02.12. 2008 The dangers of 'business as usual' with Russia

EUOBSERVER / COMMENT - With EU-Russia talks now resuming, it appears that the European Union's Council and the European Commission are not willing or prepared to draw long term conclusions from Russia's large-scale use of military force against a sovereign neighbouring state.

As EU high representative Javier Solana declared: "Although we are at a critical juncture with Russia, there is no alternative to a strong relationship. We need Russia as much as Russia needs the EU and that is why contacts are ongoing."

At the same time, Russia's military invasion and occupation of large parts of Georgia presents a conscious challenge to the fundamental principles upon which international relations and security have been based. This challenge has apparently not been addressed by the EU leading institutions with all seriousness.

While the EU, led by the French presidency, should be commended for its rapid reaction to the Georgian crisis and its effective mediation of ending the hostilities, Europe's current position looks alarmingly ambivalent.

The crucial point is that the EU's approach to the aftermath of the invasion of Georgia has not been credibly balanced between what Javier Solana called the rational and the principle component.

With values and principles left at the level of declarations and their full implementation referred to future conferences, the rational arguments exercise heavy pressure on the practical level of interdependence. This means that while EU leaders declare there is no business as usual, in reality business as usual continues because "there is no alternative".

The Nice summit confirmed the latter approach. While President Sarkozy thanked the Russian counterpart for his willingness to participate and advanced the need for further consolidation and unity, President Dmitri Medvedev pointed out that there was, in fact, no reason at all for suspension of talks as "Russia has never taken unilateral decisions." All had just been "reaction to the steps taken by certain European countries."

And while the EU Presidency declared his commitment to the Georgian territorial integrity, Mr Medvedev offered a truly Orwellian answer: "Russia recognises absolutely the territorial integrity of Georgia, taking into consideration South Ossetia and Abkhazia as subjects of international law".

Russian nationalism

Looking aside from these blatant moral and political contradictions will be a risky and short-sighted policy by which the EU will deprive itself of respect as a serious and independent actor in international affairs - an ambition the EU has officially proclaimed.

Furthermore, EU hesitancy to set clear limits to such a pre-planned violation of the norms of international conduct will in all likelihood encourage future assertiveness of revanchist Russian nationalism.

There remains a basic question to be answered: What is the reason to assume that both strategic partners are sharing the same goals, not to speak of the same values?

In his memoirs, former external relations commissioner Chris Patten speaks of a fundamental difference - while Europe wants stable, well-off neighbours, Russia does not.

Mr Patten writes: "Russia wants weak neighbours and a sphere of influence inhabited by dependent supplicants". Since August 2008, the latter approach is being demonstrated not just by declarations and diplomacy but by military actions.

The effect of the EU's feebleness in handling Russia is as bad for Russia as it is for us.

In the last century, the Western democracies' desperate attempts to cling to the continuation of a strong relationship with Adolf Hitler failed. Indeed, the paradigm of international security is not the same after 8 August, 2008. The longer the formally united but internally disunited Europe hesitates to demonstrate that the unilateral change of this paradigm will have serious consequences, the higher the price to be paid for continuing business as usual.

There is still a chance to avoid paying this price. Chris Patten points out that the arrival in the EU of "former Soviet satrapies ... firmed up our policy. An ounce of their experience was worth several tonnes of humbug from Paris, London, Berlin and Rome."

In the new situation, taking use of this resource is more expedient than ever.

Tunne Kelam is an Estonian MEP and member of the EU-Russia parliamentary co-operation committee.