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EU: Finding unity and muscle in the Caucasus crisis

Published on 02/09/2008

Brussels -- In its first-ever attempt to resolve a major international crisis on its own, the European Union was able to achieve rare unity and issue a surprisingly muscular response to Russia's military intervention in Georgia.

For many in the EU, its threat to suspend a partnership and co-operation with Russia unless Moscow withdraws its troops from Georgian territory represented a major advance in the bloc’s desire to have a powerful — and unified — voice in international diplomacy.

"This crisis was an opportunity for Europe to go forward," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy after Monday’s emergency summit in Brussels. "Europe is in the first rank to prevent war, and Europe spoke with one voice."

In a declaration issued after the summit — the first of its kind since the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States — the 27 EU members said that no further partnership talks with Russia would be held until Russian troops were withdrawn to pre-August 7 positions.

Very important meeting

Further negotiations are set for Sept. 15. A week before that, Sarkozy will head a high-level EU delegation to Moscow to evaluate Russia’s implementation of the six-point plan he drew up to end the war between Russia and Georgia.

"The Sept. 8 meeting is very important for the future of Europe and Russia," he said. Presumably, this means that a decision on the postponement of negotiations would be taken that day or shortly after.

In fact, the big question before Monday’s emergency summit was whether 27 nations with varying geopolitical and economic interests could concur on a single position on a conflict as fraught with risks as the one between Russia and Georgia. The answer appears to be yes.

Sarkozy was quick to point out that the EU had been badly divided over Iraq.

"But today, Europe is united around the propositions put forward by the French (EU) presidency," he said.

An advance

In fact, it could be argued that agreement on a common stand was more important for the EU than the stand itself.

Failure to get all members to sign on to a strong statement condemning Russia’s unilateral recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would have set the bloc back decades in its efforts to speak with a single voice in international affairs.

This advance was accomplished by satisfying those countries who demanded tough action against Moscow, such as Poland and Britain.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who had earlier suggested that he would demand immediate sanctions against Russia, expressed satisfaction along with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, over the results of the meeting, and particularly a reference to Ukraine in the final declaration.

"This is an important conclusion," Tusk said, while Kaczynski noted that the EU was on the right path.

In addition, the ultimatum to Russia took into account Britain’s hardline stance demanding the suspension of the partnership agreement talks.

Full application

The final declaration also stated that the EU would hold a "careful in-depth examination" of its relations with Russia, and that this evaluation would "begin now and continue in the run-up to the forthcoming (EU-Russia) summit" on Nov. 14 in Nice.

The criteria for future decisions would be Moscow’s "full application" of the six-point peace plan.

Sarkozy said that this included the return of refugees driven out of their homes since the beginning of the conflict in the 1990s, the deployment of international observers to monitor the ceasefire and an international discussion on the security and stability in the breakaway Georgian enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

This last demand could lead to a major impasse.

On Sunday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Russian television that Moscow’s decision to recognize the breakaway provinces was "irrevocable."

This suggests that, while the EU can be satisfied with what it achieved on Monday, the diplomatic wrangling with Russia has only just begun, and it could turn ugly.

On Monday, a German newspaper reported that Russia will shut down its Yamal natural-gas pipeline supplying Western Europe for more than a day this week for what was described as "routine maintenance."

In addition, Russian giant energy supplier Gazprom announced late Monday that it would reduce gas supplies to Germany from Tuesday to at least Thursday.

— Nicholas Rigillo and Siegfried Mortkowitz/DPA/Expatica