16. Okt. 2008
Chronicle or a predicted disaster
On the Georgian Military Highway.
Will Russia march out of Europe?
I flew to Strasbourg last Wednesday and found myself at what seemed to be a Requiem Mass. At least that was the impression I had. The burial service of Russia as a member of the Council of Europe was being conducted. A vote on whether to withdraw Russia’s voting rights because of the Georgian military episode had just taken place. It was decided to avoid using that exceptional and excluding measure, but the situation itself couldn’t be ignored. Moreover, the next day it was to be discussed in depth. The debate was called the «Consequences of the war between Georgia and Russia». Few of the proposals made by the different committees were adopted; however the draft resolution contained the following paragraph:
«Full implementation of the peace plan, including withdrawal of the Russian troops to positions ex ante the conflict, is essential. In addition, full deployment of EU and OSCE monitors into South Ossetia and withdrawal by Russia of the recognition of independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, would be minimum conditions for a meaningful dialogue.» The draft resolution states that if these conditions are not fulfilled Russia should have its voting rights suspended at the next Parliamentary Assembly session in January. Automatically!
Can you imagine the latter condition (withdrawal of recognition) being fulfilled? I have yet to come across such out-and-out dreamers, in particular among the Russian participants of the process, well acquainted with the current White House – Kremlin climate. It is much easier to imagine the reaction to the resolution in those particular places: a banged fist to be followed by a stamped foot, and a conspicuous withdrawal from the Council of Europe. This would all happen quickly, without Russia waiting until January to be disgraced.
The scenario of a predicted disaster seemed compelling. Fortunately it did not come to pass. The paragraph which dangled the prospect of impending retribution over Russia’s head was initially toned down, and then got out of harm’s way altogether and completely ditched. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief.
The collective wisdom of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe meant that a dangerous situation was avoided. This, however, in no way negates the harsh criticism levelled against Russia, neither, I would say, the bitterness and pessimism that characterised the debate. Will reason prevail in fiery Russian minds so that Europe’s reaction can be soberly evaluated?
I asked several of this session’s key figures to talk to 'Novaya Gazeta'. Allow me to introduce my interviewees.
The Swiss Andreas Gross chairs the Socialist Group in the Parliamentary Assembly. His report set the tone in the debate as to whether or not to deprive the Russian delegation of the right to vote in the Assembly. The Belgian Luc Van den Brande chairs the largest political group; the European People’s Party and was co-rapporteur on the «Consequences of the war between Georgia and Russia» report. The Hungarian Màtyàs Eörsi chairs the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, and was co-rapporteur on the «Consequences of the war between Georgia and Russia» report (with Van den Brande).
«Both sides made huge mistakes. Russia was unable to explain its actions during the conflict in an even semi-convincing way. You really need to understand how people are likely to react. People’s wounds from the past run very deep. They thought that the USSR was back. Maybe that was just an impression, but that is how they felt. People instinctively support the weak underling against the powerful superior. Russia obviously underestimated this sentiment.
I know who started it, but responsibility doesn’t lie only on one side. Many people in Eastern Europe don’t trust Russia. Maybe this is somewhat blinkered. However it is not the fault, but rather the misfortune of people that they have that experience and those memories. Their reaction is rather puerile. They behave like supporters at a football match; the most important thing for them is to know who they are rooting for and then they cheer on their team and boo the other players. The same is true for politics; it’s also a legacy of a bygone era. This too is something which should be borne in mind.
Russia’s justifications make reference to the Americans. They are a bad example. In recent years the Americans have indeed behaved as if they believed that since they were the only superpower in the world, they could do whatever they wanted. But they got their fingers burnt. Why should Russia make the same mistake? Instilling either fear or respect is an unacceptable alternative. Why should you make the same mistakes as others? Don’t compete with the US in terms of imperialism, that’s out-dated politics. It is better to compete with Europe in overcoming imperialism. That’s what politics today is really all about.
Russia should do something to dissuade the sceptics in Europe. For example, settle the Transdniestr problem over the next few weeks … Or ratify Protocol No.14, which Russia is sabotaging, thereby putting a spoke in the wheel of the work of the European Court … Or use its clout to defuse the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict … Why shouldn’t Russia put forward a viable broad initiative to conclude a Caucasus agreement like the OSCE, with Turkey, the European Union and the US on board? Georgia could have neutral country status (like Austria) in the agreement, and that would alleviate your current concerns about NATO. Incidentally, the initiator and guarantor of Austrian neutrality was the USSR …»
Van den Brande:
«This is the first time that an actual war has broken out between two member states of the Council of Europe. Let’s call a spade a spade. This was not a conflict. This was a war. When they joined the Council of Europe both states undertook to solve any dispute through exclusively peaceful means and to refrain from the use of force. However regrettable it may be, both states violated this fundamental commitment. On the 7 August Georgian troops attacked Tskhinvali. There is no doubt about this. Yet there is also no doubt about the fact that it all started long before that.
What happened before that is important. As is what happened afterwards. The military damage, the large-scale looting, the villages that became ghost towns … Incidentally the arson attacks on Georgian villages actually started after the military operations had come to an end … When the peacekeepers turned away so as not to see what was happening behind their backs, it did not take away responsibility for what happened. By the same token one cannot fail to see the unilateral recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as a violation of international law.
The sides are now taking diametrically opposed approaches to everything; to their analysis, perception and presentation of the facts. Democracy is fundamentally the ability to look at oneself through other people’s eyes. However there’s not the slightest degree of openness here. It is a dead-end position. We still have much to think about, investigate and act upon.»
«The discussion has shown that an alliance really has been formed in the Parliamentary Assembly. It is not, however, an anti-Russian alliance. It is one which lays certain values to one side and states openly what we consider to be wrong. The war, with its dramatic consequences, was not our choice. Nevertheless, it would be regrettable to exclude the countries which bore responsibility for how events developed, that is not our decision.
I went on various fact-finding missions as soon as the conflict broke out. Of course spending two days in one country and two days in another is not enough. There needs to be a proper investigation. Moreover this needs to be a step-by-step, two or even three stage investigation. What happened before the 7 August? The peacekeeping failed, that is obvious, given the atrocities committed when war broke out. Russia either did not want to or could not prevent things from developing as they did … If the war did break out on 7 August then clearly the Georgians started it. It did not, however, break out on 7 August … And the third stage; after the Russian troops withdrew. Their responsibility as the occupying side ... Even if people in Moscow believe that Saakashvili is a bad person; that in no way justifies the military operations and political moves that were made.
When it recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Moscow made reference to the precedent of Kosovo. Nonsense! As regards the recognition of Kosovo, Moscow stated unequivocally and on numerous occasions that it was a violation of international law as well as politically perilous in terms of its ramifications, and thus completely unacceptable. What on earth has changed? What about principles here? These two situations have one fundamental difference, but of another kind. The recognition of Kosovo was neither instantaneous nor unilateral; it was part of a UN process. What is extremely significant is that no country, having recognised Kosovo, extended its territory as a result of that recognition. As far as the situation with Russia is concerned, it looks a whole lot worse.
The Parliamentary Assembly debate saw many different opinions expressed, because we are many in number and all of us have our different experiences. For example, Estonia was a part of the Soviet Union, whereas Poland was not a part of it, but was a satellite state. For both countries these were bad experiences evoking difficult memories. Ultimately European countries have different experiences of war itself. Some remember life under occupation, and others don’t know what that means. When, for example, a Swiss man gives advice to Georgians as to how to avoid occupation it can be taken in different ways. I would say “what’s the point of giving advice here – transfer the bank accounts of senior Russian civil servants from Swiss banks to a Tbilisi bank, and nothing will be able to threaten Tbilisi …We are probably influenced by our prejudices here; however our knowledge nonetheless prevails.»