EU leaders to assess fraying relations with Russia

12:05, 01 September 2008
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Sanctions appear remote

European Union leaders seeking to punish Russia for invading Georgia face limited options and are likely to choose diplomatic pressure to isolate Moscow at their summit Monday, according to AP.

Sanctions appear remote — not least because western Europe depends on Russia`s energy supplies. But the 27 European leaders are expected to offer more humanitarian, economic and moral support for Georgia and signal that normal relations with Moscow are impossible with Russian troops violating a cease-fire agreement.

French and Belgian officials also have said that EU leaders may name a special envoy to Georgia to ensure that the cease-fire is observed. They said the EU might send a high official — perhaps French President Nicolas Sarkozy — on a shuttle mission to the region.

"Russia`s commitment to a relationship of understanding and cooperation with the rest of Europe is in doubt," Sarkozy, who is chairing the summit, wrote in a pre-summit letter to the EU leaders.

"It`s up to Russia today to make a fundamental choice" and to engage neighbors and partners in settling disputes peacefully, Sarkozy wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.

Sarkozy, whose country now holds the EU presidency, wrote that the leaders must "seriously examine relations between the European Union and Russia," adding that he counted on a "clear and united message."

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said the EU summit was a sign of a strong global support for Georgia. "Russia today has found itself more isolated than the Soviet Union ever was," he said in a televised statement.

On Sunday, Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze asked the EU and the U.S. to impose sanctions on companies and individuals doing business in its breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia without its permission.

"What we are calling for is ... sanctions addressing those individuals, business and officials who by their actions, current or future, seek to somehow continue to violate our territorial integrity," he said in an interview with the AP.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking to Russian television Sunday, cautioned European nations against sharing the tough U.S. policy on Russia and "serving someone else`s political interests." Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia may consider economic sanctions against unfriendly nations, but would like to avoid it.

Georgian forces attacked South Ossetia on Aug. 7, hoping to retake the province that has had de-facto independence since the early 1990s. Russian forces repelled the offensive and pushed into Georgia. Sarkozy crafted a cease-fire deal in mid-August, but Russia has ignored its requirement for all forces to return to prewar positions.

Russia claims the cease-fire accord lets it run checkpoints in security zones of up to 4 miles in Georgian territory.

Sarkozy said that the EU must insist Russian troops leave Georgia and be ready "to assume a presence on the ground in support of all efforts toward a peaceful and lasting solution to conflicts in Georgia." He did not elaborate.

Russia has faced isolation over its offensive in Georgia and stands alone in its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The U.S. and Europe have closed ranks in condemning Russia`s actions but are struggling to find an effective response.

Possible EU actions against Russia include a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, holding off on talks for a broader economic partnership with Moscow, adding to the $18 million in humanitarian aid to repair Georgia`s infrastructure, and contributing to the peace monitoring mission the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe operates there.

Sanctions, though, appear unlikely. France`s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said as much on Friday.

Russia supplies the EU with a third of its oil and 40 percent of its natural gas — a dependence the European Commission says will rise significantly in the future.

The European Commission has argued that while the EU needs Russia for oil and gas, Moscow also needs EU capital and expertise to develop new energy fields. Russia has vast gas and oil deposits, but output is not growing much because of aging pipelines and monopolistic policies.

Russia`s economy has already been affected. After the war, investors began leaving Russia and stock markets plunged. Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said last week that more than $7 billion was pulled out of the country in just two days, exposing the fragility of Russia`s nine-year economic boom.

Meanwhile, there have been divisions within the EU about how the bloc should respond.

Germany relies on Russia for 34 percent of its oil imports and 36 percent of its natural gas consumption. Slovakia, Finland and Bulgaria depend on Russia for over 90 percent of the gas that heats homes, cooks meals and powers factories.

Poland and other eastern EU members are among the most dependent on Russian energy but with fresh memories of Soviet domination, their leaders have been pushing for a tough European stance.

They are joined by Britain, whose own oil and gas reserves make it less reliant on Russia. Britain has suggested Russia be expelled from the Group of Eight nations.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote in an article in The Observer newspaper on Sunday that European countries must adopt a united energy policy to avoid becoming too dependent on Russia.

Putin said Sunday that Russia will diversify its energy exports and expand sales to booming Asian markets. He said, however, that Russia`s plans to expand energy exports to Asia doesn`t mean that it would cut supplies to European markets.

On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to tone down Polish anger at Moscow. Polish President Lech Kaczynski and Merkel agreed on the need for a humanitarian mission to Georgia.

Poland wants the EU to signal support for Ukraine to offset Russian ambitions to restore its influence there, too. Ukraine wants to join the EU — a prospect EU governments have rejected to date — and hopes for free-trade and visa-free travel deals with the bloc soon.


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