Georgia crisis exposes EU’s limits

Times Staff Writers

On the surface, the forces of European diplomacy responded vigorously Tuesday to the challenge presented by the eruption of conflict in the Caucasus.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants to reassert French and European influence while holding the presidency of the European Union, zoomed off to Moscow and Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, on the heels of a war-zone trip by his equally energetic foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.

By the end of the day, Russian and Georgian leaders had agreed to a cease-fire. Meanwhile, other European leaders held busy consultations with one another and Russian and American counterparts.

But in reality, the crisis in the former Soviet republic of Georgia exposes the problems and limitations afflicting Europe, particularly the dream of a strong European Union playing a key role on the world stage, analysts say.


The European reaction has in some ways evoked the familiar stereotypes: The EU is rich but bureaucratic, sophisticated but timid, big but profoundly divided between the aging powers of the West and impatient newcomers of the East.

Its main weapon when dealing with Moscow, analysts say, is soft power. Sarkozy, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and other leaders who have developed good relationships with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin can present themselves as alternatives to, and intermediaries for, Washington.

“The EU has as yet quite a weak foreign policy, and the EU as a union hasn’t been very much in evidence,” said Katinka Barysch, deputy director of the Center for European Reform think tank in London. “The Europeans . . . are taken less seriously by the Russians, but on the other hand they are better placed for any kind of intermediary role because the Americans are obviously on the side of the Georgians.

“A lot of the European member states are seen as less biased against Russia,” she said, “and that’s why you see those countries that have good links and have been less critical of Russia are very much in action.”

Nonetheless, Russia has shown occasional disdain for its neighbors to the west and the niceties of their democratic processes. Though Britain is arguably the strongest power in the EU, its relations with Moscow have been chilly since the 2006 assassination in London of a former KGB agent turned Russian dissident who died of radioactive poisoning. The suspected killer, also an ex-KGB agent, was elected in December to the Russian parliament despite a British extradition request.

The agreement reached during Sarkozy’s shuttle diplomacy Tuesday seemed more a product of Russian strategic calculation than French diplomatic finesse, analysts said. An editorial in the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung described the dynamics in stark terms: “The European Union wants to mediate between Russia and Georgia. But its influence is marginal. . . . It is a conflict between the U.S. and Russia about regional hegemony.”

The 27-nation European Union is a work in progress, a baby behemoth learning to walk. Before it can present a united front, it has to overcome internal political, economic and historical fault lines.

Those divisions are exacerbated by any conflict involving Russia, the nemesis of the former communist bloc nations that have recently joined the EU and that condemn the Russian attack on Georgia.

“The old members of the European Union have more moderate positions, while the new ones, which have had to deal with Russia in the past, have firmer ones,” Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel said in comments to Agence France-Press in Ljubljana, his nation’s capital.

Rupel spoke as he prepared to depart for a meeting of EU foreign ministers today in Brussels about the Russia-Georgia clash. Preserving unity will be the top challenge to France at that meeting, Rupel said. And European dependence on Russian oil and gas will limit the options of the nations represented in Brussels.

Russia’s actions suggest its leaders are not too worried about possible symbolic reprisals such as shelving a proposed EU-Russia partnership agreement or blocking Russian entry into the World Trade Organization, said Denis Corboy, who served as EU ambassador to Georgia from 1994 to 1999.

But European nations theoretically could show some muscle, albeit with ominous potential implications, in one arena: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

There has been talk of sending a NATO peacekeeping force into Georgia, noted Corboy, who now heads Caucasus Policy Institute at King’s College, London.

That could bring them face to face with Russian troops, which even before the latest hostilities in the Caucasus were present as peacekeepers in two Georgian provinces seeking independence.

“That [move] would frighten a lot of people, particularly some NATO members, because it would for the first time open the possibility of NATO peacekeepers coming up against Russian forces,” Corboy said.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, he added, “makes the valid point that Russia cannot be seen any longer as an independent neutral peacekeeper. What do you put in its place? The EU doesn’t have any guts, and NATO is the only body left that has peacekeepers who are prepared to go into situations like that.”


Stobart reported from London and Rotella from Sete, France. Special correspondents Christian Retzlaff in Berlin and Audrey Bastide in Paris contributed to this report.