Thursday, October 30, 2008

europe view


Business as usual—no thanks
Oct 30th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Showing Russia a bit of spine now might save Europe serious pain in future


After Georgia, supposedly, everything was different. Europe had woken up to the reality of the ex-KGB regime in Russia, its repression at home, aggression abroad, and use of divide-and-rule tactics in the European Union and NATO. So goodbye to delusion, distraction and division, hello to unity and resolve. In short, no more business as usual.

That seems a long time ago. The mood in the EU is now rather different. Fault in the Georgian war fell on both sides. If Russia overreacted, it was only because Mikheil Saakashvili provoked it. Russia is stricken by the financial crisis now, and therefore not much of a threat. The priority has shifted to keeping the economies of Europe, old and new, afloat. It is no time to be picking fights with the Kremlin, especially over lost causes. So business as usual it is.

Usual or not, the business in question is almost comically irrelevant. At issue is not freezing bank accounts or prosecuting Kremlin cronies for money laundering. It is merely whether to start talks on a new partnership and cooperation agreement (PCA) between the EU and Russia. The Kremlin has already said it doesn’t care much about this. The existing agreement is outdated, but rolls over each year without causing difficulty. The main effect of talks on a new PCA will be a lot more meetings, with lots of chances for “hardliners” (or sensibly hard-headed countries, depending on what you think of them) to block things they don’t like.

All the same, for some such countries, it seems far too soon to be letting the Kremlin off the hook. Suspending the PCA was a pretty meaningless sanction, but it was something to which the EU agreed as a way of enforcing what were at the time judged to be important conditions for peace and justice in Georgia. Russia has met some of its commitments—but not all. Ethnic cleansing in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two separatist enclaves now occupied fully by Russian troops, has been atrocious. Russia has not pulled back its forces to the levels they were at before “8-8-8” (as pro-Georgians have termed August 8th, echoing the use of “9/11” to mark the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001). Mr Saakashvili certainly has his faults—but he is coming under tough pressure at home from domestic challengers. That cannot be said about Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia.

From this point of view, backing down on the PCA will send a dangerous signal to the Kremlin that the EU does not have the willpower to stand up to foreign adventurism.

Countries that think this way are certainly in the minority. Sweden, once hawkish, is softening as its presidency of the EU in 2009 draws near. Britain is wobbly. The Baltic states fear being isolated. The best they can hope for is to insist that the EU also do something more for countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. This idea, which has Czech, Polish and Swedish roots, is dubbed the “Eastern Partnership”. For now, it exists only on paper. Some money and political commitment would beef it up.

Insisting on even these minimum conditions may look like a lost cause. The “business as usual” camp (ie, most big European countries) are growling that being obstinate on these issues infuriates your friends and doesn’t damage your enemies. But history suggests the opposite. Lithuania, for example, fought a hard and lonely battle earlier this year to get the EU to pay more attention to Georgia and other issues that concern Russian bullying. Perhaps it was a bit clumsy, but in retrospect, it looks right and rather brave. Had Europe listened and acted then, it might have avoided a war—and a humiliation.

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