Europe, Headlines | Analysis

EUROPE: Divisions Rise Over Ex-Soviet Countries

Analysis by David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Sep 8 2008 (IPS) - Few, if any, regions present a greater challenge for the European Union's foreign policy than the former Soviet Union.

Despite a history of differing approaches between the EU's 27 countries towards Moscow, the Union succeeded in projecting a unified image at an 'emergency' summit held to discuss Russia's conflict with Georgia over the past week. All of the bloc's heads of state and government agreed to suspend talks on deepening ties with Russia until its troops are withdrawn from areas they occupied on Georgian territory during August.

As Antonio Missiroli from the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think-tank, noted, the consensus achieved at the summit "was certainly not a foregone conclusion, in the light of the diversity of statements and reactions coming from European capitals in the preceding days." Whereas Italy, Germany and Greece had been wary of appearing antagonistic towards Russia, Britain, the Baltic states and Poland had been intimating that they favoured a tougher line.

Since the summit concluded, however, a less unified position has developed on relations with Russia's neighbour Ukraine.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who leads the EU's rotating presidency, leads the Union's delegation at a formal meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yushchenko in Paris Sep. 9.

There, the EU side is likely to offer to conclude an 'association agreement' with Ukraine that could mark a considerably narrower strengthening of relations than many of Yushchenko's political allies covet. While key figures behind the 'Orange Revolution' that led to Yushchenko eventually winning the presidency in 2005 (following a stand-off with a pro-Moscow rival) have been advocating that Ukraine should be allowed full membership of the EU, it is likely that the Union will keep Ukraine at arm's length for the foreseeable future.

A draft declaration prepared by Brussels-based diplomats ahead of the EU-Ukraine summit says that an association agreement would leave open the possibility of further developments in the relationship between the two sides. A similarly non-committal formula was used back in 1963, when the then European Community was assessing its contractual ties with Turkey. Since then the Turks have joined a customs union with the EU and have opened talks aimed at ensuring Turkey's eventual entry to the Union. Yet, because the prospect of Turkish membership is deeply unpopular in such countries as France and Austria, it continues to appear distant.

In one camp, Poland, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Britain, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are broadly positive towards embracing Ukraine. In the other, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Austria are reluctant to do so. One particularly sensitive issue is migration. Although Ukraine is seeking new rules that would make it easier for its citizens to obtain visas in order to travel to the EU, the Benelux countries and Spain are fearful that this could lead to them receiving higher numbers of Ukrainian workers.

Both Georgia and Ukraine are seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a military alliance set up in the aftermath of the Second World War. For most of its existence NATO has been hostile to Russia, and while the two sides have more recently joined together in a so-called Partnership for Peace, their ties have been to a large extent frozen as a result of the current conflict in Georgia.

While many European members of NATO have been supportive of Georgia and Ukraine's attempts to join, France and Germany opposed them at a meeting of the alliance's leaders in Bucharest earlier this year.

Dick Cheney, the U.S. vice-president, spoke in favour of the NATO membership bid when he visited both Georgia and Ukraine in recent days. In response, Russia's foreign ministry accused him of encouraging Georgia's "dangerous ambitions." The conflict in Georgia was sparked by a military onslaught authorised by Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili against the breakaway province of South Ossetia Aug. 7.

Elena Prokhorova, an analyst specialising in EU-Russia relations, said that the conflict in Georgia underscores the need for fresh thinking about how the continent's security can be handled. Even though there has been an upsurge in anti-western rhetoric in Moscow, the country's President Dmitry Medvedev has previously implied that he would be willing to explore the potential of his country signing up to a pan-European security structure.

"Europe should wake up to the fact that its relations with the big eastern neighbour are unlikely to be normal unless Russia's security fears, as paranoid as they may seem, are seriously addressed," said Prokhorova. "Ideally, either NATO should cease to exist as a military alliance, or Russia should join it."

Michael Emerson, a former EU ambassador to Moscow who now works for the Centre for European Studies in Brussels, said that while Russia may convey the impression that it would be able to cripple the Union's economy by refusing to supply it with oil and gas, the reality is that Russia could not survive without export earnings from the west.

"In the end, Russia and Russians will have to decide where and what they want to be in Europe and the world," he added. "The present leadership seems satisfied with its macho foreign policy but is on track for branding itself in the eyes of the west as a duplicitous bully and semi-pariah state. There can be no illusions about an easy or early change."

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