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23rd Jun 2018

Russia 'not neutral' in Black Sea conflict, EU says

  • Georgia, located south of the Caucasus Mountains, says any war would spill over into the Russian north (Photo: wikipedia)

Russia's actions in the Georgia spy row have damaged its credibility as a neutral peacekeeper in the EU's Black Sea neighbourhood, EU South Caucasus envoy Peter Semneby told EUobserver - but the bloc is not willing to become a formal player in conflict resolution in the region.

"Recent events have added weight to the Georgian argument that Russia is not a neutral participant in the peacekeeping arrangements and negotiation formats [for Georgian separarist regions]…that the current status quo is not tenable, that in fact it's not a status quo but is gradually deteriorating," Mr Semneby stated.

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Russia in the past two weeks shut borders with Georgia and imposed economic sanctions, as well as expelling ethnic-Georgian citizens and harassing ethnic-Georgian schools, businesses and churches in retaliation for Tbilisi's arrest of four Russian officers on spy charges.

But the real reason behind Moscow's actions is an attempt to topple the pro-EU Georgian government, Tbilisi says, with Russia's support for the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia at the heart of its strategy.

The regions tore away from Georgia 15 years ago, with Russian "peacekeeping" troops still stationed in the territories and with Russian diplomats dominating formal peace talks as potshots are traded across the borders on a daily basis.

"It's something that we here in Brussels are very worried about," Mr Semneby said on the prospect of open war in the area, which could spread to the Russian North Caucasus regions of Dagestan and Ingushetia.

"Russia in its relationship with Georgia, as a former imperial metropolis, has perhaps the larger responsibility for reaching out to Georgia," he explained.

But the EU envoy said the 25 member bloc has "no consolidated position" on sending EU peacekeepers or "seeking a role in the formal negotiating formats", opting instead to play the soft power game of gradual Georgia-EU political integration and boosting development aid to the separatist zones.

The EU is already the largest aid donor in South Ossetia with EU officials holding donor meetings in the regional capital, Tshinkvali, in early October.

"The engagement in South Ossetia is an example of what we can do and I think we will probably see more [programmes] of that kind," Mr Semneby explained, adding that the modest Georgia-EU integration process has security implications.

"The closer the relationship becomes the less likely it is the EU would be indifferent if existential issues were at stake for Georgia," he stated. "I think it's already the case that we are not indifferent to the existential problems that Georgia is facing."

Germany 'must show courage'

For its part, Tbilisi is targeting Germany in its effort to boost EU engagement, with Berlin about to take over the EU presidency and working on a new EU policy for post-Soviet Europe - the "Ostpolitik" - in the context of its strong historical relationship with Moscow.

"The EU must build up courage to speak to the Russians, publicly or privately, to say 'enough is enough', and I'm sorry, but if the upcoming presidency of the EU, Germany, doesn't mention the question of human rights or any of this in its strategy for dealing with the Russians, how do you expect the situation to get any better?" Georgia's EU ambassador Salome Samadashvili told EUobserver.

"That's not the way to speak to the Russians. The way they are behaving is the behaviour of a brat and they think nobody can discipline them, so they just keep on behaving as they wish," she added, calling for Europe to send a strong message that Russian "ethnic cleansing" and coup-plotting "will not be tolerated."

"If the EU fails to give support at a crucial moment when the interests of a small, democratic country are being crushed then what is the uniting force of the EU?" she asked.

Georgia also at fault

But Mr Semneby also reserved criticism for Georgia's tactics, saying it has failed to reach out to the isolated societies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and hits out all-too-readily with inflammatory rhetoric of its own.

"'Ethnic cleansing' is an extremely charged phrase and, no, I would not use that language to describe what we are seeing now [in Russia]," the senior EU diplomat stated. "But this being said, I am extremely worried about the atmosphere that is developing in Russia...it is indeed becoming xenophobic."

He added that Georgia could be overplaying its hand in posing questions about the EU's integrity, saying "Many of the values and principles that the EU represents and stands for are clearly being violated, but to go from that to say the whole credibility of EU values is at stake, that is taking things too far."

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