Russia to Leave Georgia Proper

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after talks near Moscow. The pullback is to be completed by Oct. 11.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after talks near Moscow. The pullback is to be completed by Oct. 11. (By Mikhail Metzel -- Associated Press)
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

MOSCOW, Sept. 8 -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed Monday on a timetable for withdrawing troops from undisputed Georgian territory by Oct. 11 after the European Union pledged to send a team of international observers into the war-battered region.

The decision, announced at the end of a day of negotiations between Medvedev and a European delegation led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, represented a significant concession by Russia after weeks of tough talk in the face of European and U.S. condemnation of its invasion of Georgia.

At a televised news briefing with Medvedev, Sarkozy said Russian forces would withdraw from five checkpoints between the Black Sea port of Poti and the western city of Senaki within a week, and from all positions in other undisputed parts of Georgia within a month.

But the standoff between Russia and the West over the broader question of Georgia's territorial integrity remained unresolved. Even as he agreed to pull back troops, Medvedev again voiced strong support for the two breakaway Georgian regions that are at the heart of the conflict and that Moscow has recognized as independent states.

"We have made our choice. This is a final and definitive choice, an irrevocable decision," Medvedev said of his government's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia following Georgia's defeat in last month's five-day war.

He added that Russia planned to sign military pacts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which have agreed to continue hosting Russian troops.

The two regions enjoyed de facto autonomy within Georgia for more than a decade before Russia's decision to formally recognize their secession. Russia said it was compelled to act after Georgia abandoned peace talks and attempted to seize South Ossetia by force on Aug. 7, but the West denounced the move as an attempt to unilaterally redraw Georgia's borders.

Russia has also argued that South Ossetia and Abkhazia have a stronger case for independence than Kosovo, the Serbian province that the United States and much of Europe recognized as independent in February over Moscow's objections.

Asked whether Europe had in effect acquiesced to Russia's recognition of the two breakaway regions, Sarkozy bristled and said the issue would be revisited in further talks Oct. 15 in Geneva.

"It was not up to Russia to define Georgia's borders or frontiers," he said. "The Russians will say what they wish to say. We have condemned the Russian position."

Sarkozy flew on to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on Monday to talk with President Mikheil Saakashvili. After their meeting, Saakashvili called the agreement "a step forward" and expressed gratitude to the European negotiators, comparing what he called their "21st-century" diplomacy with the "Stalinian solutions or 19th-century solutions" offered by the Russians.

Alexander Lomaia, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, applauded the clear deadlines in the agreement but added, "The bad news is that it doesn't refer to territorial integrity."

Separately, in its most concrete gesture of protest to date, the Bush administration on Monday withdrew from congressional consideration a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with Moscow that had once been celebrated as a symbol of the strength of U.S.-Russian relations. "We make this decision with regret," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement in Washington. "Unfortunately, given the current environment, the time is not right for this agreement."

The agreement to pull back Russian troops, presumably into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, follows an earlier cease-fire deal brokered by Sarkozy that had also called for a Russian withdrawal. Russian forces withdrew from much of the territory they occupied in Georgia after that agreement, but continued to maintain "security zones" on Georgian soil near South Ossetia and Abkhazia over Western objections. Russian officials said the cease-fire agreement allowed them to patrol such zones to deter Georgian attacks against the breakaway regions.

Under Monday's agreement, the E.U. will send 200 monitors into the region no later than Oct. 1, joining U.N. and other international observers. Russia said it would withdraw its troops within 10 days of the E.U. deployment.

Russia said Monday that it will send a naval squadron and long-range patrol planes to Venezuela this year for a joint military exercise in the Caribbean, the Associated Press reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko insisted the decision was made before Russia's war with Georgia.

Correspondent Tara Bahrampour in Tbilisi contributed to this report.

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