MOSCOW – French President Nicolas Sarkozy was heading to Moscow on Monday on the difficult mission of persuading Russia to honor its pledge to withdraw troops from Georgia.
Nearly a month after a truce negotiated by Sarkozy ended a five-day war between Russia and Georgia, Russian troops remain entrenched deep inside Georgian territory. Georgia and the West have accused Russia of failing to honor its pledge to withdraw its troops to positions held before the fighting broke out Aug. 7.
But Russia says those troops are peacekeepers and that they are allowed under the accord to help maintain security around Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Moscow has recognized the two regions as independent states.Sarkozy has been criticized for giving the Russians too much room for interpretation in the peace deal signed Aug. 12, and his diplomatic blitz to Moscow and Tbilisi on Monday may be his last chance to save it — as well as his own credibility as a peacemaker.
Sarkozy, whose country holds the European Union presidency, is leading a delegation that includes European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
In his 16 months in office, Sarkozy's doggedness has paid off in the international arena. He helped win the release of six Bulgarian medics held in Libya; he has boosted France's diplomatic and military role in Afghanistan; and he has restored France's ties with Syria, among other things.
But he faces a tough job in persuading President Dmitry Medvedev to back down. Moscow has argued that the peace deal allows its soldiers to maintain patrols in a so-called security zone of up to 7 kilometers (about 4 miles) that it carved out on Georgian territory, and Russian officials have indicated they have no intention of pulling the "peacekeepers" out.
At a Russian checkpoint in Karaleti outside South Ossetia, Tamazi Kaidarashvili, an ethnic Georgian who is one of only a few dozen people remaining in his village north of the checkpoint, said he hoped the EU would persuade Russia to withdraw forces.
"As long as the Russian boot is in the Caucasus, there will never be peace," he said.
Kaidarashvili had crossed through the checkpoint to visit his brother, who lost an arm and a leg when he stepped on a mine a week ago and is in a hospital in Gori.
He said Russian soldiers had been stopping at houses in the village to demand food and drink and asking "why are you with the Americans and against us."
Despite the presence of Russian troops on Georgian soil, Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili said the West would help his country regain control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"Our territorial integrity will be restored. I am more convinced of this than ever," Saakashvili said in a televised appearance Sunday. "This will not be an easy process, but now this is a process between an irate Russia and the rest of the world."
Russian tanks and troops entered South Ossetia after Georgian forces began an offensive to gain control of the pro-Russian territory, which has had de-facto independence for more than 15 years. The Russians quickly repelled the soldiers and drove further into Georgia.