EU versus Russia: Lessons in Victory Classics. A View from Tbilisi

25 september 2013

Tedo Dzhaparidze - Chairman, Foreign Relations Committee of Georgian Parliament, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, a former Secretary of the National Security Council of Georgia.

Resume: Given decades of East-West encounters, the latest EU-Russia diplomatic row is “just another classic.” Nearing November’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, it will be the match to watch. Question: what happens in December?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of any other organization or government.

Given decades of East-West encounters, the latest EU-Russia diplomatic row is “just another classic.” Nearing November’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, it will be the match to watch. Question: what happens in December?

From Kiev to Tbilisi, a mutually exclusive decision “for Europe” (Association Agreement, AA) or “for Russia” (Customs Union, CU) must be made. Like accountants, states will choose, calculating “opportunity cost,” income and expenditure. The EU engages states economically and politically and the “accountant” factors in income: “more-for-more.” Russia presents liabilities: “more-or-else.” In European terminology, this is a clash of “positive” versus “negative” conditionality. Calling spade a spade, Europe offers an Eastern “Partnership”, a “Neighborhood” Policy, and prospects of “Enlargement,” however remote; Russia matches that with a “Near Abroad”. 

However, assuming “negative conditionality” prevails in some cases, are Russian interests served?

Make no mistake: Russia’s leverage is clear. Armenia signed onto a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement in July, but U-turned in September opting for the CU. Georgia disagrees but empathizes with this decision. True, Europe is Yerevan’s leading trade partner, but there is a “greater security agenda.” Moldova remains committed to an AA. But, Chisinau suffers an embargo on wine and spirits, people might be “left out in the cold,” and the impact of Vilnius on Tiraspol must be factored in. The decisive battle is Ukraine, where trade counter-measures kicked in and, again, energy threats linger. None of this is unprecedented. Question: come December, is public opinion in Yerevan, Chisinau and Kiev going to be more pro-Russian?

When negative conditionality is pushed too far, you have a “Georgia situation”. Since 2008, Moscow recognized its breakaway territories. For those entities, there is no Russia and the international context; Russia is the context. Meanwhile, installing fences at the village of Ditsi mainly undermines those in Tbilisi (and maybe in Moscow as well) laboring for step-by-step confidence-building. Blocking Georgian goods from the Russian market for so many years means that trade countermeasures cannot achieve much today. Going down this road, again, undermines those in Tbilisi (and, again, possibly in Moscow) working for the little progress that has been made in our bilateral relations. Hence, for Georgia, the ships have been burned and we are “Go Vilnius.” The moral of this story is that power is in its use.

Purposeless power is a luxury no one can forever afford. At best, Moscow’s substantial material and diplomatic capital is spent on “denial of space” for Europe in the Near Abroad. Of course, the paradox is that the EU is Moscow’s biggest trading partner, source of FDI and at least “an answer” to an ever-present, pressing and unanswered question: if Russia is to make a qualitative leap as an economy, who is the obvious partner?

No doubt, Russia has its own answers. The puzzle for Georgia is why Moscow exterminates, one-by-one, its “positive conditionality” instruments:

  • Markets are global and products will be traded, so why push away Russia’s approximately 150 million consumer’s clout?
  • People will emigrate and Russia has a demographic problem, so why make hostages of those live chains holding us together?
  • Energy is needed and demand meets supply, be it in the form of LNG or Shale. Why fiddle with customers?
  • Non-state entities are a material liability, so why delay investment in a resolution?
  •  The region is volatile, so why not cooperate to address real security concerns, of the type that harm Russian citizens?   

Power is in its use. Derailing Vilnius may be emotionally gratifying. In December, while preparing for the next “classic encounter” with Europe, perhaps, Russia must think through the use of its undeniable power. Is derailing Europe self-defeating?

So, here’s a lesson on the classics of “victory.” Pyros conquered Rome, but did not have the resources to keep it. He returned home, hence “pyric victories.” In contrast, Alexander died young, but the Kalas people in Afghanistan still pray to ancient Greek deities. That was so “Great” about him.

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