Conflict in Georgia: of pipelines and European foreign policy in the region

August 12, 2008

This week-end, yet another drama costing many human lives and displacing tens of thousands unfolded in Georgia. This outcome to the escalating Russian-Georgian tensions in the last months seems to have been unavoidable. Europe has yet again been unable to respond coherently.

The European Union’s foreign policy is notoriously weak and fraught by deep member state divisions. This weakness reveals itself in particular when it comes to relations with Russia and the former Soviet Union. Many of these problems coalesce in Georgia. This involves: peace and war, energy and pipelines, and reforming EU foreign policies towards post-Soviet Russia and Georgia.

Peace and war

The EU High Representative for Europe’s Comment Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana’s show has been prudent and weak. He’s been sidelined by an overactive French president. While Germany is relatively prudent in condemning outright Russia’s actions in South Ossetia, other countries are more outspoken, namely the UK. The Baltic states are, for their part, naturally calling for tough action against Russia. The United States has been doing as if Russia were the sole aggressor. The UN cannot act because Russia is on the Security Council and has therefore a veto. Prospects for joint action in the current war are not good.

European divisions towards Russia and Georgia are found in NATO – at the April Summit in Bucharest, the US’ willingness to welcome Georgia was met by resistance from a coalition led by Germany, which does not want to raise tensions with Russia. These divisions are also to be found when dealing with Russia’s arbitrary trade and energy measures in Europe. Russia is able to stop delivering gas to Lithuania, mount cyberattacks on Estonia, or can impose trade bans on Polish meat (lifted). Each time Ukraine makes moves to get closer to the West (after the Orange Revolution, elections, or WTO accession) it stops delivering gas, endangering thus supplies to the rest of Europe. Countries like Germany, France and Italy have been traditionally rather lenient towards Russia, given its role as major supplier of gas (30% of EU gas imports), as big investment destination (FDI to Russia in 2006 was $17bn) and growing consumer market. Russia has also imposed an outright trade ban on Georgia in 2006 after yet another diplomatic incident between the two countries. Europe has not been able nor dared to do anything.

Energy and Pipelines

If Russia didn’t have the European Union to export its gas it wouldn’t have the means for its currently aggressive foreign policies. Europe certainly needs a stronger common foreign policy to match its economic, trade and demographic weight. It will be increasingly difficult to deal with Russia. President Medvedev demonstrated his weakness in the face of the nationalist anti-western hardliners in the Kremlin. With the failure of the Lisbon Treaty, this is going to take a long time.

But where the Lisbon Treaty is not a problem, Europe should move forward quickly, and this is in its energy policies. Europe’s relations with Russia and Georgia are based on energy. Georgia’s economy depends very much on its status as transit country for the oil pipeline that goes from Azerbaijan to Turkey. The South Caucasian gas Pipeline also ships Central Asian gas to Turkey. That pipeline must be connected to Europe via the planned but ever-elusive Nabucco pipeline.

Europe must finalize and push forward a common energy market that can respond to Gazprom’s divide-and-rule policies in some member states (Italy, Spain, Hungary, to name but a few). It must make a decisive push to move forward the Nabucco pipeline that would help gas from Central Asia to be shipped directly to Europe via Georgia, without depending on Russia. A decisive diplomatic and financial push is urgently required. Europe needs to “outcompete” Russia in the region. Now that the enlarged European Union neighbours directly with the former Soviet Union, it is high time to define a strong common strategic line, with greater energy independence at the centre.

Future policies towards Russia and Georgia

This also means offering real prospects to Georgia. Georgia has opted for democracy and reform after its Rose Revolution in 2003 in a region where this is not the most obvious government preference. Yet Georgia must not be rewarded for having provoked Russia by attacking South Ossetia last Friday. President Saakashvili’s nationalism has led to rising tensions with Russia and with the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His assertiveness has been a very risky strategy. Georgia will probably pay the price anyway by losing complete control, and probably formal sovereignty, over the pro-Russian enclave. Nobody will really be able to stop the trend if this is what Russia is heading for. And probably nobody will go to war with Russia over a Georgian enclave. But NATO membership should be prioritized, with safeguards against potential policy excesses, such as another unilateral attack on Russia. The EU must offer something more than its current partnership agreement: namely genuinely closer association with Europe, i.e more economic and business ties with Europe, more open borders and genuine political cooperation to strengthen democracy and the rule of law.

The main responsibility for policy reform falls yet again on the big member states. Germany, France, and other countries such as Italy or Spain must make efforts to accept a full blown internal energy market liberalisation. This is now a question of national security. The UK and Germany will need to accept that a genuine joint foreign policy is unavoidable, the first will need to accept greater integration with the EU, and Germany will need to take into account for good in its foreign policies towards Russia the concerns of its smaller Eastern European neighbours.


One Response to “Conflict in Georgia: of pipelines and European foreign policy in the region”

  1. Josh Maxwell Says:

    Well said Great information, keep up the great work!

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