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16th Nov 2018

EU-Russia relations in jeopardy as bombs hit Tbilisi

  • A mountain top church in the Georgian countryside (Photo: wikipedia)

The suspension of EU-Russia negotiations on a new bilateral pact, freezing talks on visa-free travel for Russian citizens and holding back EU humanitarian aid to Chechnya until Russia ends aggression in Georgia could be among ideas debated by EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Wednesday (13 August).

Once fighting dies down, the EU may also offer to send policemen - but not soldiers - to help keep the peace in Georgia's breakaway regions and speed up free trade and visa facilitation deals with Georgia and Ukraine, "to show that those countries are not part of a 'grey zone' for Russia to expand [into]," a senior EU diplomat told EUobserver.

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The EU launched talks in July on a new pact to replace its old Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia and pays around €18 million a year in aid to help rebuild war-torn Chechnya. But Russia's incursion into Georgia last week threw EU-Russia relations into turmoil, in the gravest European security crisis since the 1999 Kosovo war.

In the early hours of Monday morning (11 August), Russian jets struck two targets within earshot of Tbilisi city centre and Russian tanks advanced toward Gori, 65 kilometres from the Georgian capital. The moves came despite a unilateral Georgian ceasefire on Sunday, with Moscow saying Georgian forces have violated the ceasefire announcement.

"According to our sources, Russia is going to launch a last attack on Georgia with the aim of regime change," the EU diplomatic contact said. "I'm afraid the Russians may storm Tbilisi soon. I hope the ministers [still] have something to discuss next week."

The French EU presidency has called the emergency EU foreign ministers session for 10:00 local time on Wednesday to respond to the situation, with EU ambassadors to meet in Brussels on Tuesday afternoon to prepare the agenda. No extraordinary meeting of EU leaders is foreseen for now, despite a call by Poland to hold an emergency summit.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy will travel "in the coming days" to Moscow to meet Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.

Meanwhile, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and Finnish foreign minister Alexander Stubb arrived in Georgia on Sunday night. The plane touched down at Tbilisi International Airport just a few hours after the airport was struck by Russian bombers.

"We must find the means for an immediate ceasefire, accepted by both sides," Mr Kouchner told AFP following talks with Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili. "We must move quickly, this is not a diplomatic exercise, it's an exercise of survival."

"We are now in the business of crisis management, we are now in the business to broker peace. We are not in the business of seeking who has done what, when, where and how," Mr Stubb said.

Bitter resentment

Russia says its actions are designed to protect Russian passport holders and peacekeepers in the Georgian breakaway republic of South Ossetia, in line with existing treaties. It has accused Georgia of "genocide" in shelling the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali last week, during what it called Mr Saakashvili's "suicidal" bid to defeat the rebels.

But Georgia says the Russian-backed separatists provoked its attack on Tskhinvali, which Russia used as a pretext to attack the small NATO and EU-aspirant state. It says the Russian push is designed to reassert power in Russia's old sphere of influence and to cut off an emerging oil and gas corridor between Europe and the Caspian Sea.

The UN refugee centre estimates that 10,000 to 20,000 people have become internally displaced in Georgia, but news reports on the ground indicate the figure could be tens of thousands more. Casualty estimates range from a few hundred soldiers and civilians, to over 2,000 mostly civilian deaths, with at least two reporters killed.

EU and US leaders conducted intensive telephone diplomacy over the weekend, with the US president and the NATO secretary general both criticising Russia's "disproportionate" use of force. US practical help has so far been limited to helping airlift home 2,000 Georgian soldiers from Iraq, while the EU has earmarked €1 million for humanitarian aid.

"Over the past few years I lived in a democratic country, and I was happy. Now America and the European Union spit on us," a Georgian soldier told an IHT reporter on Sunday, as Georgian troops retreated from the South Ossetian front line.

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