European security at ground zero

The Georgia war exposed the contradictions of a European security system in need of a radical overhaul.
Pertti Joenniemi Sergei Prozorov
28 April 2010

The war between Georgia and Russia in August 2008 revealed that Europe lacks a coherent joint system of security. Not only did the current system fail to prevent the war, it also fared poorly in the task of mediation. Even more importantly, it turned out that there was little common ground as to the very principles on which European security was to be founded.

While in the case of Kosovo Russia had fiercely resisted a liberal logic of humanitarian interventionism and stood for sovereignty as the guiding principle, it justified its war in Georgia at least partly as humanitarian. In contrast, most of the western powers supported interventionism in the case of Kosovo but interpreted Russia’s intervention as a brutal violation of Georgia’s sovereignty. This oscillation between two incompatible foundational principles on an ad hoc basis clearly demonstrates the destitution of the established, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe-based security system.

It may be further noted that the Russian-Georgian war not only confirmed the absence of consensus on the foundations of the European security system, but contributed to the erosion of these foundations in another sense. Crucially, the conflict was the first instance of the violation by Russia of the integrity of the post-Soviet spatial order established in the Belovezha treaties of December 1991. For the first time since 1991, Russia openly abrogated the principle that the internal administrative borders of the USSR function as the borders of the newly independent states.

The reciprocal recognition of this spatial order by all the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States was the first and last accomplishment of this organization and deserves more appreciation than it usually gets. By opting for the most formal and meaningless principle of dividing up the Soviet Union, Russia and other post-Soviet states have avoided the Yugoslav scenario of disintegration along ethnic and religious lines, proposed in 1990 by no less an authority than Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Yet, what made the repetition of the Yugoslav tragedy in the post-Soviet space impossible is the very same principle that made possible military reprisals against separatism, from the two Chechen wars to the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. After the August intervention on behalf of separatist forces, Russia’s claim to be a stabilizing force in the post-Soviet space, advanced since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, no longer holds and Russia’s relations with its CIS neighbours are at a historic low point.

Recent events testify beyond doubt that a profound debate on the foundations of a European security order is required. Is the system still one geared towards the prevention of regular interstate wars or are European powers increasingly functioning as a normative and humanitarian ‘force for good’ in international politics? Does Europe really need a uniform logic underpinning its joint security or is ad hoc decision making in every particular case acceptable? Both Kosovo and the August war seem to testify to that more coherent approaches are indeed needed.

Russia has been on the right track in asserting that the OSCE-based system of European security has fared poorly already for quite some time. President Medvedev’s November 2009 proposal for a treaty on European security is correctly premised on the idea that the present system needs an overhaul. There is, in Russia’s view, a need for a more binding system based on a more strict commitment to existing international law. It is also suggested that the institutional setting should be complemented through the establishment of a system of early warning and conflict prevention.

Nonetheless, Medvedev’s draft treaty boasts notably few innovations. Instead, and in line with its foreign policy orientation since the early 1990s, Russia positions itself as a guardian of the classical sovereignty-based system, geared towards preventing inter-state wars. There are no signs whatsoever of Russia being prepared to open up space for any new and critical thinking concerning European security. The debate that Russia wants to initiate is from the outset confined to the positions agreed upon at the end of the Cold War and premised on a quite narrow understanding of security, one that excludes the question of human rights. It would therefore not be an advance but rather a retreat from the previously agreed principles of the Helsinki Final Act – a ‘Helsinki minus’ system. Moreover, while the content of the proposal is quite modest, the timing of its launch right after the Georgian-Russia war is either extremely audacious or seriously misguided. Given its own undermining of Georgia’s sovereignty, Russia clearly lacks the credibility required for its sovereignty-based proposal to enter the European political agenda.

It would, nonetheless, be a mistake to dismiss Medvedev’s proposal as an embarrassing faux pas, as seems to be the case today. The disagreement with the proposed solution does not by itself resolve the problem, but rather calls for alternative perspectives. An interesting opening is presented by the EU now entering the sphere of European diplomacy as a legal person following the Lisbon Treaty. Rather than simply becoming a full Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe member and joining the already established processes in an altered capacity, the European Union should go for something quite new. As the European Union already views itself as a ‘normative power’ that amounts to a ‘force for good’ in the sphere of security, it should endeavour to impose this line of thinking in the European context as well.

This implies, among other things, that the European Union should refrain from the use of terms such as ‘Helsinki plus’, which sounds like improving the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe on the basis of an already established logic. Instead, it needs to be talking about ‘Helsinki zero’, indicating that a fresh start is needed on both the substance and the currently unwieldy institutional framework of European security.

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