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Forging Unity 'Among The Powerless'

Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) has taken a strong line with Russia.

Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) has taken a strong line with Russia.

Germany, the largest economy in the European Union and also one of the bloc's political heavyweights, has taken a strong line on the Russia-Georgia conflict. Chancellor Angela Merkel has condemned as utterly unacceptable the Russian intervention in Georgia.

The question is, can Berlin shape the tone of the EU special summit set for September 1? The summit is to decide how to respond to the crisis, including Moscow's decision to recognize the two Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke spoke to German foreign-policy analyst Jan Techau of the German Council on Foreign Relations on this and other points.

RFE/RL: How does Germany view the Georgia crisis? As a major rift between Russia and the West, or as a storm that will blow over because of larger interests on both sides?

Jan Techau: I think that increasingly the view here in Germany is that this is a major rift. It's interesting that the German government used pretty strong language to announce a reassessment of relations with Russia, and that it has been very, very strict in its wording on the Russian troop removal and the territorial integrity of Georgia. That it something which many observers would not have predicted, but obviously the German government and specifically Mrs. Merkel's stand on Russia, which has been a relatively strict one, has prevailed, and I think that is a good sign.

RFE/RL: Does the crisis threaten to undo years of building German-Russian relations, both politically and economically?

Techau: Russia's stance has been very strict on the Georgia issue, but it has not expanded the entire problem into other realms. For instance, it has left open the supply lines for the Afghanistan effort of NATO; and it as not moved this entire conflict into the economic sphere -- at least not yet.

Of course we have seen in the past that Russia is very willing to use the energy tool, and to employ it to gain leverage over European decision making, but so far we haven't seen any of that. Probably its only a question of time, but it is also a question of whether the Russians want to escalate this entire thing, and alienate a lot more people.

RFE/RL: Germany has the probably the closest relations with Moscow of any EU state. What will Germany's role be at the coming EU emergency summit?

Techau: The German situation in all this plays an important role, but in the EU framework it is only one voice among many, and so far the German stand has not been able to unify Europe on Russia on any issue, not the energy issue -- where Germany was more a dividing factor rather than a unifying factor -- and I'm not sure the firm German stand on Georgia will prevail.

What we have seen so far is, despite the rhetoric between the "Old" and the "New" Europe, we have seen remarkable unity in Europe, when it comes to action, when it comes to sending observers there, and so on, and I think we will see more unity like this; it is the unity of the powerless, because apart from diplomatic tit-for-tat, with strong wording, not much can be done to influence Russian behavior in the area, by the Europeans, and also not by the Americans.

RFE/RL: Will Germany try to preserve relations with Moscow by seeking to cool down the more hotheaded responses from some of the "New" Europeans, like the Poles and the Baltic states?

Techau: If you want to create a common, unified European stance, you can only do this by toning down the very, very tough rhetoric, because not all the countries in Europe are willing to use this tough rhetoric, and so far this has been very successful, despite the fact that the EU is divided into the "New" Europe and the "Old" Europe, rhetorically, emotionally and also strategically on this issue, Europe has been rather unified in its reaction to the Georgia crisis, in the sense that all decisions it has taken, all votes that it has taken, have been unanimous.

RFE/RL: A lot of commentators are saying that the EU responses in such crises as the present one are necessarily weak, because of the loose structure of the bloc. Do you agree?

Techau: The real key to the issue for Europe and European unity lies in the long-term strategy on Russia, because that is the only sphere in which we have influence. It has to do with the Russian energy leverage over Europe, we must find a tool to diminish the Russian leverage, we can of course try to use the trade issues we have with Russia, but all of these will only exercise influence over Moscow in the long term, not in the short run that we find necessary now; the Russians have all the short-term leverage, and can play us, we have only long-term leverage and find it hard to agree on anything in the long term. That is the real problem of the situation in strategic terms.