TBILISI (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to walk out of stormy talks with Russian officials before securing a deal with President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday on withdrawing troops from Georgia, a French official said.
The four-hour talks at a castle near Moscow yielded an agreement by Russia to completely withdraw its forces from Georgia’s heartland in a month but it did not commit to scale back its military presence in two Georgian separatist regions.
Sarkozy, whose country holds the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union, hailed the deal as a victory for European diplomacy and said that if the agreement is implemented, much death and suffering will have been avoided.
But his and Medvedev’s smiles at a joint news conference hid a more fraught atmosphere in their closed-door meeting, which was also attended by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
“There were very tense moments,” a senior official in Sarkozy’s office told reporters after the deal was announced.
The agreement was a follow-up to a six-point peace plan Sarkozy brokered between Moscow and Tbilisi a month ago, but which the West says Russia had only implemented about half of.
The original deal said both sides should withdraw to the positions they held before a brief war last month in which Russia’s forces overran Georgia’s smaller army after Tbilisi tried to retake control of the rebel region of South Ossetia.
Moscow said a provision in the deal allowing it to conduct ‘additional security measures’ permitted the stationing of troops in a buffer zone around the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — an interpretation Tbilisi, and the West, deny.
At one point in Monday’s talks, while Medvedev was not in the room, Russian officials tried to remove a reference to the August 7 pre-conflict positions, the French official said.
“At that moment, Sarkozy got up and said ‘We’re going. This is not negotiable,” he said while traveling to Tbilisi after the Moscow leg of Sarkozy’s trip.
The Russian officials, who included Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, had Medvedev called back into the room, and the row soon faded, the senior official said.
“When Medvedev came back, he said ‘Let’s calm down’. He didn’t even suspend the session and he didn’t even call (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin,” he added.
At their last talks a month earlier, which also dragged on for hours, a deal was clinched after former president Putin joined the talks, prompting speculation that he still wields great influence after anointing Medvedev as his successor.
The second agreement reached on Monday retained a reference to the August 7 deployment.
Sarkozy also warned Medvedev against the dangers of Russia’s decision last month to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, a move matched only by Nicaragua and condemned by Western powers.
“Sarkozy told Medvedev: ‘Beware of the principle of self-determination. If the Russians demand it for Abkhazia and Ossetia, the Chechens could also demand it,’” the source said
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has fought two wars against separatist rebels in Chechnya, a North Caucasus territory not far from South Ossetia.