Svante Cornell is the Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road studies program, a centre affiliated with Johns Hopkins University and the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy. He co-edited The Guns of August 2008: Russia's War in Georgia, a collection of papers addressing the causes and consequences of the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008.
When on a visit to Tbilisi, the Swedish researcher was interviewed by Tabula about transatlantic cooperation, the foreign policies of the European Union and NATO, the role of Germany, the prospects of NATO enlargement, and the efforts taken by the Georgian government in this direction.
Interviewed by Tamar Chergoleishvili.
Several days ago, a now infamous intercepted telephone conversation between a high-level American diplomat and the US Ambassador to Ukraine was published, in which the US diplomat used an offensive word towards the European Union. What kind of effect might that have on EU-US relations?
Well, the Assistant US Secretary of State [for European and Eurasian Affairs], Victoria Nuland, came to her job with the idea of starting the transatlantic renaissance, and this might make it difficult for her to continue with that task because obviously that was a very unfortunate situation. It suggests that American diplomats have not learned the lessons of WikiLeaks. But, I think, transatlantic relations were already quite bad and, unfortunately, this means that we still have bad prospects for improving transatlantic coordination on the issues affecting this region, which is very much necessary.
We often hear a lot of criticisms directed toward the EU. Sometimes this is fair criticism that it is not particularly enthusiastic to resolve the issues in this region, but how fair is to listen to such criticism from a representative of the Obama administration? How active is the US itself in the region?
I think it is interesting that you have mentioned this because it is kind of surprising that right now the American administration is being disparaging toward the EU. Five or ten years ago, when the EU was very disorganized, I could have understood it, but in the past two years the EU, if anything, has been coming and standing up against the Russian reintegration of the former Soviet space, whereas the Obama administration has been very passive. So, I think, the Obama administration has shown some indications of trying to take this region more seriously, but we are still dealing with a situation where most people in Russia have understood, perhaps wrongly, that the US has accepted the notion of spheres of influence.
Germany has been a major problem when it comes to the issue of containing Russia. The German Foreign Ministry even declared recently that the EU failed to properly analyze the possible consequences of the European Neighbourhood Policy in terms of Russia. What does that show? In 2008 Germany blocked the offering of the Membership Action Plan to Georgia and Ukraine; they were saying that there was ground for Russia to be irritated about the enlargement of the military alliance next to its borders, but the approximation with the European Union would not cause the same reaction from Russia. Now, it has turned out that the European Neighbourhood Policy needs to be revised too. What is your take on Germany’s behavior?Well, it suggests that Europe did not foresee that such a thing as the association agreement and a free trade area would elicit exactly the same kind of response from Russia as a NATO alliance would. I think that is because, until recently, the Russians did not realize what the EU was about. They saw the EU as some harmless thing, because they used to think in terms of hard security and military security. It seems that Russian thinking has progressed and now it sees the EU, perhaps, as a bigger threat than NATO. The Europeans were not ready for that. The Europeans conceptionally could not handle this.
Do you think that Germany, by making such remarks, is somehow admitting the existence of spheres of influence?
Well, you see, this is domestic German politics… You have Chancellor Angela Merkel, in November, making a very big speech in which she strongly spoke out about the rights of nations to make their own foreign policy choices and the unacceptability of third party intervention, obviously meaning Russia. So you have very different opinions within the coalition and it seems to me that they are now talking about how this policy towards Russia and the Eastern Partnership will develop, which is still very unclear.
Let’s now talk about Georgia: they say that before the Association Agreement is signed with the EU, Russia will intensify its pressure. Why before it is signed and not after?
Well, I think it depends, from the Russian perspective, when the EU integration process becomes inevitable. And maybe, it depends on their interpretation more than ours. Unfortunately, we do not know what their interpretation is. If their interpretation is that, having signed this agreement, Georgia irrevocably goes to the West, then, yes, they will try to prevent it. Or, maybe they consider that it is possible to create some trouble for the implementation, rather than for the signing. So, I think, both before and after [the signing] we are likely to see some Russian provocation and intervention.
What is the EU’s perception of the Association Agreement?
The EU, unfortunately, has much too technical an understanding of this issue. It hasn’t factored in geopolitics and, in particular, has no answer to Russian provocations regarding the latest unresolved conflicts.
The next NATO summit will be held in London in 2014. During the previous Chicago summit, the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said that the next summit should be an enlargement summit. Do you expect any sort of steps in that direction?
I think very few people right now want it to be an enlargement summit. I think, for Georgia, the key point, first of all, will be to decide what Georgia wants. And secondly to develop – today or, more preferably, yesterday – an active strategy of reaching out and coordinating with its friends, in terms of both public officials and the nongovernmental sector, to try and promote a consensus….
Do you think the Georgian authorities are doing enough in this direction?
I think they are not doing enough right now. I think the government has to be more coordinated, has to be more assertive and has to state clearly what it is that Georgia wants.