Russia and Georgia - does Europe have aces to play?

August 29th, 2008 - 9:20 am ICT by IANS  

Brussels, Aug 29 (DPA) Russia and the European Union (EU) have long been eyeing each other like poker players trying to work out who is bluffing. But come Monday, EU leaders will have few options but to play their hand and show whether they have any aces up their sleeves.The emergency EU summit in Brussels - the first such crisis meeting since the 2003 Iraq war - was called by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in his capacity as current chairman of the EU to discuss the war between Russia and Georgia.

It comes after weeks of European shuttle diplomacy in the Caucasus and just days after Russia appalled Europe by recognising the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

At their summit, the EU’s leaders are set to raise the stakes by evaluating the consequences of the Georgia-Russia conflict for the whole range of future EU-Russia relations.

But, as analysts point out, the EU’s options are limited.

“There are very few possibilities for the EU to have an influence on Russian decision-making in a region so close to its borders,” said Hans-Henning Schroeder, head of the Russia research division at the SWP German Institute for Foreign and Security Policy.

A number of leaders, particularly from Eastern Europe, which was under the control of the Soviet Union, have already urged the EU to take a strong line with Russia out of fear that Moscow could decide to treat other neighbours as it did Georgia.

And such concerns have found sympathetic ears in the West.

Russia has “acted outside international law”, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told French radio station Europe-1 Wednesday a day after Russia’s recognition of the rebels.

“There are other objectives that one can suppose are objectives for Russia, in particular the Crimea, Ukraine and Moldova,” he added.

Even Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has hitherto striven to keep cordial relations with Moscow, reacted to the Russian decision by saying that while dialogue with the Kremlin should continue, the EU cannot go back to business as usual with Russia.

The 27-member bloc has several alternatives at its disposal, analysts say.

It could block Russia’s membership of international groups such as the Group of Eight (G8) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO); it could freeze ongoing talks on the renewal of a wide-ranging EU-Russia cooperation agreement; it could introduce trade sanctions and it could refuse to give Russian citizens visa-free travel to Europe.

But even if leaders agree on any retaliatory measures Monday, something that is by no means guaranteed, experts wonder whether these are good enough cards to trump Moscow.

Russia is Europe’s biggest energy supplier, its biggest neighbour, a huge and growing market and a key diplomatic player in areas such as Afghanistan, the Middle East and Iran.

And its leaders have already shown that they have no qualms about offending European sensibilities, whether by cutting off energy supplies to Ukraine (2005-06) and Lithuania (2006) or vetoing UN support for the independence of Kosovo (2007).

In addition, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have already preempted some of the West’s threats by declaring the G8 “pointless” and questioning whether joining the WTO would be in Russia’s best interest.

Indeed, the main question likely to tax EU leaders Monday is: would it be more embarrassing to fail to agree on what cards to play - or to play its hand and reveal that it is Russia that holds all the aces?

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