For the second time in the space of one week, the Kremlin has embarrassed an unsuspecting European Union by holding parallel meetings on the settlement of frozen conflicts. While EU leaders came through the front door, Russian-installed secessionist leaders entered through the back door. The EU’s Luxemburg Chairmanship and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner were placed in that situation on April 1, apparently realizing it only after the fact (see EDM, April 5).
The EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, joined — or was trapped — on April 5 in an unbecoming procession of callers to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vacation residence in Sochi. Putin effusively received Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka was there on April 4; Tajikistan President Imomali Rakhmonov, on April 6. Between those two visits, Putin received Solana on April 5 in the morning, in a revolving-door sequence with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian secessionist leaders whom Putin received that same day in the afternoon.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had publicly declined Putin’s invitation to join that parade of callers to Sochi, which Saakashvili compared with the ritual maintained by Soviet Communist Party General Secretaries at that same Sochi residence (see EDM, April 5). For their part, secessionist leaders Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoiti had met on April 2 in Sukhumi and arrived from there to Sochi, possibly blindsiding Solana with Putin’s connivance. In the televised scene of Solana’s arrival, Putin asked for clarification of the visitor’s currently valid official title. “Just call me Javier,” was Solana’s answer (RTR Russia TV, April 5).
While Solana was meeting with Putin in the morning, Bagapsh and Kokoiti next door were “focusing on military and security issues, including ways of cooperating in the face of an external military threat.” In the afternoon it was their turn to see Putin, with whom they “discussed settlement of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as socio-economic support for Russian Federation citizens residing there” (Apsnypress, April 6). Two days later, Bagapsh confirmed the plan to host a “summit” of the Abkhaz, South Ossetian, and Transnistria “presidents” on April 22 in Sukhumi (Interfax, April 7) — an intention first announced at the secessionist leaders’ April 3-4 meeting in Moscow.
As Georgia’s State Minister for Conflict Settlement, Giorgi Khaindrava, commented, “We have repeatedly seen that Russia, on the one hand, claims to support Georgia’s territorial integrity and even pledges its friendship to Georgia, but, on the other hand, it supports separatist movements in all possible ways. The only novelty is that this is now done at the highest, presidential level.” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 7).
Solana’s visit aimed to prepare the EU-Russia summit, scheduled for May 10 in Moscow. His discussions with Putin focused on the novel concept of a EU-Russia “common space of external security”; and, within that, on resolution of “frozen conflicts” (Itar-Tass, April 5).
As is usually the case when the EU and Russia discuss among themselves the problems of “grey-zone” countries, the Russian media amply covered the Putin-Solana meeting from Moscow’s official angle, while Brussels failed to provide factual information on the EU’s position to international media. Thus, the available information on such meetings carries the Kremlin’s spin, or must be deduced from the subtext of Russian handouts. An information blackout in Brussels is not only ironic within a free political system, but tends to generate uncertainty and insecurity in countries that form an object of EU-Russia bilateral discussions. It also prevents the EU from using one of its most effective policy instruments — namely, democratization — in the specific context of resolving “frozen conflicts.” Apparently, Solana failed to speak with Putin about the democracy dimension to post-Soviet conflict resolution.
Moldova/Transnistria rated most references in Russian official media reporting on the Putin-Solana meeting. The Russian side knows that the EU (and Western diplomacy generally) regards the Transnistria conflict as simpler to resolve, compared to the other post-Soviet conflicts. This perception is undoubtedly correct and has periodically inspired a push for quick-fix “resolution,” sacrificing long-term interests and values to short-term politics, e.g., rescuing a moribund OSCE, or vindicating an otherwise elusive security partnership with Russia, or experimenting with some “common space.” That periodic push has, as a rule, been driven by summit deadlines. The EU-Russia summit on May 10 is, again, such a deadline.
In their meetings with EU officials in recent days, Russian officials called for resolving the Transnistria conflict on the basis of the Kremlin’s Kozak Memorandum on Moldova’s “federalization.” So did Putin in the meeting with Solana in Sochi. For his part, “Solana highly appreciated a number of provisions in the Kozak Memorandum,” according to Putin’s special envoy for relations with the EU, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who briefed the media in Sochi (Interfax, April 5). A week later, Solana has yet to react to the words attributed to him.