The conflict between Georgia and Russia has seen the EU become the main diplomatic mediator between the two and it should use this status to develop peaceful relations in the region, argue Nicu Popescu et al. in an August 2008 commentary for the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The authors believe that due to the EU’s mediating position in the Caucasus region’s most recent conflict, it has the opportunity to “change the rules of engagement in the whole post-Soviet space”.
While communication between Europe and the US is critical, they do not see the need for Europe to rely on the US to manage the crisis.
Their paper recommends four points for a new EU strategy towards Georgia: rethinking the EU’s approach to Georgia, creating a shared understanding of both Russia’s motivation and the challenge it poses to European security, resisting twisted use of the Kosovo precedent and changing the dynamics of the European neighbourhood.
The authors criticise the approach of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili towards the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. While he projected an image of an affluent Georgia which wanted to incorporate the two regions, he consistently hampered their progress through road blocks, customs checks and a policy of “divide and rule”, argue the authors.
Russia had also stepped up its efforts in the two regions, add the authors, giving out Russian passports, pensions and appointing Russian officials to ministerial positions. Russia established de facto relations with the regions, unilaterally expanding its peacekeeping force and withdrawing from the arms embargo on Abkhazia, they explain. As a result, argue the authors, Georgia saw this as a casus belli.
As the prospect of NATO membership faded for Georgia and its two breakaway regions further slipped from its grasp, the authors believe “impatience and miscalculation led to the launch of a military attempt to recapture Tskhinvali on 8 August 2008”. The war proved that “Russia’s involvement is anything but neutral” and the price Georgia paid for this was “exorbitant”, comment the authors. As a result, Georgia lost credibility among EU states, while the lack of Western help will haunt Georgia “for years to come”.
Russia’s aim, they claim, is “not to run Georgia or turn it into a failed state, but to transform it into a pro-Russian state”. The Russian message from the Georgia conflict is directed towards Ukraine, Moldova and Azerbaijan: all options are now on the table, say the authors.
“The war in Chechnya brought Putin into power; the war in Georgia showed the extent to which he is still in control.” Nevertheless, the war did prove one remarkable point: not one country openly backed Russia, not even Belarus, recall the authors.
The EU has failed in the region, they argue, because it has not put people on the ground. “Had there been an international peacekeeping presence in South Ossetia, Georgia most likely would not have launched its military strike.”
In their conclusion, the authors warn the EU against simplistic retaliation against Russia. They suggest the only way to deal with the country is “to refuse to accept a bi-polar Europe and engage more firmly in the neighbourhood”.