The European Union plans to resume talks with Russia on a new partnership accord at an EU-Russia summit on November 14, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said recently. “I want to underline the EU-Russian partnership talks were never suspended, they were simply delayed,” Kouchner told journalists on October 28, New Europe reported.

Negotiations on the pact were frozen earlier this year after Russia’s war with Georgia in August. The French minister said a timeline for the next round of negotiations would be set at the summit in Nice, “unless there is a surprise between then and now.”

Kouchner and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in St Petersburg within the framework of an EU-Russia meeting on October 28. In an interview with business daily Kommersant published that day, Kouchner called a resumption of relations “inevitable.” On September 1, the EU broke off talks on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Russia over that country’s failure to comply with a ceasefire accord in Georgia brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who also currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

EU officials were also riled when Russia failed to heed demands to withdraw its troops from Georgia. The PCA governs the EU’s relations with its largest neighbour and energy supplier. Kouchner and Solana added that they would seek Moscow’s cooperation in an international investigation into Russia’s five-day war with Georgia and announced the commission would be headed by Swiss expert. “A woman from Switzerland has been appointed the chair of the commission,” Kouchner said on Russia’s Vesti-24 television.

Kouchner helped broker the ceasefire deal and led Western condemnation when Russia sent troops into Georgia to thwart Tbilisi’s attempt to take back control of the Russianbacked separatist region of South Ossetia. Kouchner said he refused to assign blame for starting the war in Georgia. But he noted that Russia had been geared up for a fight with Georgia. “Russia was unequivocally prepared,” he said in Kommersant. “Russia’s troops magically appeared just at border at the right time.” He added there had been a real danger that Russia’s military might stage a coup in Georgia.

He also reiterated fears that Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula could turn into a hot spot, with Russia harbouring designs and fanning tensions in the predominantly ethnic-Russian region. Some European leaders have argued that Russia is not complying with the terms of the peace pact because of its plans to base 7,600 troops in South Ossetia and Georgia’s other breakaway area of Abkhazia, and because it has relegated EU observers to patrolling the borders of these regions. The first scheduled round of Georgia-Russia peace talks in Geneva broke down over the question of whether representatives from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia has unilaterally recognised as independent, should be included in negotiations.

The two regions have held de facto independence since winning a war of succession against Tbilisi in the early 1990s and have had long had Moscow’s support. However, both are widely recognis. Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen has conditioned the beginning of EU-Russia negotiations on a new fundamental treaty on Moscow’s constructive behaviour at the Geneva debate on security of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Verhagen told a October 30 press conference after negotiations with Lavrov that they wanted Russian forces to pull back to the prewar positions and EU monitors to work on the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

If the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan is fulfilled completely and Russia proves to be constructive in Geneva, Russia-Netherlands negotiations and EU-Russia strategic partnership talks will resume, he said. The minister noted that the EURussia partnership had a large potential in energy, trade and security. Lithuanian officials recently indicated the Baltic state would oppose the revival of talks on a new pact between the EU and Russia until Moscow fully respects a ceasefire that ended its war with Georgia.

The anonymous Lithuanian officials quoted in local media reportedly claimed that Russia recently increased the number of its troops stationed in the controversial area. “What we have is an uncontrolled military build-up in the region. But we’re being asked to go along with the occupation of an independent country. We’re going to fight against this to the end. Pragmatic interests must not get the upper hand,” the official was quoted as saying. “As long as Russia doesn’t pull out and the observers aren’t allowed into the separatist areas, there’s no way we can talk about relaunching negotiations between Russia and the EU,” he added.

Relations with Russia were likely to be the focus when former presidents, prime ministers and assorted other regional heavyweights were due to descend on the Latvian capital of Riga for a NATO-sponsored conference on November 1- 2. Topping the bill was expected to be Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, on his first visit to the Baltic region since his country went to war with Russia in August. Baltic and central European nations gave Saakashvili strong backing during that war and will be heavily represented at the conference. Saakashvili was due to appear with Latvian President Valdis Zatlers, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during a November 1 debate titled “A vision of Europe, whole and free.”

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus was originally scheduled to attend, but opted to stay home as he is playing a vital role in forming a new government following recent elections. Ilves, Adamkus and Yushchenko, along with Latvian Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis and Polish President Lech Kaczynski, went to Tbilisi in August in a show of solidarity with a fellow former communist state. They also signed a declaration condemning what they called Russia’s “military aggression.” Before the closing debate on Sunday, a range of other topics will be discussed in Riga’s historic House of Blackheads including one provocatively titled: “Russia - no business as usual?”

The medieval House of Blackheads was itself demolished by the Red Army after the end of the Second World War and rebuilt in a highly symbolic act as soon as Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. However, despite the preoccupation with Russia in debates on defence and “military threats emanating in the nearest neighbourhood” the most senior Russian attendee was expected to be Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister of Russia and now chairman of the Russian Union of Oil Exporters.

New Europe