Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Saturday, 27 September 2008 16:38 UK

West looks to future with Russia relations

By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent, Sochi

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili addressing the UN General Assembly on 23 September 2008.
Georgia's leader said there was no alternative to dialogue with Russia

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has said that he does not want his country to drive a wedge between Russia and the rest of the world.

Speaking to the BBC in New York, he said the consequences of the conflict with Russia this summer which led to Georgia's loss of control over the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been "dire", but that Georgia's focus now was to rebuild its economy and strengthen its democracy, rather than seek further confrontation.

This is an interesting change of tone by the Georgian leader - a tacit admission that Georgia has been the short-term military loser in this conflict, but that it hopes to turn the situation into a long-term gain, by seeking to enhance its international reputation compared to Russia.

President Saakashvili admitted that, in the short term, Russia had made territorial gains and the cost to Georgia of this summer's conflict had been dire.

But the consequences he said had not been deadly and Georgia would recover.

"Remember Russia did not get two of its goals," he said, "to destroy our government or to shut off the pipeline which is the main energy bloodline for Europe."

In a markedly more conciliatory tone than previously, he said Georgia's priority now was to rebuild its economy and strengthen its democracy.

He put the emphasis on improving integration with the EU, rather than pushing for the Nato membership which Russia has objected to so strongly.

He said this remained a long-term goal.

Competition of principles

But he added that the last thing Georgia wanted was to drive a wedge between Russia and the rest of the world.

"We can never outwit Russia with tanks," he observed, "but we can compete on principles."

Mr Saakashvili has not shifted in his insistence that it was a Russian invasion which had started the conflict over South Ossetia, and Georgia had only acted in response - a view diametrically opposed to Russia's reading.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner speaking at the UN Security Council on 26 September 2008.

As we did not want to go to war, we had to accept a compromise

Bernard Kouchner
French Foreign Minister

But the angry rhetoric has given way to a more seasoned assessment of what happened.

He refused to be riled by the Russian president's description of him as "unhinged".

"President [Dmitry] Medvedev has called me a 'political corpse'," he noted wryly, "but this corpse is here at the United Nations, holding talks and having meetings. I think some of these overstatements are counter-productive. There is no alternative to dialogue, but this will take time and a change of mentality in the Kremlin."

The Georgian president is not the only one at the gathering of world leaders at the UN General Assembly this past week who has been taking stock of where this summer's conflict in the Caucasus has left international relations.

Among foreign ministers from Europe, suspicions of Russia's motive and concern at what it might do next remain high.

Even Bernard Kouchner - the French foreign minister who helped to broker the original ceasefire document which the French president signed with President Medvedev - is not sure where the crisis is heading.

"As we did not want to go to war, we had to accept a compromise... Do not think I am proud of getting that document," he told a group of reporters.

"They, the Russians, resisted us. It would have been easy for them to go for the Georgian capital and take it. They were strongly prepared... It was not perfect."

BBC map

And he added: "We'll see if it is a trap - if they do not implement the agreements they signed."

The big test that Western nations are looking at now is the step-by-step implementation of the plan to put in EU police monitors in the buffer zone in Georgia on the border with South Ossetia.

Moscow has agreed to pull its troops back from this part of Georgia to inside the disputed enclaves.

"They have dug in a lot of bunkers. Let's see by the end of October if they really do dismantle checkpoints," said Mr Kouchner.

Though he added this would not be enough, as Russia is still resisting the original ceasefire deal that it should withdraw its forces all the way back across the mountains into their pre-conflict positions in southern Russia.

Russian compliance

Moscow argues that now it has recognised the two enclaves as independent, Russian forces can stay there without anyone else's permission as they are guests of the local governments.

So is there any way Western pressure can change this?

The current head of the OSCE, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb who also helped negotiate an end to the conflict, has not given up hope.

"We are in this for the long haul," he told the BBC.

I think there is leverage on Russia, in the form of international markets
David Miliband
UK Foreign Secretary

"Certainly Russia is in the driving seat... We need to keep expectations low. Once we have got international presence in place, we can talk about the future of the regions."

An optimistic gloss, but the OSCE's own talks with Moscow are not going well.

So far Russia has refused to countenance the idea of a sizeable international OSCE presence inside the disputed area.

But Bernard Kouchner is pragmatic.

"In the EU we want to maintain a dialogue with Russia. It is a big country and it is our neighbour. We don't want to go back to the Cold War. And we are consumers of their energy," he added.

Need for Russians

So what is the leverage that could change Russia's position?

"I think there is leverage on Russia, in the form of international markets," noted Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband, referring to the steep falls in the value of Russian stocks from May this year and particularly in the last few weeks.

He added that Russia's diplomatic isolation was also a factor.

"Only two countries have recognised South Ossetia's independence - Russia and Nicaragua - which is very significant. When it comes to territorial integrity the world is united."

And yet, David Miliband was one of the tougher critics of Russia's action in the Caucasus back in August.

We are not isolated
Vitaly Churkin
Russia's UN ambassador

So much so, that when he spoke on the phone to his Russian counterpart in August, frayed tempers apparently exploded into expletives.

"It's not true he used a four letter word about me," claimed Mr Miliband, smiling slightly. "He repeated what someone else had said."

But this week's meeting in New York with Mr Lavrov was, it seems, altogether calmer.

"Strong views, but not necessarily strong language," said David Miliband, who then went out of his way to underscore the general anxiety there has been here this week in New York not to lose Russia as a sometimes valuable partner on other issues.

"We have a very strong interest in Russia being engaged - especially on Iran," he said, adding: "We don't want a weak and humiliated Russia. We've always tried to reach out to Russia."

That concern was made clear to all when Russia threatened to back out of a meeting on a new UN Security Council resolution to step up sanctions on Iran. The Kremlin now generally takes the view that sanctions are counter-productive.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev on 24 September 2008.
President Medvedev has described the Georgian leader as a "political corpse"

Faced with the prospect of the collapse of international pressure on Iran, the US and European partners acted quickly to bring Russia back on board with a much weaker statement - to preserve the appearance of unity.

"We are not isolated," declared the Russian ambassador to the UN, with some justification.

And the incident leaves that question hanging: if the Western powers need Russia so urgently to keep up pressure on Iran, how then can diplomatic isolation work as a means to influence Russia to shift its position on South Ossetia?

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