TBILISI (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Russia before a cheering crowd in Georgia on Friday of violating the ceasefire that ended the 2008 war in the Caucasus and assured his audience that the door to the European Union remains open.
Sarkozy addressed some 30,000 people packing Freedom Square in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, his last stop on a two-day Caucasus region tour that also took him to Armenia and Azerbaijan.
He said Russia had flouted the truce he brokered to end its five-day war with Georgia by building up forces in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia instead of withdrawing to pre-conflict positions.
“France will not resign itself to a ‘fait accompli’,” he said, with Georgia’s pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, looking on. “I would like to reiterate here my commitment to watch over the enforcement of the accord.”
Russia strengthened its control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the brief war and recognized them as independent nations afterwards, clouding Saakashvili’s hopes of bringing Georgia into NATO and the EU.
Sarkozy said the ex-Soviet republic was ”free to express its aspirations to join NATO, if it is the will of the people“, as well as ”to draw closer to the European Union and one day join.
“When I am in Tbilisi, I feel I am in Europe,” he said.
Sarkozy also pleased his hosts in Armenia, warning Turkey that it might soon become illegal in France to deny that the mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 was genocide. He called on Turkey to make a “gesture of reconciliation” and recognize the killings as genocide.
If it does not, he said, France “will consider it must go further to amend its legislation to penalize this denial”.
Sarkozy, who is expected to announce later this year that he will seek a second term in an election next April, warned the measures could be adopted in “a very brief” time frame but said his comments were not an ultimatum.
The challenge by the president of France, which opposes Turkey’s bid to join the EU, drew an angry rebuttal from Ankara.
Turkey’s foreign minister said France should confront its colonial past before giving lessons to others.
The French “do not have the right to teach Turkey a history lesson or call for Turkey to face its history,” Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference.
Armenia, backed by many historians and world parliaments, says some 1.5 million Armenians died during the upheaval that accompanied World War I, and calls it genocide.
Ankara rejects the term genocide and says large numbers of both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks were killed.
Sarkozy courted some 500,000 Armenian diaspora votes in France and angered Turkey before his election in 2007 by backing legislation to prosecute those who denied the deaths were genocide. The measure was rejected by French lawmakers.
Sarkozy also visited energy-producing Azerbaijan, meeting its president, Ilham Aliyev.
He urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve their dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaijan, which led to war as the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago.
Armenian-backed separatists wrested Nagorno-Karabakh from Azeri control in a six-year conflict that killed 30,000 people and drove 1 million from their homes before a ceasefire was reached in 1994.
Exchanges of fire on the front lines persist and the nations have failed to resolve the dispute despite mediation led by France, Russia and the United States. As a result, high tension persists in a strategic corridor for Caspian Sea energy transit.
Two Azeri soldiers and an Armenian were killed in a skirmish on the ceasefire line on Wednesday.
The conflict prompted Turkey to close its border with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Muslim ally Azerbaijan, and its refusal to term the Ottoman Empire killings genocide is now the main obstacle to renewing diplomatic relations.
“The time has come to take the risk of peace,” Sarkozy said at a meeting with Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan.
“Armenians, Azeris and Turks: You must choose this path. There is no other, it is the path of peace,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ibon Villelabeitia and by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Mark Heinrich