European monitors to deploy to Georgia

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

MOSCOW -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged Monday to withdraw Russian troops from key areas of Georgia after 200 European Union monitors are deployed later this month.

Questions remained, however, whether the Russians would follow through in pulling out all the troops who occupied regions surrounding the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after a Georgian attack last month.

The deal, announced by Medvedev after more than four hours of talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, appeared to be a concession to international demands that Russia fulfill pledges made as part of a cease-fire agreement last month.

The short war between Georgia and Russia has turned into a critical event in the post-Cold War world, as Russia asserts its new economic and military clout and the West works to respond.

Sarkozy flew to Moscow for meetings with Medvedev to try to salvage the Aug. 12 deal, which ended a conflict that saw Georgian forces attacking South Ossetia and Russia then invading and routing Georgia's military.

Georgia and many Western nations complained that Russia had failed to withdraw troops and follow through on other earlier pledges.

That failure was further underscored as Russian troops on Monday blocked international aid convoys and several European ambassadors from traveling to villages beyond Russian checkpoints in Georgia.

Medvedev said 200 European Union monitors would deploy to regions surrounding South Ossetia and Abkhazia by next month. After that, Russian troops would pull out of those regions by Oct. 11 to a line that preceded the last month's fighting.

"I believe this accord is an accord that represents a maximum of what we could have done," Sarkozy told reporters. "If all the conflicts around the world found themselves this way on the road to resolution the world would be more stable."

Medvedev again insisted that Russia was complying with the cease-fire. He also again lashed out at Georgia's U.S.-allied leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, saying he had received "a blessing, either in the form of a direct order or silent approval" from the United States to launch an "idiotic action" against South Ossetia.

"People died and now all of Georgia must pay for that," Medvedev said.

He said Russian troops would pull out of the Black Sea port of Poti and nearby areas in the next seven days, but only if Georgia signed a pledge to not use force against Abkhazia. Georgia had complained that the presence of Russian troops in Poti -- located dozens of miles away from the fighting in South Ossetia -- was a blatant violation of the cease-fire.

Adding to the uncertainty was the stipulation that any Georgian forces remaining near the separatist regions return to their bases and barracks by Oct. 1 before a full Russian withdrawal could happen.

The deal calls for international talks on refugees and the region's stability as a whole to be held beginning Oct. 15 in Geneva.

One of the sticking points of talks, Sarkozy said, was the fact that Russia had recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent. Both have had de facto independence since breaking away from Georgian government control in the early 1990s.

"It is not up to Russia to recognize unilaterally the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There are international rules. These should be respected," he said.

The only other country aside from Russia to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia's independence is Nicaragua.

Medvedev said Russia would not revisit that decision.

"Our decision is irrevocable, two new states have come into existence," Medvedev said. "This is a reality which all our partners, including our EU partners, will have to reckon with."

Sarkozy suggested that the talks were difficult but he said the four objectives he sought in coming to Moscow had been reached, in particular, the decision to send EU observers: "what was accomplished today, it was rather significant."

"The retreat of Russian forces, and a precise timetable. That's done. The deployment of international observers. That's accepted," Sarkozy said.

Medvedev said Russia wants to maintain constructive relations with the European Union.

"Everything is absolutely clear: We want both partnership and peace and hardly anybody wants a confrontation between Europe and Russia," he said.

That point was echoed by Sarkozy.

"The world will not again find itself in a Cold War that we don't need. We will not launch into adventures of this nature without reflecting about it first," he said.

Sarkozy later Monday flew to the Georgian capital to meet with Saakashvili and present the update to the cease-fire plan.

Russian observers said despite the agreement to withdraw, Moscow had in fact strengthened its position.

"Russia gave no concessions and was able in fact achieve recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This was an astonishing success for the Kremlin," said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. "Things turned out just as Russia had planned."

The head of Georgia's Security Council, Alexander Lomaia, said authorities awaited the full report from Sarkozy but said it was "very important" that Sarkozy had persuaded Russia to commit to "a concrete timetable for the withdrawal of all forces from all of Georgian territory" outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Associated Press writer Steve Gutterman contributed to this report from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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