In tense negotiations between the EU and Russia Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his European counterparts unexpectedly succeeded in getting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to agree to pull Russian troops out of most of Georgia. But the success really only amounted to cutting off one of the Hydra's heads, leaving many others unresolved.
Europe sent three heavy-hitters -- Sarkozy, currently president of the rotating EU presidency, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana -- to Moscow for four hours of talks aimed at salvaging what remained of a peace agreement brokered on Aug. 12, which had done little more than bring an end to open warfare between the sides.
The updated cease-fire plans call for Russia troops to withdraw from central Georgian areas by Oct. 11 and for 200 EU monitors to be allowed to deploy to areas surrounding the two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia next month. Russia infuriated the West when it recognized the independence of the two separatist regions recently.
What Monday's agreement leaves open is the issue of the status of the two regions and whether Russian troops will withdraw from them as well. "It is not up to Russia to recognize unilaterally the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Sarkozy told reporters Monday. "These are international rules. These should be respected."
Russia, however, seems to see the issue of independence as a done deal. "Our decision is irrevocable," Medvedev said. "Two new states have come into existence. This is a reality which all our partners, including our EU partners, will have to reckon with." As of yet, only Nicaragua has joined Moscow in recognizing the regions' independence.
The meetings were tense. "Honestly, it's not over yet," a weary Sarkozy told reporters after meeting later in the day with Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvili in Tbilisi. "We are not at the end of the road. It's a reality. We are advancing step by step."
In fact, at a certain point, Sarkozy reportedly even threatened to call off the negotiations. While Medvedev was not in the room, Russian officials tried to delete a reference to the Aug. 6 pre-conflict positions from the agreement, according to Reuters. The news agency quotes an unidentified official as saying that, upon seeing the changes, "Sarkozy got up and said 'We're going. This is not negotiable.'" Medvedev reportedly then returned to the negotiations and succeeded in getting them to move forward.
Although the artillery has grown silent, Russia and Georgia still continued to trade verbal salvos Monday. Saakashvili tentatively backed the new agreement but said that Russia "should get the hell out of the territories they control," adding that "There is no way Georgia will ever give up a piece of its sovereignty, a piece of its territory."
While generally applauding Sarkozy and the EU's efforts, German commentators can't find any reason to put much faith behind the updated agreement, especially given how the expectations brought on by the earlier version only ended in disappointment. As they see it, a ray of light might have penetrated the fog, but the clouds have not lifted.
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"Over the last few weeks, Russia has reveled in its own national triumphalism. Nevertheless, there is reason to doubt whether its muscle-flexing is really in its own interest. The reason for this is that with every disappointed hope and with every broken promise, the country's image just gets worse. Even Russia's friends in Europe can no longer shut their eyes to Moscow's neo-imperialist ambitions."
"The Russians are drunk on victory, and the hangover is sure to come, especially when the predicted drop in oil prices comes. Then we'll see whether the agreement just made in Moscow will really herald the start of a new Russian sobriety."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Moscow has agreed to dismantle its checkpoints, to pull all of its troops out of the 'buffer zone' within a month's time and to accept the deployment of European observers. Before Sarkozy and Medvedev spoke, no one expected these things, believing instead that Russia would set up hurdles. The fact that they now appear to be cleared away is the first sign of relaxation, but it is still no indication of a general resolution of the conflict. For the EU, things in the Caucasus will now get serious. If the EU really intends to be the power guaranteeing that things stay peaceful between Russia and Georgia, it is accepting a large responsibility. But one it obviously wants."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Sarkozy scored a minor victory in Moscow. Once again, President Medvedev has agreed to pull his troops out of central Georgia, but it was surprising that he approved the stationing of observers. These are small but important victories for (Sarkozy). ... It'll be a month before we can see whether Medvedev's agreements will really be met, as that's when the troops are supposed to be withdrawn. The Russian president has promised all sorts of things once before. And, once before, Russian politicians have found a way to break their promises..."
"But the truth is that the EU really doesn't have a lot of power to take action against a Russia that is autocratic and increasingly acting erratically. Europe's puffing itself up has one fundamental flaw. The EU is clucking like an excited hen before a fox."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"French President Nicolas Sarkozy loves to play the role of the fireman. Whenever hostages are taken or conflicts flare up, Sarkozy goes there and comes back -- and somehow it always seems as if he solved the problem single-handedly. When it comes to the conflict in Georgia, for the second time now, Fire Marshall Sarkozy has deployed himself, and naturally it looks like we have fantastic results "
"But it is far to early to celebrate this agreement as a breakthrough. The six-point plan that he worked out in his first trip proved to be largely ineffective. Then you need to add the fact that nobody really knows the value of Medvedev's word. And, then, there are many voices within the Russian military that are lobbying for the territories gained in Georgia not to be given up "
"There are fires that flare back up, even when you think that they have been put out. But Sarkozy is probably on his way to the next fire, anyway."
-- Josh Ward, 12:30 p.m. CET