EU Defers Decision On Partnership Talks

LUXEMBOURG -- The European Union on Monday deferred a decision on when to restart talks with Russia on a stalled partnership pact, saying it wanted to see more evidence Moscow would stick to a cease-fire deal with Georgia.

France, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, backed by Germany, had pushed for an early relaunch of talks on a broad partnership agreement that were frozen after Russia's incursion into Georgia in August.

But Britain, Sweden and some former communist states insisted that the bloc should first watch the actions of Russian troops and how Moscow approached talks with Georgia that are due to begin in Geneva on Oct. 15.

"Obviously we have the Geneva conference first, and we will see how things go on the ground. ... I don't think we should be over-hasty here because we can't be absolutely certain at this stage," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said after talks with EU counterparts in Luxembourg.

The Georgia conflict has given new impetus to EU moves to diversify its energy supplies away from Russia and deepen ties with new potential energy partners.

Kouchner did not rule out a decision when EU leaders meet in Brussels on Wednesday, but he would not say whether the talks would have resumed by the time of a summit with Russian leaders slated for Nov. 14 in Nice, France.

"They fudged it," said one EU diplomat when asked whether it was clear when talks would start on a long-term pact due to span everything from trade terms between the EU and its biggest energy supplier and prickly disputes on human rights issues.

A draft statement for Wednesday's EU summit also leaves open the issue of when the talks with Russia would resume.

Moscow last week pulled out of buffer zones adjacent to the rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, before an Oct. 10 deadline in the French-brokered cease-fire. EU leaders said last month that the withdrawal was a condition to restart the talks.

"I was there two days ago and the Russians had withdrawn. Beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia, there are no more Russian soldiers in Georgia," Kouchner said.

But he added that there remained a dispute over Georgian insistences that Russia pull back from Akhalgori, a disputed pocket of South Ossetia that for years was de facto controlled by Tbilisi but which Russia says is not covered by the plan.

Asked whether he believed that the Russians had pulled back to pre-conflict positions in Georgia as requested by the West, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said: "I don't think they have if you look on the map. ... They have made some withdrawals, primarily from the buffer zones but there are areas they occupy now where they were not on Aug 7."