The European Union's attempt at mediation in the spiraling conflict between Russia and Georgia is currently the bloc's only realistic option, according to EU-Russia experts who spoke to DW-WORLD.DE.
The EU's Kouchner (center) and Stubb (right) flew to Tbilisi to meet with Saakashvili (left)
As Russian bombs fell on the outskirts of Tbilisi, European diplomats were desperately working to implement a peace plan to end the conflict which has spread from South Ossetia to the breakaway region of Abkhazia.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner arrived in Georgia on Sunday, Aug. 10, accompanied by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) head and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, to present Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili with the EU's plan aimed at defusing the spiraling conflict with Russia.
After talks with the Georgian president, Kouchner said Saakashvili had accepted "almost all the proposals" put forward by the EU, which include an immediate ceasefire, medical access to victims, controlled withdrawals of troops on both sides and eventual political talks.
Kouchner was expected to fly on to Moscow Monday for crisis talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, followed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday in his capacity as current president of the European Union.
Most experts said the EU is doing all it can to secure a peace deal under the current circumstances and its relations with the warring parties.
Knock-on effects impede EU action
Celine Francis, Georgian specialist at Belgium's VUB University, said she believes that, at present, the EU is in no position to consider or implement any other methods of raising the pressure, such as the threat of sanctions or peacekeeping interventions.
The current volatile climate leaves the EU with few choices
"For now, the Europeans should stick to their role as mediator," Francis said. "They have already stated that their relations with Russia could be affected by the conflict in Georgia. The EU cannot go further at the moment because it is too early to say that its mediation has failed and that alternative options must be reviewed. They must still go to Moscow, and try to convince the Russians."
Many observers said the EU should maintain a tough tone despite Russia's growing assertiveness and Europe's high reliance on Russian energy supplies. They said that by doing so will help the EU present itself as a credible negotiator.
However, Francis added that the EU's main hope of success is to show a united front and that means tempering the tone of some of its eastern members. Poland and the Baltic states -- EU members since 2004 -- are especially fearful of what they call Russia's "new imperialism" and have urged the EU to revise its cooperation with Moscow.
"The emergency meeting of the EU foreign ministers on Wednesday will be another chance for the Europeans to show their unity," she said. "If the EU presents a united front, it could be an asset in dealing with Russia.
"It would be good to have a unified EU position on mediation" she continued. "For the moment, this seems to be the case. The European countries share the priorities; recognition of Georgia's territorial integrity, an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of troops, and a return to the status quo."
Leadership question remains
However, should the EU be successful in brokering a ceasefire, a new problem may arise which could test the bloc's unity and leave the question of who can mediate between Russia and Georgia in future political negotiations.
The mediator must first be a country or institution which is acceptable to both Russia and Georgia. It may also have to be approved by South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which will surely want a say in any agreement. Bernard Kouchner has spoken about the possibility of the EU and OSCE leading these negotiations, but it is also a possibility that a single country, such as Germany, could take the lead.
Germany's Steinmeier had a modicum of success in Abkhazia
The Germans recently presented a draft plan for a peace agreement for Abkhazia that had moderate success, but Francis believes it is debatable whether Germany would be more successful at brokering a peace deal in Georgia than the EU as a whole.
"What we saw recently with the German's proposed peace deal for Abkhazia was that the German mediation was accepted by all the parties, and that the Russians did not brush aside the draft text," she said. "Although this proposal did not answer all their requirements, it could at least be discussed. That is a positive precedent for Germany."
EU stabilization force a "viable" option
What happens in the event of following a successful ceasefire is another matter.
Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania have urged the European Union to send a peacekeeping force to the embattled south Caucasus region after a truce and ceasefire is agreed, with foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski claiming France and Germany support the idea.
On Monday, Piotr Kownacki, a senior aide to Polish President Lech Kaczynski, told Polish Radio that Kaczynski had presented the plan for the deployment of a force to his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday.
Kownacki said the plan was initiated by Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, in cooperation with Kaczynski.
Could Georgia be the next destination for EU peacekeepers?
In principle, this would be a viable option. It would, however, be an extremely delicate operation and one which could cause divisions within the EU itself, said Sabine Fischer, an EU-Russia expert at the European Union Institute for Security Studies.
"The stabilization force is in principle a viable option in the medium term and one which is being discussed at EU level at the moment," Fischer said. "It would, however, require an internationalization of the situation with member states having to agree to the use of troops as a buffer in the region. This is very difficult to conceive as many states have differing relations with Russia and also security within the EU is still a much debated issue."
Separate agreements could provide leverage
Even if EU mediation were to fail, the bloc would have a few negotiating options at its disposal. The EU would be able to step up its pressure on both Russia and Georgia by threatening to pull out of important negotiations in other areas, Fischer said.
"The EU could threaten to pull out of the negotiations with Russia over the new Partnership Cooperation Agreement while Georgia could be threatened with a rejection of its proposed NATO membership," she said. "Both are, of course, very problematic and difficult as the EU actually wants a new partnership with Russia and the rejection of the NATO membership is what Russia has been pushing for.
"What the EU really should do is make sure that a second front is not opened up in Abkhazia. An agreement which pulls Georgian police forces out of the region may help this but a complete ceasefire is what the EU is really looking for," she added.