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NO 121-122

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Helsinki Charter No. 121-122

July - August 2008


EU, Russia and Crisis in Georgia


By Nikola Samardzic

The predictions that the world politics would be affected by delicate relationships between the new, authoritarian Russia and its pos-Soviet satellites - particularly those trying to escape from the sphere of Russia's direct influence - came true. New contradictions in the interests of the US and the EU became more visible threatening to relativize their strategic partnership. The reach of America's power got new borders. Now that Brussels has given up any confrontation with Moscow, the unilateral power of the US in global relations, impaired by September 11, seems to be additionally questioned. The question of the world's future in which China, India and Brazil, apart from Russia, will be playing growingly significant roles, was opened. Is this all about the future in which the Third World, authoritarianism and anti-liberalism would dominate or new global myths of the revival of the Cold War and its phantoms? Russia's aggression against Georgia after which two small and almost insignificant provinces, South Ossetia and Abhasia proclaimed independence - the event itself being related to the Kosovo precedent - laid bare the schizophrenic character of Serbia's new coalition government. In domestic context of a stable kleptocracy, the government, deeply with its Russian clientele, tries to reconcile the necessity of European integration - though not Euro-Atlantic - and its intention to realize the gas deal with the Russian state. This includes the illegal sale of the Serbian Oil Industry /NIS/ to the Russian government, probably the biggest robbery of the century when it comes to Serbia. Brussels' benevolence towards Moscow contributes to realization of the plan without any consequence whatsoever.

In the meantime the word had it that Brussels and Washington could impose sanctions against Moscow. Out of all scenarios, the most efficient seemed to be the one that would target Russia's anti-democratic and arrogant political and economic elites, up to their ears in plunder, violence and nouveau-riche luxury. Anyway Russia has no free public opinion that would respond to some other kind of pressure. Its political system is cleansed of any serious and trustworthy opposition. However, in an interview with the Newsweek magazine, Foreign Minister of France, the country presiding the EU, reminded that one-third to total oil and gas for European market was imported from Russia. Evocation of frightening memories of Soviet aggression against Finland in 1939 and occupation of Baltic states, intervention in Hungary in 1956 (when Yugoslav diplomacy played a shameful role) and chocking to the Prague Spring in 1968 was of no avail. Even the facts about the prelude to the incident - i.e. about Russia's incitement of separatism in the territory of Georgia that was trying hard to get democratized against the backdrop of poverty and in the shade to Russia's bicentennial domination and its own nationalism - were carefully removed from political rhetoric.

Though it could have been expected - as a hardly isolated incident - Russian aggression against Georgia was left without a convincing response. The US, in midway between the two mandates of its generally unsuccessful diplomacy and presidential campaign, were left almost isolated. Russia hardly paid any heed to the threat of exclusion from the G8 - it had been admitted to as a support to its problematic transition (1997) and despite all economic and democratic standards it has failed to meet for a decade now. (Spain, which is not in the G8 membership, has by far higher economic growth than Russia and Canada, and stands for the most liberal European society.) Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said self-assuredly, "The G8 would be practically unable to function without Russia." Commenting potential EU sanctions, he said, "Watch your step since we can impose sanctions, too." In the long run the sanctions he referred to would negatively affect Russian economy itself and the great majority of societies choking in hopeless poverty. And that was the end of the story - at least for the time being.

Russian aggression and one political mentality were once again legitimized when the door opened to a diplomacy that will - to all appearances - neglect democratic standards and liberal principles while balancing between the EU and Russia. And all for the sake of the Russian gas. Revival of a cold war is nothing but an excuse. The end of the real Cold War at least put an end to East European communism and Soviet totalitarian empire. It seems that this fact is deliberately hushed up.

The EU remained extremely cautious in all aspects. However, this did not ease up the state of affairs. True, Russia triumphed over the Georgian army and humiliated Georgian President Saakashvili. Unadorned cold-war stands of Premier Putin dispelled all doubts about the nature of his regime - without opposition at home and equally respected at international arena by the West and the rest of the world that remained on the opposite side of "the end of the history," i.e. opposite to the rule of the law, democracy and market economy.

The long period of the mannered cohabitation between Putin and the West (1999/2000-2008) is finally over. Russia probably still belong to the sphere of mythologizing demographic and territorial giants such as China, India and Brazil despite the fact that their economic growths rest on Western investment, that their earnings mostly flow into the global economy, mostly American, and that they are not sufficiently attractive markets - on the contrary, they are sources rather than destinations of immigration. Further, by accepting the so-called Kosovo precedent and recognizing Ahhasia and South Ossetia, Putin set in motion centrifugal energy in his own domain while dreaming of revival of the Soviet empire. Scorched Chechnya is not an example that would curb new separatisms. Putin's Russia, the same as the Soviet Russia, is still an orbit one want to escape from, especially the communities aspiring to independence and freedom whatever that means in their specific cases.

Putin's aggression was also a message to the Russian business community a part of which that is not too close to the state and its monopolies must have an eye to open market and the country's democratization. At least, this stratum would be affected the most by sanctions from the West that figures as a safe house for their extra earnings or plunder. Putin's showdowns with the oligarchs siding with the opposition were among such messages that in the empire personalized by its ruler and deprived of the rule of law and individual freedoms no one is safe from the state and its authoritarianism. The shadow of a new cold war - though farfetched at the least - will further darken domestic prospects. Anyway, the great part of transitional booty has been transferred to Western banks and real estates abroad.

In this context, the Chechnya war and tens of thousand of victims remind of Putin's tendency to arbitrarily treat Russian citizens in the name of "protection," and primarily by the criteria of their ethnic, cultural or strategic affiliations. People's trust in such absolute rulers is not necessarily unlimited, particularly when based on fear. Putin's order is partially based on the rule of terror the major elements live on spreading conspiracy theories and pan-Sovietism. Putin's shows emotion only when speaking of the Soviet Union and its disintegration he calls "the biggest geopolitical tragedy of the century." He lives surrounded by his small camarilla and his own distrust. In such circumstances one easily misplaces his own ability for realistic perception of the world and domestic realities that are more and more complex and less and less suited for offhanded and unimaginative qualifications so characteristic of authoritarian or totalitarian political cultures. Though narcissistic and potentially fatal to Russia's week economy, his conviction that Russia possesses natural resources that are in great demand worldwide and without which its partners could not live or "would live hard" testifies of such perception. Referring to oil, gas, metals, wood and chemical fertilizers, he said Russia would not be exactly affected should its partners decide to give up Russian goods and services, or leave Russian market. "That's how things stand - the world is big and the needs for those services and goods in the world economy are very big."

Putin demonstrated his full strength in Georgia but weaknesses too. Ukraine probably comes next. The EU failed to approach this part of post-Soviet region - Georgia, Moldova or Armenia - while prolonging integration of Western Balkans but also by giving up Europeanization of Turkey the strategic role of which it has neglected in the past years. (In this specific case Turkey was not willing to jeopardize its relations with Russia.) Russia managed to split up the pro-Western political bloc, this time in the sphere of unrestrained corruption and transitional plunder. This is what Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko had in mind when accusing Premier Julia Timoshenko of "systematic work in favor of Russia" after the later took a neutral stand about the conflict in Georgia. Moreover, the official Russian questioned the necessity of respecting Ukraine's territorial integrity at all in the event Ukraine joins NATO. It also questioned legitimacy of President Yushchenko. Pressure from Russia resulted in factual division of Moldova. Russian threats also distressed the three Baltic states.

With its challenge that called for a clear-cut and brave response, Russia also split up the EU that revealed its own disunity at the extraordinary summit meeting discussing the crisis in Georgia on September 1, 2008. With the support from Poland, Baltic states and Sweden, the Great Britain called for thorough reconsideration of relations with Russia. In the meantime, Poland, scarred by Russian aggression, had accepted the American rocket shield against the countries that have excluded themselves from the international order and renounced all democratic procedures in domestic politics. However, depending on the degree of their dependence on Russian gas other EU member-states remained reserved and criticized careless and aggressive actions by Georgia that is seen as American protégée. Traditionally averse to the regimes that impair its balance vis-a-vis the Anglo-Saxon world, France took upon itself the role of mediator. Aware of Europe's disunity and weakness, Putin took yet another step by proclaiming the port of Poti - territorially unconnected with the seceded Georgian regions - a part of the Russian "security zone," while President Medvedev accused the US of arming Georgian again under the umbrella of humanitarian aid.

Intervention in Georgia helped Russia revive the self-confidence of the long gone cold war era. The EU's inability to respond with sanctions and the US preoccupation with Iraq and domestic affairs just contributed to its sense of self-confidence. Almost hopelessly poor and politically and economically burdened by centralized economy and all sorts of monopolies resting on the export of energy and on the authoritarian regime counting on conservative, archaic strata of politics and the society, Russia believes it is on its way to once again become a great power in a new, multipolar world. President Medvedev even believes that impaired relations with NATO would disadvantage the West more than Russia. He called the EU's decision not to impose sanctions "rational" and "realistic."

However, behind this superfluously decorated stage is the backstage of bleak realities of an aging society wasting its last biological reserves, the realities of a monotone life in poverty and isolation for the great majority of population, inflation, corruption, kleptocracy and, at the very best, dependence on changeable prices of energy at the world market. In the void of the West's hesitation, Russia will probably continue to prove its status of a great power by exerting pressure on its neighbors - and the pressure itself will mirror Putin's frustration with disintegration of the Soviet empire.

If history does not repeat itself or repeats itself just in some minor forms, Russia has indeed found itself in cold-war circumstances - the circumstances it seems to invoke from time to time by cold-shouldering its potential allies against American unilateralism in the Far East. The Shanghai Organization for Cooperation emphasized the importance of a peaceful solution of the conflict in Georgia and Georgia's territorial integrity. The Chinese media refrained from overt criticism of Russia whereas China appealed for "dialogue and cooperation" intent not to impair its economic relations with the West and obsessed by Tibetan, Taiwanese and Muslim separatisms. By intervening in Georgia Russia managed to impair its traditionally good relations with Greece, Cyprus and Spain.

Actually, Russia's aggression against Georgia reminded the world that the Cold War was gone for good and that the international order on which it rested could never again be restored. At least verbally, the EU unanimously condemned Russia's action and adjusted its enlargement policy for runaway regimes to long-term priorities. A historical lesson Putin and Medvedev have never learnt is that powers such as Russia - poor and hungry - are time-bound. The US and MMF will continue to assist Georgia thus indicating - together with their European partners - that such forms of cooperation are more effective than sanctions, while, on the other hand, that partnership with Russia is hardly attractive or not attractive enough. Besides, Russia is challenged by NATO's expansion into the Baltic states (2004) and its success in mobilizing its clientele in those countries - members of Russian minorities - is questionable. The fact that the wealthiest Russians and their capital have left Russia keeps reminding of the real character of the country aspiring to once again become a super power. Putin's belief in the power of states to control lives of other nations also belongs to the past.


NO 121-122

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