So, where are we after the EU’s summit on the Georgia crisis? Exactly where we were before the summit.
A few vague tutting sounds in the general direction of Russia, a bit of hyperbole (Hans-Gert Pottering, who should know better, calling the Georgia crisis the worst threat to security we’ve seen since the end of the Cold War), a few vague attempts to blame the EU’s lack of success on the failure to ratify the Lisbon Treaty (rather than, erm… seeing the failure to ratify the Lisbon Treaty as a symptom of the same one-size-fits-all malaise), and little in the way of concrete proposals for how – or if – the EU’s eastern neighbourhood policy should really shift to prevent such situations happening again. (Yes, there are plans in place to strengthen the EU’s ties to its eastern neighbours – but these are nothing new, having been agreed back in June).
With so many countries pulling in so many different directions, Russia’s ended up with not so much a slap, but a faint tap on the wrist – a squeak, not a bark of disapproval. Again.
But surely something’s been achieved, right?
Well, there’s more vague Russian promises of troop withdrawals (that we’ve heard countless times since the invasion – with the Wall Street Journal’s “Stop! Or we’ll say stop again!” headline pretty much summing it up), which have helped them dodge sanctions again. (Not that sanctions are really a very likely outcome no matter what they do, as far as I can tell, but still…). Meanwhile the vague threat – and as yet it’s only a threat – to suspend talks on any future EU/Russian economic deal has been met with Russian tutting in return, effectively trying to paint the EU as over-reacting to a localised issue, while also firmly pointing out Georgian aggression once again. And yet the Russian line about Western hypocrisy remains unchallenged, the propaganda keeps coming (though at least that bit of propaganda has the decency to be entertaining), the Russian leadership continues to do pretty much as it likes, and the Russian people continue to get ever more behind the Kremlin.
Speaking of which, has anything been said or done to tick off the Georgian leadership for its own over-reaction and attempt to forcibly put down the separatist movements within its borders? Has there been any suggestion of the most sensible, logical course of action – holding an EU/OECD-supervised referendum over the status of the two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Azkhabia to help formalise their self-rule and to enable their leaderships to work out how their economies might function prior to formal independence? You know, supporting independence movements and the principle of self-determination in much the same way we did at the end of the Cold War? Nope. Not a bit of it. Russian accusations of double-standards and hypocrisy continue to have some foundation.
And meanwhile, various aspiring EU member states (or even just aspiring closer partners) have discovered something rather handy to help their bid to get preferential treatment from the rich Westerners of the EU: play the Russia card.
The one cause for optimism? There were some sensible contributions from MEPs during the debate that followed the European Council meeting – among the predictable calls for a common defence policy and overkill calls for complete Russian economic and political isolation. A rare indication of the subtlety of understanding that can be present in a chamber of 600+ deputies that seems to be lost in a council chamber of a couple of dozen ministers and heads of state. Yes, the national concerns of the individual MEPs are on show, but so are is a surprisingly reasonable attempt to rationalise a situation that makes no sense.
Nonetheless, the one word that could shatter Russia’s whole pretence of acting in the interests of the people of South Ossetia – Chechnya – remains unspoken. Russians can point to the potential breakup of Belgium, the support for Kosovo’s independence and the suppression of Northern Irish and Basque separatist movements all they like, but that’s to ignore the case study on their doorstep. Because this is very much a Caucasus-wide issue – one that has been rumbling since the fall of the Soviet Union (if not before), and one that threatens to spread once more. Already there are worrying signs that the wider region is flaring up. This potential short-term revival of old Caucasian tensions – along the Armenian/Azerbaijani border just as much as among the myriad Russian republics of the region – needs to be kept in check just as much as any revival of Russian militarism.
Elsewhere, this article in the New York Review of Books provides one of the best accounts of the crisis I’ve found so far – though I’ve yet to see anyone satisfactorily explain why anyone would actually want South Ossetia anyway. It’s a bunch of rocks and mountains, with very little in the way of economic or strategic worth. What’s the point of getting het up over something so worthless?