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Europe's Russian Conflict Of Interest

Russia has pledged to withdraw troops from Georgia proper shortly after EU monitors arrive
Russia has pledged to withdraw troops from Georgia proper shortly after EU monitors arrive
Having emerged as the principal mediator in the Russian-Georgian conflict, the EU now finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. The bloc's interests dictate that it must find a modus vivendi with Russia, its largest neighbor and dominant energy supplier. But at the same time, the EU has staked its credibility on upholding Georgia's territorial integrity, grossly violated by Moscow's recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, wittingly or not, cast the quandary facing the EU as a choice between values and interests. Addressing the UN General Assembly in New York on September 23, Sarkozy raised the prospect of a grand economic alliance between the EU and Russia. "Why not build across the whole continent a common economic space which would unite Russia and Europe?" the French president and current head of the rotating EU Presidency asked.

But Sarkozy immediately produced a counterargument to the rhetorical question. "Europe is telling Russia with the same sincerity that it must not violate the principle of sovereignty and independence of states, their territorial integrity," he said. Europe, Sarkozy continued, cannot accept resorting to force to settle political differences.

The French president's vision evokes parallels with the EU's own past, when economic integration laid the groundwork for the pooling of sovereignty. What this vision lacks is any suggestion of how to achieve what remains a very distant goal in the EU-Russia relationship.

Just how difficult it will be is evident in a draft policy paper on Russia, penned by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and circulated among EU foreign ministers earlier this month. That text states that the EU's attempts to bind Russia to itself after the end of the Cold War were overly ambitious and misjudged Russian intentions.

Pulled Both Ways

Meanwhile, the EU is becoming embroiled in a classic conflict of interest.

Acting as a mediator between Russia and Georgia, the EU has also felt compelled to provide much of the "incentive structure" for both sides. The tensions inherent in the EU's position may render its position as a mediator untenable and are taking a toll on the bloc's internal cohesion.

The EU has made Russian compliance with what is now officially known in Brussels as the "Medvedev-Sarkozy Plan" a condition for further advances in the bilateral relationship with Moscow. Thus, it has suspended talks on a new EU-Russia partnership agreement and told Moscow not to expect any advances in its quest for visa-free travel.

This, in turn, has given rise to conflicting expectations in Moscow and Tbilisi. Russia expects that the withdrawal by October 15 of its remaining troops in Georgia outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia is sufficient to get the partnership and visa talks going again.

Moscow clearly sees whatever concessions it is making as goodwill gestures toward the EU, and not an admission that it violated international norms.

Tbilisi, on the other hand, is adamant that the EU must use all measures at its disposal to demonstrate to Moscow that its occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and recognition of their independence are unacceptable. For Georgia, this is a matter of principle, any deviation from which would mean compromising the integrity of the EU as a mediator and international actor, the bloc's reputation being predicated on a rejection of force.

Aware of its predicament, the EU is playing for time. But there are signs that the Brussels consensus, insofar as one exists, leans toward a pragmatic approach.

Monitoring - Within Limits

Thus, the EU agreed to send civilian monitors to Georgia, accepting that they will not have access to Abkhazia or South Ossetia. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was unable to send monitors as a result of disagreement on this very point. Apparently keen to encourage the EU to deepen its involvement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his EU counterparts in New York on September 24 that Moscow would withdraw its troops from Georgia proper within 10 days after the EU monitors deploy on October 1.

The EU's mission now looks like a caricature of the kind of EU border-monitoring mission Tbilisi petitioned for over many years, but which failed to materialize due to resistance on the part of, among others, France and Germany. During the relative lull in Georgia's relations with the separatist regions a few years ago, that mission could have stood a real chance of entering Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In another blow for Tbilisi, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in Brussels on September 18 that the EU-Russia talks could resume as soon as "Russian troops withdraw from their positions inside Georgia, with the exception of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- because they were already there."

Reflecting the intractability of the dispute between Russia and Georgia, the EU has had to cancel a ministerial meeting in Geneva on the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Owing to a disagreement over the status of the South Ossetian and Abkhaz representatives at the meeting, it will now only feature "experts" so as to avoid the impression of making an a priori political judgment.

The EU's dilemma will come to a head in the weeks before the bloc's next summit on October 15-16. Poland and the Baltic countries, backed by Britain, argue that the EU must choose values over interests. In practical terms, this will mean a freeze on all cooperation with Russia until it goes back to the pre-August status quo in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Pointing out that such a turn of events is extremely unlikely, France, Germany, and most other western EU member states want cooperation with Russia to resume, leaving only verbal pressure on Moscow to back down.

Both camps believe vitally important issues are at stake. The longer they remain divided, the more difficult it will become for the EU to maintain its front of political unity. Without a shared political vision, the bloc could soon devolve into just the kind of common economic space advocated by Sarkozy for Russia.