By Paul Taylor, European Affairs Editor – Analysis
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Georgia’s hopes of joining NATO and the European Union have suffered a setback because of this week’s fighting with Russia, potentially reducing its attractiveness to investors.
The conflict over the breakaway region of South Ossetia has revived transatlantic and intra-European differences over Georgia and further undermined confidence in some quarters in its quixotic U.S.-backed leader, diplomats and analysts say.
Just four months ago, President Mikheil Saakashvili was hailing a breakthrough in his ambition to join the West when NATO leaders declared at a summit that Georgia and fellow former Soviet republic Ukraine would one day join the alliance.
However several west European allies, led by Germany, had misgivings about expanding the U.S.-led military pact right up to Russia’s southern border, and about Georgia’s stability, given its problems with two breakaway regions.
They prevented NATO giving the two aspirants a Membership Action Plan, which is a roadmap to eventual accession. Allied foreign ministers are due to review that issue in December.
Saakashvili’s decision to send troops into South Ossetia, one of the rebel zones, triggering Russian military intervention and clashes on the fringes of the other separatist region, Abkhazia, have only strengthened those concerns.
“This war has pushed Georgia further away not just from Europe, but also complicates the NATO council in December,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in a newspaper interview published on Monday.
“Italy maintains that we cannot create an anti-Russia coalition in Europe, and on this point we are close to (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin’s position,” he told La Stampa.
Georgia achieved impressive economic growth rates and attracted foreign capital despite a Russian economic and transport boycott and gas cut-off as investors’ appetite for “emerging Europe” moved eastwards, partly due to the prospect of the country being anchored into Euro-Atlantic security structures.
“But this makes NATO expansion much less likely. The last thing the United States needs now is another front. That’s exactly what Russia is taking advantage of,” said David Lubin, an emerging markets economist at Citigroup.
Germany and France, both with close ties to Moscow, have been cautious in public comments, calling for an immediate ceasefire and respect for Georgia’s territorial integrity but avoiding blaming either side for starting the fighting.
A German government spokesman said Chancellor Angela Merkel would go ahead with her plan to travel to Sochi, on the Russian Black Sea coast close to Abkhazia, on Friday for talks with President Dmitry Medvedev.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who holds the EU’s rotating presidency, will visit Moscow on Tuesday in hopes of brokering a ceasefire.
Britain has deplored Russian air strikes well beyond South Ossetia, and the ex-communist Baltic states and Poland have accused Moscow of aggression and imperialism.
“Saakashvili is playing his media game for the conscience of the Western world. The price is high but he is very convincing,” said Pawel Swieboda, head of the think-tank Demoseuropa in Warsaw.
Perhaps the starkest European comment came from Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who said Russia’s claim that it was protecting its citizens in South Ossetia reminded him of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
Diplomats said that provided Moscow did not push its military advantage too far and either threaten a key Caspian oil pipeline to Turkey across Georgia or seek to unseat Saakashvili, there was no prospect of a united, tough Western reaction.
To some NATO and EU diplomats, the crisis has vindicated their resistance to U.S. efforts to shoe-horn Georgia into the alliance under President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda”.
“Thank heavens we didn’t take them in,” a senior envoy of one of the skeptical European states said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As members, the Georgians could have invoked NATO’s Article V mutual defence clause, requiring nations to come to the assistance of an ally under attack.
“No one in NATO wants to be dragged into a war in the Caucasus because of Saakashvili’s miscalculation,” the diplomat said, adding that the Georgian president had been “badly advised” in sending troops into South Ossetia.
(additional reporting by Stephen Brown in Rome and Ingrid Melander in Brussels; Editing by Angus MacSwan)