EU threatens to postpone talks on Russian pact
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders agreed on Monday to postpone talks with Russia on a new partnership pact scheduled for later this month if Moscow has not withdrawn its troops to pre-conflict positions in Georgia by then.
The decision at an emergency summit in Brussels came after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailed Moscow's military intervention over the breakaway South Ossetia conflict as setting a new standard for defending its national interests.
The EU move was a bid to bridge national differences on how to deal with Russia and to send a warning shot to Moscow despite shying away from sanctions on its largest energy supplier.
"The return of spheres of influence is not acceptable. Yalta is over," French President Nicolas Sarkozy told a news conference, referring to the 1945 major powers' meeting in the Crimea which helped shape post-World War Two Europe.
Sarkozy said he would travel with other EU officials to Moscow on September 8 to discuss its adherence to a French-brokered peace plan, and then decide whether partnership talks set for Sept 15-16 in Brussels could go ahead as planned.
"We will ask Russia to apply the six-point plan scrupulously," he said of the plan to end hostilities after Russia crushed a Georgian attempt to take back South Ossetia.
The final summit statement also condemned Russia's move to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and breakaway Abkhazia and urged other countries not to follow suit.
The new EU-Russia accord is due to regulate relations in the energy sector and on trade. The EU struggled for 18 months to agree its own mandate for talks which finally started this July.
Russia's envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told reporters he was disappointed by Monday's summit but added: "We don't need these talks or this new agreement any more than the EU does...It is more a self-punishment for the EU because it doesn't improve its credibility as a trading partner."
Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze told reporters in Brussels he welcomed "the firm and principled" EU stance.
France, Germany and Italy insisted at the summit that tougher action against Russia would be premature while Britain and several ex-communist eastern nations urged the EU to suspend talks for the so-called partnership and cooperation (PCA).
"There are politicians, also in Europe, who would prefer empty conclusions because of their intensive bilateral relations with Russia," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk complained.
Moscow has withdrawn most of its forces in line with a ceasefire deal but has kept soldiers in "security zones", which include Georgian territory around South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Sarkozy by telephone on Sunday that Russia was prepared to pull back troops to pre-conflict positions.
But before the summit, Lavrov said Moscow's intervention in Georgia had set a new standard for defending its interests.
"Russia has returned to the world stage as a responsible state which can defend its citizens," he declared, adding that the United States must "start adapting" to this reality.
Moscow has said it intervened to prevent Georgian "genocide" there. It drew Western condemnation by pushing far beyond the disputed area, bombing and deploying troops deep inside Georgia. The former Soviet republic is strategically important to the West because it hosts oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russia.
In the streets of Tbilisi, more than a million Georgians protested against Russia on Monday, many linking arms and waving the red and white Georgian flag.
In an apparently conciliatory step, Russia said it wanted the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the EU to arrange an international police presence in buffer zones between Georgia and its breakaway regions.
The EU is looking to send civilian monitors to Georgia, with officials saying its presence could total a few hundred.
EU leaders also vowed on Monday to make reconstruction aid available for Georgia and consider closer ties, including talks on a free trade deal and an easier visa regime for its citizens.
They agreed to help organise an international donors' conference for Georgia. EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said some 110 million euros (89.1 million pounds) would be needed just to help some 22,000 displaced people in Georgia.
Separately, NATO member Turkey began curbing Russian imports in a move officials said followed delays to Turkish goods at the Russian border since Ankara allowed two U.S. ships to transit the Bosphorus Strait to provide aid to Georgia.
"We don't want to apply these measures, but we are acting reciprocally," Foreign Trade Minister Kursad Tuzmen told state-run news agency Anatolian.
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander, David Brunnstrom and Francois Murphy in Brussels; Sophie Louet in Paris, Frank Prenesti in London and Robin Pomeroy in Rome; Editing by Robert Hart)
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