Europe Gets Started On Quelling a Crisis

By Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France. This column is published today in the French newspaper Le Figaro (THE WASHINGTON POST, 18/08/08):

The time will come when the sequence of events and responsibilities can be established in an indisputable and impartial manner: several weeks of provocations and skirmishes along the lines separating South Ossetia from the rest of Georgia; the thoughtless Georgian military intervention in South Ossetia the night of Aug. 7-8; the brutal and disproportionate response of Russian troops, driving the small Georgian army from South Ossetia and dislodging it from Abkhazia — the other separatist province, where it had regained a foothold in 2006 — before occupying part of the rest of Georgian territory.

As the world was confronted with this outburst of violence, there were more urgent matters. As soon as hostilities broke out, France and Europe engaged in a full-fledged diplomatic effort. The first priority was to obtain a cease-fire, end the suffering of populations and stop the destruction. For that, conditions had to be created ensuring that both the Russians and Georgians would accept the cease-fire. Against the advice of many, who assured us we would fail, I and my foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, traveled to Moscow and Tbilisi on Aug. 12, armed with proposals to convince the Russians that it was past time for them to lay down their weapons and to convince the Georgians that they had still more to lose by continuing to fight. My long conversations with Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin during the day and with Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi during the night finally made it possible to gain the two parties’ agreement to a six-point plan to end the crisis.

This plan did not solve everything. It did not aim to. But it did get the parties to agree to the cease-fire. The signatures of Presidents Medvedev and Saakashvili, and myself, on behalf of the European Union, allow the withdrawal of Russian forces to the positions they had held before hostilities broke out, in line with the assurances I was given by President Medvedev.

This withdrawal has to be carried out without delay. For me, this point is not negotiable. It must extend to all Russian forces that have entered into Georgia since Aug. 7. If this clause of the cease-fire agreement is not abided by rapidly and completely, I will be prompted to convene an extraordinary meeting of the European Council to decide about the consequences that should follow.

Beyond the withdrawal, much remains to be done to stabilize the situation in a lasting manner. A U.N. Security Council resolution will have to consolidate these first achievements by giving them universal legal force. International arrangements must be established to separate the parties and to verify that they are fulfilling their commitments. The international community must rally to the aid of displaced persons and refugees and help Georgia recover from the destruction. We must also determine whether Russia’s intervention was a one-time, brutal — and excessive — response, or whether it is ushering in a new hardening of Moscow’s line toward its neighbors and toward the international community, which would inevitably have consequences for its relationship with the European Union. Russia must realize that it will be all the more heeded and respected as it makes a responsible, constructive contribution to resolving the problems of our time.

But there are lessons we can draw from this crisis. First, the European Union rose to the occasion. At the behest of the French presidency, Europe put itself on the front lines from the outset of hostilities to resolve this conflict — the third on European soil since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Throughout the first phase of this latest crisis, Europe’s commitment was decisive: It was the European Union, through France, that created a space for diplomacy by quickly proposing reasonable terms for a cease-fire and rendering the political cost of pursuing war exorbitant for both parties. If our efforts finally paid off, it is because Europe — despite a few differences in tone — did not limit itself to condemnation. By choosing action and negotiation over rhetoric and mere denunciation, Europe was able to reestablish a positive balance of strength with Russia and to be heard by that country. When the house is burning, the priority is to put out the fire. Europe can be proud of this success, which proves that it can do a lot when it is motivated by a strong political will.

Second, it is notable that had the Lisbon Treaty, which is in the process of being ratified, already been in force, the European Union would have had the institutions it needs to cope with international crises: a stable president of the European Council acting in close cooperation with the heads of state and government of the most concerned states, as well as a high representative endowed with a real European diplomatic service and considerable financial means in order to put decisions into force in coordination with member states.

I remain convinced that the first mission of the European Union is to protect Europeans. This is exactly what we have been doing in sparing no efforts to calm this new conflict, the consequences of which could be catastrophic were it to prove a sign of a new Cold War.