Old Europe vs. New in Georgia talks

Foreign ministers' session to expose differences in how to deal with Russia

Aug. 19, 2008


European foreign ministers will gather at NATO headquarters Tuesday to thrash out the continuing crisis in Georgia and face, within their own elite circle, far different memories and attitudes about an unexpected showdown with Russia.

The efforts last week of high-profile Europeans who took a stand on the conflict, which began Aug. 7, hint at the competing narratives.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, as head of the European Union, worked for much of the week to negotiate a cease-fire agreement that sought to place no blame on either party. The president and prime ministers of Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic countries, all who once bore the full weight of Soviet domination, flew to Georgia's capital of Tbilisi with a more blunt assessment.

"For the first time, our eastern neighbor shows their true face that we have known for hundreds of years," Polish President Lech Kaczynski said at a rally a week ago. "[Russia] thinks other nations should be subordinate to them. We say NO!"

Old Europe and New Europe -- neighbors who have bonded and traversed vast cultural and political barriers since the fall of communism -- now must confront their differences. At the core, there is no deep divide over how they view the emergence of a bolder, more aggressive Russia as a global player.

But along their borders, there are sensitivities. The challenge directly ahead is how an expanded European Union and a more robust NATO -- organizations that have steadily added members since the 1990s -- can define a common diplomatic path and maintain productive, stable relations with a powerful Russia.

Energy, security interests

There are some practical predicaments in their calculations. Russia provides much of so-called Old Europe -- France, Germany and Italy -- with energy. There are also other political realities and alliances to consider. Poland, in particular, has been wooed by the United States for months to provide land and support for a key missile defense system.

Poland quickly cut the deal after last week's conflict flared in Georgia, falling in line with an old and trusted anti-Communist ally.

"There is a split and there is some confusion among these members," said Bernard Dreano, co-chairman of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, a network of citizen groups in the Caucasus and in Eastern Europe. "European unification has never solved one essential problem: the problem of its surroundings.

"France has basically said we want to deal with Russia and we can deal with Russia, power to power. It's an attitude of global balance.

"The Polish position is quite different. They are saying: We want some protection and we want the Americans on our side. They are far away, they can protect us but not control us."

Mary Kaldor, a professor of global governance at the London School of Economics and chairwoman of a study group on human security for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, said the newest members of the European Union and NATO provide some unexpected insight -- and discomfort -- to the others.

"The Eastern Europeans are saying human rights really matter. The French and Germans are also saying that you can't use force. ... The question is, how do you bring both sides together so people can feel secure?"

The missile defense system, much sought by the United States and deeply resented by Russia, had the potential to fray even the once-dependable Eastern Europe alliances. Public support and opinions of U.S. policy, particularly as the war in Iraq grinds on, have fallen in Europe. Both the Czech Republic, which agreed to a radar installation, and Poland were initially wary of cooperating with the U.S.-enhanced defense system and did so in the face of some public ire and ambivalence.

The U.S. always maintained that the missile shield was meant to be a buffer against countries like Iran, not Russia.

Poland takes notice

The advance of Russian troops into Georgia apparently quickly whittled away Poland's fears -- and helped the Bush administration sweeten its offer of military aid to Poland. A permanent Patriot missile garrison will now be located in Poland, and the U.S.-Poland agreement outlines "mutual security" between the two nations, a signal, analysts in Poland said, of a far deeper commitment to military cooperation.

Reaction to the deal in Poland -- perhaps to no one's surprise given the circumstances of the past week -- has been overwhelmingly positive. According to a poll in the daily Rzeczpospolita, 58 percent of Poles support the missile defense plan, almost double the 30 percent approval found in a March 2007 survey.

A day after the deal was clinched, a top Russian general warned that Poland was exposing itself to attack -- including a nuclear strike. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the remark "empty rhetoric."

But Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski told a Polish newspaper in a report published Monday that such Russian talk "is a problem for all of NATO, and I expect the alliance will take a stand on this."

Issue of monitoring

There will also be discussion over how or when an international monitoring mission can enter the region. Support for Georgia -- which hopes to join the Western military alliance -- will be on the agenda, as well as a plan to help rebuild infrastructure that Georgia lost in its fight with the far more capable Russian military.

Aleksander Smolar, a foreign policy expert at the Batory Foundation in Warsaw and the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, said the NATO discussion is only the beginning of a tense era in Russian relations.

Georgia and Ukraine were on schedule to be considered for the NATO membership process this year, but Smolar said such promises -- reiterated Monday by German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- may be deferred.

"Pragmatically, the situation is much more complicated," Smolar said. "Continued condemnation of Russia quite obviously is insufficient. But what comes next is now in front of everybody."