NATO chief criticises Russian troop pullout deal
Scheffer said the deal was unacceptable and hard to swallow
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said on Monday the EU-brokered deal for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia was unacceptable and hard to swallow because it ceded too much ground to Moscow, according to Reuters.
De Hoop Scheffer made his comments in an interview with the Financial Times hours before he was due to lead a NATO mission to Georgia in a gesture of support for the aspiring alliance member after its forces were routed by Russia last month.
He said Russia was being allowed to retain a military presence inside Georgia`s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, contravening an earlier plan brokered by EU president France that sought a return to the status quo before the war.
"If the Russians are staying in South Ossetia with so many forces, I do not consider this as a return to the status quo," said De Hoop Scheffer.
"The option of keeping Russian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is not acceptable," he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week after the deal with the EU that Moscow would station about 7,600 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, more than twice the number it had in the two regions before the war in August.
"Let me say (Lavrov`s statement) is very difficult to swallow," said De Hoop Scheffer.
Russia`s intervention in Georgia drew widespread international condemnation, and deepened concern over the stability of the wider Caucasus as a transit route for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to the West that bypasses Russia.
But Western countries have shied away from sanctions, partly because for many Russia is the main energy supplier.
European Union foreign ministers will seek at a meeting in Brussels to maintain pressure on Russia to withdraw its troops from Georgia by rubber-stamping plans to send at least 200 ceasefire monitors next month.
Tbilisi sees the first session of the NATO-Georgia Commission as a commitment to its future membership, but the meeting is likely to only paper over cracks between NATO members on the wisdom of expanding further into the former Soviet Union.
Russia is incensed by NATO`s promise of membership to neighbouring Georgia and Ukraine. Some Western European countries led by France and Germany are wary of antagonising Moscow over the issue.
"This meeting represents a strengthening and deepening of relations between Georgia and NATO. It`s a very serious signal and a response to Russia`s aggression against Georgia," said Georgian Euro-Integration Minister Georgy Baramidze.
The Commission was conceived after the Russian intervention as a means to bolster ties with Tbilisi.
The NATO meeting coincides with a trip by Lavrov to the two breakaway regions which Moscow, in defiance of the West, has recognised as independent states.
Russian forces pushed deep into Georgia after repelling an offensive launched by pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to retake South Ossetia from pro-Moscow separatists.
Some Russian forces pulled out from the region around Georgia`s Black Sea port of Poti on Saturday, within a Sept 15 deadline for the first phase of the pullback deal.
But many more remain, holding "security zones" around South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia has agreed to withdraw them by October 10, but says it will keep the planned 7,600 troops in the two separatist regions indefinitely.
The withdrawal of troops from the security zones is conditional on deployment of an international force of ceasefire monitors, including a 200-strong EU contingent.