25th Mar 2017

France accuses Russia of ethnic cleansing

Talk of "war" and "ethnic cleansing" hit European TV channels on Tuesday (26 August) as France and Russia debated Moscow's hard backing of rebel groups in Georgia. But plans for next week's EU summit and new EU-Russia energy links remain unaltered for now.

"We fear a war and we don't want one," French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said on the France 2 television station, after Russia gave formal recognition to Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions earlier in the day. "If it's hot, we don't want it."

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The minister showed a map of South Ossetia and pointed to the town of Akhalgori, saying: "Tonight, Russian troops are sweeping through it, pushing Georgians out and over the border. It's ethnic cleansing."

In a separate interview on France's LCI channel, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev dared the EU to impose diplomatic sanctions at next week's EU summit. "If they want a degradation of relations, they will get it," he said. "The ball is in the European camp."

"We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a new Cold War," the president also said on the Russia Today TV channel. On the Arabic Al-Jazeera network he spoke of using "military means" against a future US missile base in Poland.

Meanwhile, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused NATO members of rearming Georgia. "They are even starting to supply new types of weapons, restoring the military infrastructure that was used in the aggression," he said, Ria Novosti reports.

The rhetoric coming from Poland and Georgia was no less harsh, with Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski telling Polish daily Dziennik Russia will "again lose" in a confrontation with the "10 times richer" West.

"The end of the revival of Russia's imperialism has started," Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said, calling for Europe to impose a travel ban on Russian leaders and their families, while claiming he has "serious signals" that the crisis will speed up Georgia's integration with NATO and the EU.

Business as usual?

Germany continued to sound a calmer note throughout the day, however, indicating that suspension of EU-Russia treaty talks is still not on the cards. "We will not solve conflicts if we do not talk to each other," Chancellor Angela Merkel said on a visit to Lithuania, DPA reports.

Ms Merkel's trip to the Baltic states and Sweden is aimed at promoting a new Germany-Russia gas pipeline - Nord Stream - which Germany calls a "strategic European project," but which the former-communist EU states fear will strengthen Russia's energy leverage against eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, French EU presidency officials quietly brushed aside a joint proposal by Poland, Sweden and the Baltic countries to invite the fiery Mr Saakashvili to the EU summit on Monday. "The idea did not meet with much enthusiasm," a Polish diplomat told PAP.

Russia's recognition of the rebel enclaves will make the EU meeting more "complicated," Dutch Green MEP Joost Lagendijk commented. "With this, it will be more difficult for the moderates to say: 'We should not alienate Russia'," he told AFP.

Kosovo parallel

With Russia continuing to draw parallels between South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Kosovo - which has been recognised 46 countries worldwide - individual Belarusian MPs were the only non-Russian entities to back Moscow in its recognition of the two rebel regions so far.

"I'm sure that Belarus will become one of the first countries to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Belarus lower house delegate Aleksei Ostrovsky said, BelaPAN reports.

But Minsk remained quiet on Wednesday morning, with EU diplomats noting that President Alexander Lukashenko is currently trying to improve relations with Brussels to offset Russia's influence on his eonomically-fragile dictatorship.

The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation [China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan security alliance] is to meet in Tajikistan to discuss the Georgia issue on Thursday.

But Moscow's traditional allies have also taken a back seat in the conflict for now, amid an EU push to offer Central Asia new ways of breaking Russia's monopoly on its transit of oil and gas to Europe.

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