BRUSSELS, 21 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- From Tbilisi's point of view, a series of recent hostile moves by Russia add urgency to Georgia's aspirations for closer ties with the EU.
Russia last week reneged on the backing Georgia thought it had won for its peace plan for South Ossetia at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Ljubljana in December 2005. On 20 February, Russia organized a meeting of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) for South Ossetia in Moscow -- without Georgia's participation. The OSCE, which has observer status at the JCC, did not attend.
In mid-January, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli wrote to Javier Solana, EU high representative for common foreign and security policy, asking for broad EU backing and involvement in the South Ossetian conflict.
"I think that recent developments demonstrate very well that any attempt of the Georgian government to internationalize the conflict results...in a counterattempt of the Russian Federation to eliminate whatever limited international participation we have in the negotiation process or in the peacekeeping operation and we believe that this is an extremely troubling tendency."
Salome Samadashvili, Georgia's ambassador to the EU, gave RFE/RL a brief overview of the contents of the letter in an interview on 20 February.
"We believe the European Union can do much more to get involved in the conflict-resolution process. That was the position expressed by the Georgian government in a letter addressed to [Javier] Solana," she said.
"We basically asked him to consider expanding the mandate of the EU special representative to get him more involved in the conflict-resolution attempts."
Georgia also asked the EU to increase the number of the bloc's nine border-management experts currently stationed in the country. Tbilisi last year asked for a full EU border-monitoring mission in South Ossetia, but without success.
Georgia also wants EU commitments to fund the post-conflict rehabilitation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But the EU -- which already supports displaced persons in the area -- has made it clear the conflicts must first be resolved.
Divisions Within EU
One Georgian official told RFE/RL privately that Georgia feels it has had more luck with economic assistance than with securing the EU's political support in the peace process. The official said this was due to the unwillingness of many EU member states to antagonize Russia.
An EU source told RFE/RL that this indeed appears to be the case. The source said moves to help Georgia more openly are backed by 10-12 countries, led by Britain and made up largely of new EU member states. France, heading a group of mostly southern EU countries, has consistently argued against greater EU involvement. Germany, whose voice could be decisive, remains undecided in the debate.
Today, the EU's Austrian presidency issued a statement criticizing Russia for transferring the JCC meeting to Moscow from its initial venue in Vienna -- a move that rankled Georgia. The statement also says the JCC has been too ineffective.
EU diplomats say the most significant aspect of the statement is a promise that the EU is ready to "contribute actively and in every relevant forum" to demilitarization and conflict resolution in South Ossetia. This could open the door to a number of EU measures ranging from participation in the JCC to the prospect of training and monitoring missions.
However, any of those moves would need a further decision from the EU.
EU Involvement Still Possible, But Unlikely
The EU's unwillingness to get involved was best evidenced by the debate that preceded the 20 February nomination of Peter Semneby as the new EU special representative for the South Caucasus. EU diplomats say the debate among member states was conducted without any reference to the Georgian letter. As a result, Semneby's mandate, although extended, makes no mention of conflict resolution. The mandate does say the EU could get more involved in border issues -- which one EU diplomat said at least theoretically leaves open the possibility of EU action in South Ossetia.
EU sources say foreign-policy chief Solana was initially due to respond to Noghaideli's letter last week, but will now await another discussion among EU member states.
Ambassador Samadashvili said on 20 February that without EU and U.S. involvement, Georgia is open to Russian attempts to isolate it. "I think that recent developments demonstrate very well that any attempt of the Georgian government to internationalize the conflict results in a countereffect," she said, "in a counterattempt of the Russian Federation to eliminate whatever limited international participation we have in the negotiation process or in the peacekeeping operation and we believe that this is an extremely troubling tendency."
Commenting on a declaration made by the Georgian parliament on 15 February on the subject of the Russian peacekeeping present in South Ossetia, Samadashvili said the Georgian government is not concerned with the fact of the Russian presence, but rather with resolving the conflict.
EU officials also note the parliament's statement is less stringent in its call for Russian troops to leave than was expected -- although they also note this fact has had no effect on Moscow's stance.
A number of EU diplomats have told RFE/RL there is concern in Brussels that Georgia might attempt to use force in South Ossetia. Ambassador Samadashvili told RFE/RL such concern is unfounded.
"Georgia has very ambitious goals for its future. We do hope to make a leap forward in our integration toward NATO and we realize very well that if anyone is going to suffer from any violence in the region, [it] will be us," Samadashvili said, adding that that as a gesture of goodwill, the Georgian government on 20 February agreed a series of measures reducing its military presence in and around the conflict zone.