On one level, the arrival of the four foreign ministers -- Dmitrij Rupel (Slovenia), Carl Bildt (Sweden), Radoslaw Sikorski (Poland), and Petras Vaitiekunas (Lithuania) -- is a diplomatic coup for Georgia. It comes as Tbilisi warns that Russia's increasing military and political involvement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia has brought the two countries to the brink of war.
At another level, and less comfortably for Tbilisi, the visit is intended to convey the message that EU support comes at a price and has clear limits.
There is no question that all 27 EU member states support Georgia's territorial integrity and would like to see the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia resolved. There is also little love lost for the Russian government. But Georgia is a relatively distant and untried partner, with its ambitions to join the EU a headache for many. And no one really thinks the EU could afford to support Tbilisi at any price in a showdown with Russia, which is the EU’s largest neighbor and main energy supplier.
This ambivalence was in ample evidence in a statement made in Vilnius by Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, on the eve of the visit to Georgia.
"The fact that we are leaving from here very early tomorrow morning to go down to Tbilisi to meet the leadership of Georgia," Bildt said, "is related not only to the fact that we want to give them -- and I in my capacity as president of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, in particular -- a clear message concerning the importance of European standards in upcoming parliamentary elections, but also to express our solidarity with Georgia as to the territorial integrity of Georgia."
No Reference To EU
The devil, as ever, is in the details.
What is conspicuous by its absence in Bildt's words is any reference to the EU. The four ministers will not be speaking for the bloc when they are in Tbilisi, but for their own individual countries.
On May 8-9, a delegation visited Tbilisi that did speak for the EU. But it did not comprise any ministers, and instead was conducted at the level of "political directors" -- that is, civil servants representing the European Commission, the EU's Council of Ministers, and the current Slovenian EU presidency and its scheduled French successor.
Also significant is the fact that the four ministers in Tbilisi traveled from Vilnius, where they issued a joint statement saying Lithuania will unblock talks between the EU and Russia on a new strategic partnership accord. Last month, Vilnius had vetoed the talks, demanding among other things that Russia back down in its standoff with Georgia. That demand will remain but will be addressed in the course of the EU-Russian talks, expected to be launched on June 26 when the two sides meet for a summit in the Siberian city of Khanty-Mansyisk.
Essentially, the EU foursome should therefore be seen first and foremost as a team of mediators. They are of little direct value for Tbilisi as backing in the escalating conflict with Russia -- and the Georgian government knows it.
There is a story making the rounds among Western experts and diplomats of a phone call said to have taken place between Vladimir Putin and Mikheil Saakashvili, in which the then Russian president, using characteristically blunt and brusque language, dismissed all Western shows of support for Georgia.
Regaining Status Quo
The best the EU can do is to try and assist Georgia in regaining the status quo -- with a view of returning to the slow and painstaking work of building up confidence between Tbilisi and Sukhumi and Tshinkvali.
Bildt's statement also makes it very clear that at least part of the work needs to be done by Tbilisi itself. The Georgian government will be told the upcoming parliamentary elections on May 21 must respect international standards as the price of EU support.
There are real grounds for concerns here. Western diplomats say they are very worried at the way the Georgia government is exploiting its stranglehold on the media. Even more worrying are unconfirmed reports of the security services blatantly intimidating opposition members and local authorities responsible for counting the votes.