural gas.

"The European Union doesn't want to create an insurmountable obstacle in its relationship with Russia," said Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian ambassador to the European Union. "That is only sensible."

Special correspondent Temo Bardzimashvil in Tbilisi contributed to this report.

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