Thursday

1st Oct 2020

EU ministers map out Georgia peace mission

  • The 14th century palace complex will host the EU meeting (Photo: Wikipedia)

The final shape of an EU security mission to Georgia and broader EU-Russia relations will top the agenda of an EU foreign ministers' meeting in France this weekend. The possibility of relaxing sanctions against Belarus and prospects for a new Ukraine treaty will also come up for debate.

The EU is keen to send over 200 personnel to Georgia under its European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) umbrella and has already begun recruiting for a chief of staff, political advisers and logistics officers.

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"The participants must have negotiating skills and the ability to work professionally in a stressful and diverse environment," the job advertisement says, asking for availability on "15 September 2008 at the latest," with deployment on the ground envisaged before 15 October.

It remains uncertain if the unit will be composed of EU-badged policemen or soldiers however, if it will stand alongside OSCE monitors or be part of an OSCE-led team and if it will have access to the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Shooting stopped on 12 August between Russian and Georgian forces.

But a ceasefire deal allowing Russia to take "additional security measures" has left Russian soldiers inside the two rebel regions, in control of two 15 km "buffer zones" inside Georgia proper and manning security checkpoints near the Georgian towns of Gori and Poti.

The status quo also sees tens of thousands of Georgian refugees unable to return home, amid ongoing tension as Russia accuses the US of re-arming the Georgian military.

Russian reality

One EU official told Reuters EU peacekeepers should deploy alongside OSCE monitors and Russian soldiers inside the buffer zones, in a mission that will "evolve over time" to creep into the separatist regions and encourage Russian soldiers to leave.

But another source told EUobserver the EU mission will not have the military force to guarantee security in a hot conflict zone. "It will not be that kind of a mission. And the OSCE could never stop a new outbreak in fighting. The reality is, the Russians could be there for a long time yet."

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has said Russia would welcome the EU as part of an OSCE team in the buffer areas. But he added that Russian soldiers will stay for now and that only Abkhazia and South Ossetia - which Russia recognises as independent states - have the authority to invite international monitors onto their territory.

The EU foreign ministers meeting in the medieval papal palace in Avignon, France on Friday (5 September) will also discuss future EU commercial, judicial, energy and cultural co-operation with Russia ahead of the EU-Russia summit on 14 November.

The EU reaction has so far has been limited to freezing technical-level talks on a new EU-Russia treaty. But a European Commission "crisis team" has drawn up a secret list of potential punitive measures that could be imposed if relations continue to deteriorate.

"The problem is that we have no sanctions that can really hurt Russia," a commission contact said. "So long as Moscow has its hand on the [EU oil and gas] tap, what kind of sanctions can we impose?"

The Belarus question

The Avignon meeting will also examine if the EU should relax sanctions against Belarus, which last month released three political prisoners and promises to hold its free and fairest-ever parliamentary elections on 28 September.

EU diplomats say the one-time Russian ally is keen to improve ties with the West to shore up its independence after Russia showed expansionist tendencies in the Georgia campaign.

But even Belarus' closest partners in the EU - Lithuania and Latvia - are treating Minsk with caution. "There is still a lot of work to be done there in terms of developing a democratic society," one Lithuanian diplomat said. "There will be no quick [sanctions] fix."

Saving Ukraine

Foreign ministers will also debate the upcoming EU-Ukraine summit in Evian, France on 9 September, in the shadow of political turbulence in Kiev, where the pro-Western ruling coalition fell apart this week.

The Evian summit had been due to see the signing of the political chapter of a new "Association Agreement" and the launch of talks for future visa-free travel to Europe.

But Germany has blocked the insertion of a phrase saying the EU "recognizes" Ukraine's accession "perspective" in the treaty preamble, with Ukraine saying it will not sign a watered-down text.

Opinion

After Georgia: is Ukraine next?

The EU should give Ukraine rhetorical support for future membership, better travel prospects and new security guarantees in the light of Russia's conflict with Georgia, Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations says.

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