EU leaders seek to "punish" Russia by strengthening ties with Georgia

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The Independent Online

European Union leaders will fulminate against Russian actions in the Caucasus at a brief emergency summit in Brussels today but will probably stop short of specific threats and sanctions. Instead, EU leaders will seek to “punish” Russia by declaring their willingness to strengthen political and economic ties with Georgia.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has called the summit as EU council president, is anxious to avoid a public rift between governments which will make the EU appear ridiculous and bolster the Russian position. Several capitals have made it clear they are unwilling to impose economic or diplomatic punishments which would provoke painful counter-sanctions by Moscow, such as a suspension of gas and oil supplies.

Another group of countries, including many of the former Soviet-bloc states, Britain and Sweden, are pushing, nonetheless, for a toughly worded summit statement. This could include an idea raised by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, in a newspaper article yesterday that the West should revert informally to meetings of the G7 group of industrial nations, in effect boycotting, without disbanding, the G8 group which includes Russia.

Moscow displayed its lack of concern for EU – and Western – powers of retaliation yesterday. President Dmitry Medvedev told Russian television that Moscow would shortly sign agreements pledging military and other aid to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the breakaway regions of Georgia.

And Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili urged the EU to stand firm. “I expect from the EU summit that Europe won’t give up faced with this dirty attempt at aggression,” he said last night in an address.

EU leaders are expected to issue a tough condemnation of Russia’s failure to abide by terms of the ceasefire agreement negotiated by President Sarkozy last month and to condemn Russia’s recognition of the breakaway regions.

In a sign of deepening support for the Georgian government, the summit is also expected to promise reconstruction aid to Tbilisi and to make it easier for Georgians to trade with, and travel freely within, the EU. Without making specific promises, this could be seen as a prelude to EU membership for Georgia – something Moscow would detest.

“It will be more of a question of sending positive signals to Georgia than sending negative signals to Moscow,” said France’s Europe minister, Jean-Pierre Jouyet.

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