23rd Mar 2019

Russian threats loom over historic EU summit

  • Georgia has high hopes for the EU emergency summit (Photo:

EU leaders are holding an emergency summit on EU-Russia relations on Monday (1 September) - the first such meeting since the 9/11 attacks in the US. But the union is split on how to handle Moscow, with the Kremlin threatening to retaliate against Europe if it adopts punitive sanctions.

The French EU presidency called the summit after Russia launched a military incursion into Georgia in response to its attack on the rebel-held town of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia. Russia subsequently recognised Georgia's two breakaway regions - South Ossetia and Abkhazia - as independent states.

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Europe has already condemned Moscow's actions, but the majority of EU states is not in the mood to go beyond words, with France, Italy, Spain, Finland, Austria, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Greece and Cyprus all speaking out against punitive measures before the summit began.

The French EU presidency will on Monday table a "balanced and firm text" that falls short of sanctions, AFP reports. "It will not propose sanctions, but very precise undertakings," French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said over the weekend.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in a statement in The Observer on Sunday, called on EU colleagues to "review - root and branch - our relationship with Russia," however. He suggested excluding Russia from the Group of Eight leading industrialised nations.

British diplomats also told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper that London will push for mini-sanctions, such as an EU visa ban on South Ossetia and Abkhazia officials as well as Russian citizens active in politics in the two Georgian regions.

Poland, Sweden, the Czech republic, the Baltic States - Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia - are also keen to take a tough line, diplomats say.

But Poland's position is ambiguous, with Prime Minister Donald Tusk telling Newsweek magazine there should be no more EU-Russia summits until Russia pulls soldiers from Georgia, then adding he does not want Warsaw to become isolated in a radical stance.

Meanwhile, Germany is locked in an internal dispute. The Conservative party in Germany's coalition government backs the British G8 suggestion "as long as Russia is not prepared to find a solution under the framework of the United Nations," the IHT reports.

But the Social Democrats have warned against cornering Russia. "Moscow deserves criticism for its behaviour, but that doesn't change the fact that security and stability in Europe can only be achieved with and not against Russia," German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, according to Reuters. "Europe would only be hurting itself if we were to get full of emotion and slam all the doors shut."

The last time the EU imposed sanctions on Russia was following its invasion of Chechnya in 1994, with Europe freezing the ratification of a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement, which entered into force in 1997.

Russian warning

In the run up to the EU summit, the Kremlin - which controls some 25 percent of EU oil and gas imports - issued a number of hostile messages to the West.

President Dmitry Medvedev said on Russian TV on Sunday: "We do not favour sanctions on the whole and only resort to them in extreme circumstances. [But] if required, we could pass the relevant legislation."

Mr Medvedev added that his country was set to restore its influence in what he labelled "regions of privileged interest" and to defend "the life and dignity" of Russian citizens "no matter where they are located," raising fears of further Russian interventions in Moldova or Ukraine.

"The EU is not in a position to throw Russia out of anywhere," Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told Reuters, describing any attempt to isolate Russia as "short-sighted and unrealistic."

Moscow stands alone on recognising the breakaway Georgia territories so far. Venezuela, Belarus and Central Asian states have given rhetorical support but stopped short of recognition. Two other separatist enclaves - Transniestria in Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan - are the only other entities tohave recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia has also taken a financial hit from the crisis, with French bank BNP Paribas estimating investors recently pulled €17 billion out of the country. The Russian stock market has plunged since fighting began.

High hopes

Expectations for the EU summit are high in Georgia, where up to 30,000 people are expected to take part in an anti-Russia demonstration in Tbilisi on Monday. Demonstrations in Brussels and across Europe are also planned for the afternoon.

The Georgian prime minister, foreign minister and integration minister are to meet with EU officials in Brussels on Monday but will not take part in the summit itself.

Georgia estimates the conflict caused around €1.4 billion in damage to its infrastructure, with Georgia's entire annual state budget running to just €2 billion. The UN says the five-day war affected 160,000 people.

The European Commission has already put aside €6 million in humanitarian aid, with member states promising some €8.4 million more.

The EU's summit package for Georgia is expected to feature proposals for a major donors conference and an EU monitoring team to take part in an international peacekeeping force in the conflict zones.

The EU is also set to strengthen political and economic relations with Georgia, a French diplomat said, including moves toward a free-trade deal and easier visa regulations for Georgian people traveling to Europe.

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