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EU: Dealing With Both Russia And Georgia

Peter Semneby (file photo) (Turan) With tensions heating up between Georgia and Russia over Abkhazia, RFE/RL's Georgian Service Director David Kakabadze spoke to the EU's special representative for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, about what the European Union can do to defuse the dispute.

RFE/RL: Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, recently said that the EU is looking to put its ties with Russia "on another footing" after Dmitry Medvedev becomes president. What kind of changes is the EU looking for? Would they have any bearing on Georgia-Russia relations?

Peter Semneby: In very general terms, I would say that of course any change of administration, any change in the highest leadership of a country is an opportunity to take stock of where we are and there are certainly a lot of different problems in our relationship with Russia that we have to consider with the new president, with the leadership in the Kremlin as it emerges after the presidential transition.

In more concrete terms, I'd like to limit my response to the Caucasus because this is the region that I'm directly responsible for, and here of course it's the tensions between Georgia and Russia that are of fairly fundamental concern for us since they also affect relations between the European Union and Russia. And here I think we need to talk with the Russian Federation more openly, more frequently, at all levels, with the purpose of finding common interests, and I'm convinced -- in spite of all the problems that we're facing -- that these common interests can be found in terms of a stable, common neighborhood, because the South Caucasus is, after all, an important neighborhood of both the European Union and of Russia. And here I think these talks with Russia can help also to define the role of Europe more clearly, and contribute to a better understanding, also in Moscow and in the Russian Federation, of the role that the European Union can play and will play in the region.

RFE/RL: Energy is obviously a central issue in relations between the EU and Russia. The EU has sought to find a common policy on energy supplies, but at the same time individual member states -- Italy, Hungary, and others -- have gone ahead and signed bilateral deals with Moscow that compromise an overall strategy. Is there any chance that the EU will be able to have a truly unified energy policy?

Semneby: The formulation and establishment of a unified policy is not a one-off event; it's a process. And I would say that we have actually made considerable progress toward such a policy -- in particular, after the very important decision that the European Council took about a year ago, in March of 2007. The Energy Action Plan for 2007-09 that was adopted at that time was really in many ways a milestone, with the agreement to formulate goals on supply security, with the identification of key projects of common interests, which includes the Nabucco pipeline, the Transcaucasian links, and so on, with the appointment of coordinators for important projects with the further moves in terms of signing energy memoranda with the key states, which we want to and which we need to cooperate with. And on many of these issues, progress has been made in the course of the last year. Many other things are -- if you'll permit the expression -- in the pipeline, but we are making progress toward this objective.

RFE/RL: Western cohesion has often been lacking when it comes to responding to Russia and its provocations aimed at the former Soviet republics. With recent developments, however, the West seems more unified. How far can it -- and the EU in particular -- go in supporting Georgia's territorial integrity? Is there a possibility of sanctions?

Semneby: First of all, the policy of the European Union is not only about giving support for territorial integrity. Our policy also involves more active efforts in order to resolve the conflicts, to contributions of the European Union, to confidence-building of various kinds, to various efforts to change the context of the conflicts by offering people living in the conflict regions opportunities and contacts and so on that have not been available to them before. We have to, in order for any EU policy to be effective, we have also to address the concerns of the Abkhaz, Ossetians, and other minorities. So it's not only about territorial integrity -- that is an important part, but there are lots of other aspects here as well. As far as your question about sanctions are concerned, no, there are no such discussions.

RFE/RL: The Georgian leadership argues that Europe should be doing more. On May 2, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in an interview to Reuters that it's not just about a piece of Georgian territory -- it's about European security, and therefore Europe should be interested in taking a more active role in resolving conflicts on Georgian territory.

Semneby: Georgia is, of course, part of a larger region in the southeastern corner of Europe that is of increasing importance to the European Union, since it has, after the latest enlargement, become an immediate neighboring region, and that concerns the South Caucasus but also the larger Black Sea area involving also Ukraine and Moldova. And in that sense, it is correct that Georgia is part of a larger context.

'Internationalizing' The Dispute

RFE/RL: The European Parliament delegation to the EU-Georgia parliamentary cooperation committee was in Georgia on May 2 and issued a recommendation to replace the Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia with an international force. This was the first time European officials have made such a recommendation, and Tbilisi was favorably surprised. Can we expect a follow-up on this recommendation? And will there be other efforts by the EU to "internationalize" the Abkhazia issue?

Semneby: If you talk about internationalization of the Abkhazia issue as such, I think this internationalization is already taking place. It's clear from activities of the European Union, it's clear from statements of the European Union that the conflicts in Georgia are of concern to us, and that we are interested in making a contribution -- I would say a significant contribution -- toward resolving these conflicts. As far as peacekeeping is concerned, and changes in the format and possible European contributions here, there are no such concrete discussions at this moment. But as other European officials have stated before, no option is closed. If the parties desire a stronger role for the European Union, the EU will look at the possibilities to contribute in such a way.

It is of course a concern, given the latest events, that the existing peacekeeping force does not seem to enjoy the trust of all the parties. And it has become the source of disagreements in and of itself. Of course the problems that we have seen -- in particular over the course of the last couple of years -- in the Georgian-Russian relationship have contributed to this. This includes the rhetoric that has been used, by both Tbilisi and Moscow; the Russian sanctions that have been employed against Georgia, which have, however -- according to what we've heard from Moscow recently -- been revoked.

But it also involves the rather sudden announcement that we had the other day from the Russian Federation of the unilateral Russian decision to dramatically increase the force contingent in Abkhazia, which has also contributed to this rather difficult situation, and of the force itself being a source of controversy between Russia and Georgia.

RFE/RL: The West has come out fairly strongly against Russia's suggestion it would boost its number of peacekeepers. EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said it would not be "wise." NATO said Moscow was "technically" within its rights to do so, but that such a move would not "ease tensions, but raise them." And yet there have been no signs from Moscow that it is taking any of these statements seriously. What's next? What can the West do to up the pressure?

Semneby: This is something that happened only a couple of days ago, and it's too early to say either what will happen next or what the reaction from the European Union or the international community will be, given different scenarios. We may, of course, have to revert to this issue, at the same time as we are continuing to concentrate on the other elements of our policy vis-a-vis the conflict -- confidence-building measures, support for various peace efforts and peace initiatives, support for direct talks between the Georgians and the representatives from the conflict regions.

And in this context, there are lots of elements that have been put on the table, for example, recently, in President Saakashvili's peace plan for Abkhazia, that are quite interesting, and that I think should be considered seriously by all the parties. So this is also what we are, in any situation like the one that we are facing, we should also, I believe, step up our activities toward finding constructive solutions to the conflicts.

RFE/RL: The leaders of self-proclaimed republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia both rejected already the peace initiative by President Saakashvili....

Semneby: There are certainly various elements that have been put on the table that I think, objectively speaking, should be of interest to people in the conflict regions. But the key here is to have a direct contact, discussion, dialogue between the parties, instead of only communicating via the public, in the public sphere and via media, that has to a large extent been the case recently. I think that a lot of these elements could be picked up, could be developed further, if there is a direct contact and dialogue between the parties.

RFE/RL: Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, told reporters on May 3 that the EU and NATO should "stop being the unpaid, freelance legal advisers and advocate of Saakashvili, who is behaving like a political hooligan." Are the EU and the West openly taking sides, or are they trying to act as neutral arbiters in the dispute?

Semneby: Fundamentally speaking, we see ourselves as arbiters. We have a close relationship with both Russia and Georgia. Russia has been identified as a strategic partner of the EU, and with Georgia we have a very close relationship after Georgia was admitted to the European Neighborhood Policy and after we have started developing and implementing an action plan which will lead to further steps that will bring Georgia even closer. So in this context, with these relations with both Russia and Georgia, we are in a unique position to act as an arbiter.

But this, of course, does not exclude that the EU will take positions on individual issues. Lately it has been the case on a few occasions. Recently, on the latest Russian moves on establishing and enhancing the direct links with the de facto authorities, on the announcement on the increase of the peacekeepers.

The reverse of this is that we've also taken a side when there have been signs of the other side -- of Georgia -- taking rush actions vis-a-vis the peacekeepers. And we've also taken positions on incidents various times. The fact that we have this close relationship with both parties, it does enhance our possibilities also of effectively taking positions on various events and also being heard.

RFE/RL: In spite of these close relations, which you've just mentioned, two leading EU members, Germany and France, strongly opposed Membership Action Plans (MAPs) for Georgia and Ukraine at the Bucharest NATO summit. One of their arguments was that such a move would have been deeply provocative toward Russia. Do you think Russia interpreted the failure to achieve a MAP as a sign it was free to go in and do what it liked in territories it considers part of its sphere of influence? And will its behavior have any impact on how Germany and France approach the MAP question when it next comes up in December?

Semneby: This is a rather complicated question and I don't really want to second-guess either Russia or -- even less -- individual NATO and EU member states, what their positions or motivations are. And this, in fact, is not in my responsibility as a representative of the European Union to comment on issues pertaining to NATO. But it is clear, however, that there is an ambiguity that remains after the Bucharest decisions, and here again I think that there is a role and perhaps even responsibility for the European Union to make sure that this ambiguity is, if not removed, that it is stilled with progress and that a common ground is enhanced or established on such key issues of contention as conflicts and other problem areas that we are still facing in Georgia and also in the larger region.

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