EU to Restart Talks Despite Concerns

BRUSSELS -- The European Union agreed on Monday that it would relaunch stalled talks with Russia on a wide-ranging partnership pact, dismaying Georgia, which insisted that Moscow's troops there were in breach of a peace deal.

The 27-nation bloc froze the negotiations on the pact after Russia's August incursion into Georgia in a brief but violent conflict over the breakaway South Ossetia region.

Following the gradual pullback of Russian troops, most EU member states have argued that it is now in Europe's interest to resume the talks with its major energy supplier on a pact that covers political, economic and trade ties.

"Everybody agrees, with the exception of one country, for the partnership to be put back on the table," France's Bernard Kouchner, whose country holds the EU presidency, said after the meeting of EU foreign ministers.

Lithuania made clear before the meeting that it would not give its blessing to the restart.

Others backed the move only after insisting that the EU keep pressure on Russia to adhere to the terms of a peace deal that ended the August conflict.

"We agreed with the consensus view that negotiations should restart," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said.

"[But] Russia still needs to withdraw from some zones ... and EU monitoring personnel should have access to all the territory of Georgia," he told a news briefing.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner -- whose staff will lead the EU side in the talks with Russia -- said new talks could go ahead after a long-planned EU-Russia summit on Friday and Nov. 18 peace talks in Geneva.

Sikorski said Ferrero-Waldner had told the meeting that the next round could therefore take place at the end of November or in the first half of December.

EU states have been grappling with the issue for weeks, with Britain and Sweden among a minority of countries with reservations about relaunching the negotiations.

The foreign ministers of Britain and Sweden announced earlier that they would now back a resumption, as it was in the interest of the 27-state bloc. "We are not turning the page on the conflict in Georgia," Britain's David Miliband and Sweden's Carl Bildt said in a statement, adding that they would ask their EU counterparts to ensure that the EU-Russia relationship be kept under regular review.

"There is no question of the EU rewarding bad behavior. What we've seen is some movement from Russia, some significant movement, but not yet a complete withdrawal," Miliband said.

Earlier, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed signs that the EU wanted "to work as usual" with Russia.

"We ... express our wish to turn the page and increase mutual activities," he said in an interview with Finnish newspaper Helsingen Sanomat released by his ministry.

Georgian Prime Minister Grigol Mgaloblishvili warned the EU that its decision would encourage Russian aggression.

"Today, to declare 'mission accomplished' and return to business as usual with Russia could encourage the Russian Federation to continue its aggressive actions against Georgia and Europe's eastern neighborhood," he said.

Georgia, which is not an EU member, says full Russian compliance would require Moscow to withdraw forces from the Akhalgori and Kodor Gorge areas and reverse its military buildups in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Mgaloblishvili said Russia also needed to grant unfettered access to international observers to the breakaway regions and provide security guarantees for ethnic Georgians.