(Inter Press Service)
The Russia-Georgia peace deal indicates that the European Union (EU) is acting as an independent power and plans to maintain dialogue with Moscow in spite of pressure by some of its own members and the United States to switch to sanctions.
Last week French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met in Moscow to agree on the gradual withdrawal of Russian troops to positions held before the outbreak of the Georgia-Russia war in August.
On August 8 Georgian troops tried to seize control of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia. Russia launched a military offensive, saying it had to protect Russian citizens living there.
Soon after, Sarkozy negotiated with both sides to end hostilities amid escalating Cold War-type rhetoric between Moscow and Washington. But Russia failed to keep its promises to completely withdraw from Georgian territory outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist region, prompting Sarkozy’s return to Moscow.
Now Russia has nodded to the arrival of 200 EU observers to the borders of the irredentist regions, recently recognized as independent entities by Russia.
But there are complaints that "EU observers will not be allowed into the region—which is the part of the conflict that should actually be internationalised," as Michal Thim, South Caucasus analyst at the Prague-based Association for International Affairs, told the Inter Press Service (IPS).
In a compromise whose ultimate goal was to maintain an impression of European unity, the EU has called the Russian occupation a "reaction" but added it was "disproportionate." The EU also condemned Moscow’s recognition of the regions’ independence.
This was far from satisfactory for a block of mostly Eastern European countries that, led by Polish President Lech Kaczynski and encouraged by the United States, called for tough economic sanctions against Russia.
The EU will only maintain a temporary suspension of the Russia-EU partnership agreement, which should be lifted once Moscow abides with the peace plan. The fact that Russia supplies the EU with almost half of its gas and one-third of its oil makes a policy of isolating Russia impractical.
With most EU members striving not to get caught in the crossfire of a new Cold War, more idealistic politicians, especially in Eastern Europe, seemed ready to bear the cost of mutual economic sanctions.
"It is a long-term tendency that those who want to keep a pragmatic policy in relations with Russia have the upper hand within the EU’s decision-making. Decisions have to be taken unanimously, and with the lowest common denominator it is unlikely to get a tougher stance towards Russia," Thim told IPS.
The absence of Washington from the EU-Russia negotiating table has been seen as an encouraging sign for those looking for a more autonomous international role for the EU.
Russian officials had warm words for Europe’s "balanced" position, and there was visible satisfaction among Russian analysts over Moscow’s ability to dictate many terms of the agreement.
"Both the EU and the U.S. realized they have no power to change the status quo or future of these regions," Thim told IPS.
Russia will maintain its military presence in the separatist regions, prolonging a situation that began in 1992 with a U.N. sanctioned peacekeeping mission.
Russian-Georgian relations significantly worsened after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili took power in 2004 and began pushing for his country’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The United States has been the main sponsor of the NATO aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine, and Russian officials are openly blaming the United States for having blessed Georgia’s attempt to take the separatist regions by force.
Moreover, Russian officials have accused the United States of arming Georgia before and after the conflict. "The rearming of the Georgian regime is continuing, including under the guise of humanitarian assistance," Medvedev said last week after the United States brought Georgia aid on one of its most sophisticated warships, the Mount Whitney.
Washington says the war was provoked by Russia, and already last week U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was visiting Ukraine and Georgia, where he called on "the free world to rally to the side of Georgia" and support its NATO membership.
In Ukraine, where Cheney tried to prevent the pro-Western ruling coalition’s collapse due to disagreements over the Georgian conflict, most politicians and media saw the visit by the lame duck vice president as fruitless and ill-timed.
An international meeting that will include representatives of the separatist regions will be held in Geneva in mid-October to discuss the conflict and assess progress in the peace plan. Moscow says its recognition of the regions’ independence is non-negotiable, while the EU’s position on their independence is softer than that of the United States.
Thim says the United States was far away when the fate of the South Caucasus was being decided.
"Washington won’t be happy, but it’s too busy with Afghanistan and Iraq. There has been only political support for Georgia but no action; they can simply keep threatening with Georgian NATO membership and try to persuade others about it."
Washington might try additional sanctions, such as refusing Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization. It has already considerably upset Russia by signing a deal with Poland on a missile defense infrastructure to be built there.
The United States has sought to increase its stakes in the oil and gas rich Central Asian and Caucasus region ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is promoting the construction of pipelines that will bypass Russia and Iran, with Georgia being the only remaining corridor fully independent of Russia.
Zoltán Dujisin writes for the Inter Press Service.