September 11, 2008

Is French President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiating with Don Corleone?

Sarkozy, leading the European Union effort to secure a Russian withdrawal from Georgia, has returned from Moscow with another agreement. This time, Russian troops are to withdraw from the so-called “buffer zone” after the placement of 200 EU monitors in the regions outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

 

For a group of U.S. and European experts on Russia meeting at an Atlantic Council workshop in  Warsaw, this latest development in the Russo-Georgian conflict was an occasion for skepticism and resignation.  The consensus of the group was clear: both South Ossetia and Abkhazia will eventually be absorbed into Russia. Georgia’s sovereignty over its own territory should be sacrosanct – and Georgia should not be prevented from using force on its own homeland, as the Russians demanded. But despite that legal stance, these observers held little hope that the two break-away regions will ever be returned to Georgian control in reality. Nor was there much optimism that the Russian withdrawal would materialize as planned -- either the Russians would delay or the EU would struggle to meet the condition of deploying 200 monitors in time.

Much of this skepticism was rooted in a very critical view of the Russian leadership. When presented with an analysis that compared the Russian ruling circle to the movie “The Godfather,” none of the U.S. or European experts disagreed. They all saw Moscow dominated by competing clans who could be ruthless in trying to hold on to power. Legal agreements could be signed, but the real rules in Moscow are unwritten and designed to ensure that those in control stay on top.

Democracy, at least as we know it in Europe and the United States, is no longer in anyone’s plans. Of course, the Russian business elite is increasingly present throughout Europe and, more recently, the United States, vacationing, buying houses, and making investments. But analysts of the political and military leadership see that group as increasingly willing to risk isolation from the West in order to secure Russia’s dominant role in its region. In some quarters, self-isolation may even be the real aim as a way of preserving power. The Russia of Putin and Medvedev is determined to have an impact in the world, but it is equally determined to have that impact on its own terms, and not according to the rules of the West.

So what of  the latest agreement with Russia? Even if it does not succeed, there are few other options open right now to Europe or the United States. The principle - if not the fact - of Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity must be preserved. If the withdrawal takes place, it will be an unexpected but positive sign. If the agreement fails, it will strengthen the gradual eye-opening in Europe about their large neighbor.

Perhaps next time, Europe will be better prepared to deal with Don Corleone.

Fran Burwell is Vice President and Director of Transatlantic Programs and Studies at the Atlantic Council. 

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