The failure of the November 14 European Union-Russia summit to change the status quo in Georgia has left some observers to ask whether the EU is going back to "business as usual" with Russia.
The November 10 decision by EU foreign ministers to resume talks on a new EU-Russia partnership agreement is seen as a sign that the EU has clearly backed away from using sanctions to exert pressure on Moscow. Lithuania was the only country among the 27 member states to oppose the decision. No date has yet been set, however, for resumption of the talks. Union officials say they hope to restart the negotiations in early December.
In a statement issued the same day, Georgian Prime Minister Grigol Mgaloblishvili urged the EU not to go back to 'business as usual' with Russia, saying that Moscow is not in compliance with its ceasefire agreements.
The decision comes amidst ongoing differences with Russia over whether or not Moscow has fulfilled its obligations under the EU-brokered ceasefire plan. Russian troops are still stationed in the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where their numbers exceed Russia's pre-war military presence. The EU wants Russia to withdraw its troops to pre-conflict positions.
Michael Emerson, associate senior research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, believes that "the EU's position was never very clear to what concerns the return of Russian troops to the pre-war positions."
"There were two interpretations. One is to get out of Georgia proper or get out of Ossetia and I don't believe it was ever understood by the Russian side or by the European side that Russia would get out of Ossetia and Abkhazia," Emerson said. "The EU to have insisted from getting the troops out of Ossetia and Abkhazia was a no-hope proposition."
At the same time, the much-discussed lack of clarity in the six-point ceasefire plan negotiated by the French presidency was not unintentional, Emerson contends. "I think the French side accepted systematic ambiguity as the price of getting the agreement," he commented.
Moscow claims that it has fully implemented the EU-brokered August 12 and September 8 peace proposals. After a November 18-19 round of discussions generally deemed "constructive," its next talks with Georgia, slotted for December 17-18, will focus on security issues and displaced persons.
Meanwhile, the bloc has attempted to dispel any notion that resumption of the talks with Moscow about a partnership agreement means that the EU is now back-pedaling. In a November 14 communique, the Union affirmed that "[n]egotiation and dialogue on bases such as these in no way legitimise the status quo in Georgia."
In essence, the European Union has little muscle to exert to exact the response it desires from Russia. Aside from heavy reliance on Russia for natural gas supplies, the country is the EU's third largest trade partner after the United States and China with 20-percent annual growth rates.
Nicu Popescu, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, believes that another factor has played a role in the decision to resume talks. "Many people in the EU think that Georgia has played an active role in the escalation of the security situation. And, of course, this fact will decrease any kind of willingness to challenge Russia, because so far it is not clear who started the war, and who should be blamed for it."
"No one will really start fighting for Georgia too hard if Georgia has a share of the blame," he added.
A recent report by The New York Times cited observations from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that do not coincide with the Georgian government's allegation that its attack on Tskhinvali was in response to enemy fire on Georgian-controlled villages in South Ossetia.
In an apparent attempt to dodge further controversy, reconstruction in Georgia has become the main priority on the EU's agenda. "The EU tries to move the situation away from pure conflict security issues into as much as possible bilateralizing the EU's relations with Georgia and making it less dependent on Russia, which implies focusing on economy, visa, reconstruction, issues where the EU is good at," said Popescu.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy has confirmed that Georgia could be offered a privileged partnership deal that would include relaxed visa and trade arrangements. In early December, the European Commission will present a new partnership proposal aimed at closer integration between the EU and Eastern European countries like Georgia.
But whether or not such cooperation means that Georgia can count on the European Union to back its position in direct talks with Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains unclear. Said Popescu: "Hopes for Georgia and for the EU are to wait for a new international context, which might arise in the next 25 years, ten years, or two years ... no one knows."
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.