The Fight for South Ossetia Caucasus Violence Took Europe By Surprise

European diplomats have been trying to maintain peace in Georgia with financial incentives and promises of partnership. But now that bombs have started to fall, no one in Brussels, Berlin or Paris quite knows what to do.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, the mood in Brussels was still positive: The crisis in the Caucasus appeared to be under control.

For days Georgian troops and fighters in South Ossetia had been exchanging fire. And on Thursday morning, Russia -- which backs the Ossetians and is present in the region with a 1,000-man "peacekeeping" force -- openly warned that Georgia was preparing to wage war.

But when chief European Union diplomat Javier Solana telephoned with Mikhail Saakashvili on Thursday afternoon, the Georgian president sought to calm him down, saying he had just called a unilateral cease-fire. And, Saakashvili reportedly said, of course he shared Solana's opinion that every possible step to stop the violence should be taken, and that the problem could only be solved at the negotiating table.

Of course.

A few hours later, though, heavy fighting broke out. Bombs fell on civilians. A Georgian general spoke of "retaking" South Ossetia. The developments caught Europe by surprise.

Helplessly, Solana said the European Commission and the French government -- which is currently the rotating president of the 27-member club -- were "deeply concerned." German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier didn't miss the chance to call the Georgian president from his vacation spot in the Alps around noon on Friday to express his "concern." Just days earlier, Steinmeier had visited Saakashvili, who had given him assurances of his desire for peace. Of course, NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer didn't want to be missing from the list of senior European officials expressing their "serious concern," either.

But the truth is that in Brussels -- both at the European Union and NATO headquarters -- leading personalities are concerned because no one actually knows what's going on. How did the shooting start? Who escalated it? With what intention? There's been a clueless shrugging of shoulders.

For some time now, relations between the EU, NATO and Georgia have been steadily deepening. As the gateway to the Central Asian oil and gas fields, the former Soviet nation has huge strategic importance to Europe. Planned pipelines will pass through Georgia to help reduce Europe's energy dependence on Russia.

The EU has pumped more than €500 million ($754 million) into aid and development programs in the country. And European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner of Austria has sought to integrate Georgia as a central part of the EU's "circle of friends" program, which aims to ensure the region of countries in Europe's backyard are both relatively prosperous and politically stable. The last time the Brussels emissary visited with Georgian Prime Minister Vladimir Gurgenidze, the politician defined his country's political course by saying: "We want free trade with you, simplified visa procedures and EU membership."

But overnight, it appears, the country has fundamentally shifted course.

Georgia may want to improve its strategic position ahead of the coming peace negotiations, and take back a bridge or a hill here or there. Or else the South Ossetians saw their chances of independence slipping away after Russia signalled that it might wash its hands of the whole problem. According to this theory, the South Ossetians have decided to reach for their weapons and heat up the war. But there may be some truth to a story by a journalist who knows the region well that the new conflict is nothing but a flare-up of "seasonal" violence.

NATO was also surprised by the fighting. Until very recently (from July 5 to 30), around 1,000 American soldiers were on maneuver in the region with the Fourth Infantry Brigade of the Georgian army in a training mission called "Immediate Response 08." The goal was to train Georgians for a stint in Afghanistan, where Tbilisi is soon set to send 400 soldiers.

For now, the EU and NATO have to restrict their responses to lofty rhetoric in diplomatic communiqués, because both bodies are deeply divided on Georgia. Within NATO, Germany and other Western European countries are holding back to avoid straining relations with Moscow. The situation in the EU is similar: Newer members in eastern Europe would like to see Georgia join up, but the old guard of the EU has been stubborn. When Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet recently called for the deployment of European peacekeeping troops at the start of new hostilities in South Ossetia, EU administrators in Brussels seemed to collectively wince. A mission would only be conceivable, they said, if all parties in the conflict -- Russians, Georgians, and Ossetians -- welcomed the Europeans and put down their guns. Those conditions, for now, look all but impossible to fulfil.


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