19th Apr 2019

Solana raises prospect of EU soldiers in Georgia

EU peacekeepers could one day be deployed to Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said after meeting Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili in Brussels on Monday (26 February).

"We [the EU] are ready to help Georgia and participate in such an operation, if necessary," Mr Solana said. "Any peacekeeping missions should have precise and achievable goals," he added, in what appears to be a major breakthrough for Tbilisi, which has been pushing for greater EU engagement in the region for at least a year.

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  • Georgia-Russia tensions escalated dangerously last year, but will EU engagement help? (Photo: wikipedia)

Abkhazia and South Ossetia have remained outside Georgian central government control for more than a decade after breaking away in bloody conflicts in the early 1990s. The two de facto states keep close ties with Russia, which has given Russian passports to many of the 300,000 or so people who live there.

The fragile peace - which sees violent border skirmishes on a weekly basis - is currently controlled by Russian peacekeepers. But Georgia accuses the Russian army of giving arms and logistical support to rebels in an attempt to keep the country divided and problematise its planned 2009 NATO entry.

Senior EU diplomats, such as South Caucasus envoy Peter Semneby, have also publicly questioned Russian neutrality in the region. Meanwhile, the UN mandate for the Russian peacekeeping mission expires in the middle of April.

At the same time as giving the green light to EU troops, Mr Solana reiterated EU support for Georgia's "territorial integrity" - a key promise of president Saakashvili's government, which holds a mandate until 2008 and which has already brought the breakaway province of Ajaria back under control.

"There can be no trade-offs at the expense of territorial integrity," Mr Saakashvili said in Brussels, amid speculation Russia will want something in return for lifting its UN veto on Kosovo - a Serbian province undergoing a UN-brokered progress toward independence.

Moscow has frequently compared Kosovo to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian government has also lent rhetorical - if not formal - credibility to pro-independence "referendums" and "presidential elections" in the Georgian breakaway republics held late last year.

"No civilized person in the international community can accept the demands of armed separatists," the Georgian leader said. "If you accept this precedent, you accept that European-type democracy can be replaced by pure cannibalism."

"I think these parallels that have been drawn by some people in the international arena are based sometimes on ignorance and sometimes on the fact they have their own narrow political ends and do not care about true reality on the ground," he added.

The fiery, 39-year old Georgian president was educated in the US and western Europe but swept into power on the wings of the 2003 Rose Revolution - part of a wider movement of so-called "colour revolutions" in former Soviet states, which has since lost momentum in places such as Ukraine, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan.

Soft power game

Mr Saakashvili and Mr Solana also talked about visa facilitation and free trade agreements during the Brussels visit. The projects fall under the EU's "neighbourhood policy" umbrella for bringing Georgia closer to the EU without making any promises on future enlargement.

EU neighbourhood policy in the Black Sea zone has been given new momentum by the accession of Romania and Bulgaria this year, as well as by German EU presidency plans to bring in gas and oil from Central Asia to Europe, bypassing Russia, via the South Caucasus.

Brussels also plans to launch a new foreign ministers' club called the Black Sea Synergy, which will aim - among other things - to create a better climate for conflict resolution by getting Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan round a table on a regular basis.

On top of the high-level political schemes, Mr Solana's deputy, Mr Semneby, has recently been touring the breakaway territories in Georgia to see what kind of micro-projects - such as EU-funded media and education initiatives - could help soothe tensions.

South Ossetia is home to just 70,000 people most of whom live in the region's only town, Tshinkvali, while the rest are scattered in isolated mountain villages. European analysts say greater access to information about the outside world could help soften South Ossetian attitudes toward re-unification.

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