Vienna, October 28 – French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner says that there is “a danger” that some in Moscow, encouraged by Russia’s military success in Georgia, may be tempted to use force in Crimea, an action that could undermine any possibility of cooperation between the Russian Federation and the European Union.
In a Paris interview in advance of his arrival in St. Petersburg for talks with his Russian opposite number Sergey Lavrov today, Kouchner stressed that Russia’s actions in Georgia had led the EU not to “delay” talks but to “stop” them until Moscow fulfills its commitment to withdraw from Georgia proper (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1048686).
Saying that the recent events in Georgia not only involved “an enormous number of victims but represented “a colossal crisis” in relations between Russia and the European Union, Kouchner added that no one can expect the recovery of ties to be as rapid as many on each side would like.
“We had to stop the war,” Kouchner continued,” and we did this in the course of three days. Now the politicians must begin negotiations.” Three of Russia’s positions, he said, make it clear that these talks will be both difficult and prolonged.
First, Russia is occupying the Akhalgorsk district, a region it did not control before and that Georgia insists is not part of South Ossetia. Second, Moscow has sent more troops into Abkhazia and South Ossetia despite the accords. And third, the Russian government has recognized the two breakaway republics, something the EU is “categorically” against.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy,” his foreign minister continued, has made it “crystal clear” that “we are against any change of borders by force.” Consequently, he continued, “we must support Georgia because we do not want this state destroyed.” But, Kouchner added, “ we are extremely interested in cooperation between Russia and the EU.”
Kouchner said that he was confident that assistance from the EU, the World Bank, and the United States to Georgia would go for infrastructure development rather than military recovery, but he stressed that “Georgia is an independent country” and thus “it has the right to have an army.”
With regard to EU observer peacekeepers, the French minister said, Russia may not want them in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, but “we will achieve” agreement on this via negotiations so that the observers can do their jobs as anticipated by the agreement that Moscow and Tbilisi have signed.
The French diplomat said that he expected representatives from Abkhazia and South Ossetia to participate in some way in future negotiations, that the EU will soon announce the formation of a high-level group to investigate the start of the Georgian war, and that he hoped that Russia would participate in the Nabucco and South Stream energy transit projects.
When his interviewer noted that Kouchner had been “the first who had said that the next potential site” of a war could be Crimea, the French minister said that he had been n first because he was “certainly less diplomatic and more honest than the rest.” And he stressed that “we do not want a renewed war in Crimea.”
Asked if what he meant by that was that “the success of the war in Georgia might push the Kremlin to repeat this scenario in another place,” Kouchner said that “such a danger exists,” although he hastened to add that he had not drawn that conclusion on the basis of conversations with “Putin, Medvedev and Lavrov.”
Even as Kouchner expressed concerns about what Moscow might do in Crimea, Georgian and Russian experts told Kavkaz-uzel.ru that there was a very real possibility that the war between Moscow and Tbilisi was far from over and might reignite at almost any time (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1232193.html).
Tengiz Ablotiya of the Tbilisi Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations said that he does “not believe that military actions in Georgia have come to a complete end.” Instead, he said, there is a very real change that cross-border activities could lead to a renewal of major clashes in the near future.
Moscow expert Sergey Markedonov agreed that it is likely that the situations in Galsk and Akhalgorsk districts will heat up but he suggested that President Mikhail Saakashvili will avoid provoking the Russians by a direct military attack but will use the methods of the 1990s – “diversions, provocations, and charges against Russia in the media.”
And Mikhail Shevelev, an observer at the Moscow “Izbrannoye” portal, said that a repetition of the August events was possible. But this time it would be because Russia might conclude that its current isolation makes such a step profitable rather than because of a Georgian move. The latter is a card, he said, that has already been played and lost.