What the war in Georgia means for EU policy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The war in Georgia divided the EU instead of uniting it, while differences between its members’ positions will thwart the bloc’s attempts to develop a common Russia policy, writes Tomas Valasek in an August paper for the Centre for European Reform (CER).

Nevertheless, the Union must rethink its policy towards its Eastern neighbours, particularly by taking a more active role in diffusing frozen conflicts in the region and “accelerating the integration of countries between the EU and Russia” into the bloc. 

Differences between EU countries’ reactions to the Georgia war reveal varying assumptions about Russia’s goals and intentions towards countries on its borders and the bloc’s interest in the region, says Valasek. 

Despite this, he hails France’s successful brokering of the ceasefire agreement and strong statements discouraging Russia from extending the conflict into Abkhazia as “important achievements”. Moreover, it is precisely the balanced policy of the EU towards to the conflict that enables it to play a mediating role, he argues. 

Valasek believes the war is a setback for Europe because “a weakened Georgia means that the EU will have a less effective partner in the South Caucasus”. 

In the short term, the CER paper calls on the bloc to focus on mediating between Georgia and Russia and refrain from undermining its neutrality. Though the EU’s leverage is limited, Valasek believes the fact that Russia “wants to be an accepted member of the international community [and] worries what the world thinks of it” allows the bloc “to play on Russian sensitivities about its role and status in the world”. “The most the EU can do is make Russia feel excluded,” he says. 

In the long term, the author calls on the bloc to “move beyond mediating duties [because] it has an interest in preventing war in countries on [its] eastern borders”. 

“Europe’s best response lies in increasing its assistance to countries of Eastern Europe and in directing EU aid at projects that reduce the region’s vulnerability to Russian pressure,” he states. It can begin by putting Ukraine on the road to accession and, to this end, finance improved road and rail links and speed up membership negotiations with that country, he argues. 

Valasek warns that attempting to ‘punish’ Russia for its actions “will neither end the hostilities in Georgia, nor help avoid another war in Eastern Europe,” adding: “Should the EU start making threats to Russia, Moscow would match [them] and even up the ante.” 

He concludes that revitalising EU policy towards the countries in between Russia and the Union would be the bloc’s most effective means of stabilising the region and preventing another war in Europe. “The EU should be willing to run the risk of annoying Moscow when its own vital interests are at stake,” he adds. 

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