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EU Poised To Shelve Its Grievances, Return To Business As Usual With Russia

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) with his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy (right), and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso outside Moscow on September 8

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) with his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy (right), and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso outside Moscow on September 8

BRUSSELS -- When European Union leaders convene in Brussels for a summit meeting on October 15-16, they will have little option but to conclude to bury the hatchet with Russia over Georgia.

When that happens, the EU will have gone -- in a matter of two months -- from an aspiring global player to a regional scrapper struggling to hold its own against a large and assertive neighbor. Georgia's territorial integrity and international law will be the most notable casualties, but the EU's own self-conception as a global defender of universal values is also bound to take a severe blow.

The overwhelming feeling in Brussels now is that Russia's determination to pry South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia is too great for the EU to thwart, and the EU's need for dialogue with its largest neighbor too urgent, for the current confrontation to be sustainable for long.

Diplomats say France and Germany are campaigning to relaunch talks, suspended in early September, on a new EU-Russia partnership agreement.

Their argument is that by pulling its troops out of Georgian territory outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has upheld its end of a September 9 deal with the EU that set October 10 as the deadline for the move. EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana issued a statement on October 10 acknowledging that a full Russian pullout had taken place.

'Enormous' Pressure

Officials from Eastern Europe describe the Franco-German pressure to resume talks as "enormous." On October 13, the German head of the EU monitoring mission in Georgia, Hansjorg Haber, will brief EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on the Russian pullout. German officials said in Brussels on October 10 that this should settle the issue for the EU.

Poland, the Baltic countries, and Britain disagree.

They argue that before EU-Russia relations can normalize, Russia must pull at least some of its troops out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as per the so-called Medvedev-Sarkozy plan of August 12, which commits both Georgia and Russia to withdrawing their forces to preconflict lines. The EU's own decision to suspend partnership talks with Russia, adopted at an emergency summit on September 1, is unequivocal in making the link: "Until troops have withdrawn to the positions held prior to August 7, meetings on the negotiation of the Partnership Agreement will be postponed."

The bloc appears increasingly tempted to reach for the opponent's playbook in ways which may in the long run damage its own moral standing.
Baltic officials say neither France nor Germany is addressing this point while pressing to resume partnership talks. According to one diplomat, Paris and Berlin have merely reiterated in recent meetings in Brussels that "Russia has done a lot," and that the EU should therefore "say at the summit it is ready to unfreeze the partnership talks."

The Franco-German argument proceeds from the September 9 accord between the EU and Russia, which -- although it formally addresses the "implementation" of the August 12 deal -- no longer makes any reference to a Russian pullout from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The injunction on Georgia to barrack its troops remains present in the September 9 text, however.

But even Baltic officials concede that the best they can do is to delay the resumption of Brussels-Moscow talks by no more than a month. The EU and Russia will hold a summit in Nice on November 14; that date is widely accepted as an ultimate deadline for the EU to drop its defiance.

Eyeing A Compromise

There were signs on October 10 that the EU's French presidency is eyeing a compromise. Its initial draft summit declaration, released to member states on October 8, said the EU "could" resume talks with Russia in November. The latest wording of the same paragraph, however, says the EU will wait until the European Commission and the EU Council of Ministers have completed an "audit" of EU-Russia relations ahead of the Nice summit before making its decision.

Part of the reason why Poland and the Balts feel they will not be able to force the EU's hand for much longer is their growing sense of isolation. The depth of British support remains difficult to gauge, and Sweden's enthusiasm for dragging out the showdown with Moscow is on the wane.

But Russia's Baltic and Polish detractors also fear that if they bloc EU-wide action, other channels will be found by member states vitally interested in reviving contacts with Moscow. These channels would, by definition, not be subject to any objecting member state's veto, and as such would be put outside their control.

Poland and the Baltic countries are also increasingly isolated within Eastern Europe. Hungary and Slovakia are traditionally more accommodating of Moscow, and the Czech Republic is keen to see the controversy disappear before it takes office as the next EU presidency after France on January 1, 2009.

Russia's assertiveness does breed resentment across the EU. But when hitting back, the bloc appears increasingly tempted to reach for the opponent's playbook in ways that may in the long run damage its own moral standing.

Easing Belarusian Sanctions

In a bid to play a counterweight to Moscow, EU foreign ministers are set on October 13 to ease sanctions on Belarus, despite having joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United States in condemning the country's September 28 parliamentary elections as undemocratic. A visa ban that currently affects some 40 Belarusian officials accused of human rights abuses will be "selectively" suspended and high-level political contacts with the country restored.

To mark the thaw in relations, Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau will be present at the margins of the EU meeting in Luxembourg.

EU politicians and officials openly admit the turn away from longtime efforts to isolate Minsk stems from an urgently and widely perceived need to "counteract" Russia's influence in the country.

Similarly, the EU foreign ministers will on October 13 extend the proverbial olive branch to Uzbekistan and revoke the last eight visa bans -- currently already suspended -- originally imposed in the aftermath of the massacre of civilians in Andijon in 2005.

Officials in Brussels struggle when quizzed about the possible impact of these policy U-turns on the EU's self-understanding and its view of its role in the world. Most evoke the need to adapt to changing circumstances, but all are adamant that democratic reforms and human rights remain the EU's foremost priorities in the region.

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