The current Georgian-Russian conflict is a major test for the European Union and its capacity to engage in conflict resolution in the Caucasus region. Wary of irritating Russia by a too-visible presence, the EU has adopted a soft power approach to the region in recent years. France's mediation of a framework for a later cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia suggests that that role is slotted to change.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the current president of the European Union, holds that Europe has no choice but to mediate an end to the current fighting between Russia and Georgia. "Europe cannot be passive. Europe must express its political will, which is what it is doing at this moment," Sarkozy told an August 13 press conference at the presidential residence in Tbilisi.
Tbilisi and Moscow have agreed to a document presented by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that contains six principles for a future, permanent agreement: 1) the non-use of force by all parties (Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia); 2) an immediate end to hostilities; 3) free access to humanitarian aid; 4) the retreat of Georgian forces to their earlier positions, and the retreat of Russian forces to their original positions outside of South Ossetia, within the Russian Federation; 5) additional temporary security arrangements for peacekeepers in South Ossetia, but only within the bounds of South Ossetia itself; 6) the start of "international discussions" about stability and security measures in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The principles, Sarkozy asserted, form "the start of a process which will permit, France fully hopes, peace in this region . . ."
Foreign Minister Kouchner will present the document to an August 13 meeting of the European Union's 27 foreign ministers in Brussels. Once approved, the document will go onto the United Nations Security Council for further discussion and elaboration into a permanent agreement, pending approval by Russia and Georgia.
While conceding that sizeable obstacles for such an accord still persist, the French leader asserted that he had "found interlocutors in Moscow and in Tbilisi ready to do a service for peace. And that's what counts."
France's role dovetails with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's own vision of Georgia as a potential EU member, and as a strategically critical country that should command the European heavyweights' active interest.
The diplomatic catch is, though, that Tbilisi appears to focus more on France, than the European Union itself. Speaking in French, Saakashvili asserted that France's participation has been "much more effective than the small countries which are represented in the Union."
Differences within the Union over what role it should take in the Caucasus have been one longtime obstacle to the group taking a more active role in conflict resolution. To date, the European Union has relied on a soft power approach to the Caucasus region.
Favored tactics have relied more on economic rehabilitation than on direct intervention a cautious approach dictated largely by sensitivity toward Russia.
One senior European diplomat believes that the current crisis over South Ossetia will most likely prompt a new take on Europe's role in the region.
There will be much "reflection, soul searching and drawing lessons" after the tragic events of the last days in order to prevent such events from happening in the future, the European Union's Special Representative for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby told EurasiaNet.
The EU will have a more "refined policy vis-à-vis Russia," Semneby said. The EU and Russia, he said, now have "a very . . .real-life situation and experiences to base those relations on." He did not elaborate.
The outcome of the August 13 meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels could provide an indication of any such changes, Semneby added.
Already, signs of a change in EU policy toward the Caucasus have begun to emerge. Among them: the German foreign ministry's work on a peace proposal for the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, and the June 2008 visit of EU High Representative Javier Solana to Abkhazia are the most recent signs of this evolution.
One analyst argues that the war's most important implications will be on the EU's relations with Ukraine and its engagement in other regional conflicts, including Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdniester.
Nicu Popescu from the European Council on Foreign Relations in London believes that the current war has proven that "the Russia-first approach to the neighborhood is probably the biggest failure not only in European Neighborhood Policy, but in EU conflict prevention policies."
Any change would mean a complicated policy tussle, though. EU member states like Germany view the EU's role in the region more as an honest broker between Georgia and Russia or Russia and the United States, while new member states like Poland and the Baltic states would like to see the EU play a more active, direct role, and take a tougher line toward Russia.
Uwe Halbach from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin views the role of Russia in regional conflict resolution as the trickiest question for European peace initiatives.
"It is quite clear that conflict resolution doesn't work without Russia or in confrontation to Russia," Halbach observed. "But it also doesn't work without calling into question the role of Russia as a mediator and monopolist peacekeeper in the Georgian secessionist conflicts."
In Saakashvili's view, any future peace agreement with Russia needs to do precisely that. "This document has [a] clear indication . . . There should be internationalization of the process . . . which is to say there are temporary arrangements for now, but later it should be replaced with participation from the EU and the UN," he said.
The European Union's own role in such an operation is uncertain, however. The European Security and Defense Policy is not believed sufficiently developed to allow for large peacekeeping commitments.
Cautions Sabine Fischer from the European Institute for Security Studies in Paris: "There is no EU when it comes to conflict resolution in Georgia, there are only member states."
Lili Di Puppo is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Caucaz.com and a PhD candidate at the European Viadrina University (Frankfurt/Oder) in Germany.