x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sarkozy stands by talks

The French president defends his decision to reopen talks with Russia amid criticisms that this would legitimise Moscow's invasion of Georgia.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev walk in the street during the EU-Russia summit, in Nice, France, on Nov 14 2008.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev walk in the street during the EU-Russia summit, in Nice, France, on Nov 14 2008.

NICE, FRANCE // Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, defended his decision to reopen talks with Russia amid criticisms this would legitimise Moscow's invasion of Georgia and its recognition of the breakaway states, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Russia's president, Dmitriy Medvedev, after an EU-Russia summit yesterday in Nice, Mr Sarkozy also dismissed critics who said he should have been tougher on Moscow during the August conflict. He said he had gone to Moscow in August when Russian troops were only 40km from the Georgian capital, Tbilsi, and intent apparently on taking the city. "I remember certain heads of state calling me and saying I should not go. We have seen the fallout of not sitting down and talking," he said. "Europe has to roll up its sleeves if it wants to play a role in the world. You cannot yell at each other across oceans. It is not weak to talk." He did not deny there were continuing problems in Georgia, notably over Russia's insistence on recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia. After the invasion of Georgia the EU protested by suspending discussions with Moscow for a new, wide-ranging bilateral agreement. The summit signals the reopening of those talks, to the anger of the Georgians who regard it as a betrayal by the EU. Before the Nice summit, EU officials said that Mr Sarkozy and Mr Medvedev would spend most of their time discussing the financial crisis but, instead, Georgia dominated the agenda. EU officials thought this was because Mr Sarkozy had become increasingly annoyed that he was being portrayed as weak and unprincipled. Mr Sarkozy said Russia had met "most" of its obligations in Georgia described in the agreement he brokered on Aug 12 in Moscow. He said Russia had been "very compliant" but, he said, Europe could not accept that South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be fully fledged independent countries. Again and again he returned to the theme that he had shown vision and moral courage by travelling to Moscow in August. It was foolish, he continued, to argue that meeting the Russians now showed the EU was weak. "I opt for dialogue," he said. "It makes no sense not to talk. How can you solve problems if you do not talk?" Mr Medvedev was restrained and terse in comparison. He said Russia would respect Georgia's "territorial integrity" but that its recognition of the two breakaway states was final and "irrevocable". Mr Sarkozy also said the EU understood Moscow's concerns about US plans to establish "anti-missile" systems in Poland and in the Czech Republic, but that Russia's threats to station its own missiles on the Polish and Lithuanian borders was a dangerous step. Washington insists that its missile shield is meant to prevent attacks by "rogue states" - such as Iran. Mr Sarkozy asked for a suspension in missile deployments until after a security summit next year that would include Russia, the United States and the EU. Energy also figured in Nice. The EU's dependence on Russian oil, gas and coal has long worried European governments and on the eve of the summit the EU unveiled a multi-trillion dollar plan designed to diversify energy supplies - and prevent Russian blackmail. The EU estimates that by 2030 Europe will be importing 84 per cent of its gas needs, up from 61 per cent at present. About 40 per cent of EU gas imports and 25 per cent of oil imports are from Russia. The EU plans to protect the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, currently dependent on Russia for energy supplies, by connecting them to the European grid and constructing "a southern gas corridor" to carry gas from the Caspian basin to Europe, bypassing Russia and Iran. sfreeman@thenational.ae